Field Trip to a Football Game Takes a Strange Turn

I’m American, so it’s not surprising that my personal experience watching football (the kind with the round ball, not the lemon-shaped one) has been pretty limited. I had some childhood friends who were into it, including one of UK origin who kicked everyone’s ass whenever we had a soccer day in gym class, but it mostly stayed off my radar. This is of course not the case for the rest of the world, where soccer-football is pretty uniformly huge, and Lyon has a particularly strong and popular football team called Olympique Lyonnais. Feeling it my duty as a city resident to attend at least one game, I recruited a friend and we set off one night to Stade de Gerland in southern Lyon.

We could not have been sorer thumbs. First of all, we almost immediately had to lower our voices, because apparently drunk football fans like to mock anglophones. Second of all, we were two of what looked to be about ten total women in the stadium. And thirdly, everyone in the crowd (predominantly teenage boys) of course knew all of the chants and cheers. We, of course, did not. Having selected seats in the notoriously rowdy section of the stadium to get the full experience, we did our pathetic best to play along, standing on our chairs and clapping and screaming with the rest of them. The majority of the chants and songs were creative masterpieces (sarcasm)– various configurations of “OL!” and “allez!” set to popular tunes, including, bizarrely, what sounded like the Popeye theme song. We were mostly confused; it was fun but exhausting. There was one disconcerting moment of the night, however:


A number of spectators held their arms up at an angle that to me looked pretty reminiscent of the Nazi salute. In the background of the photo, the fan leader, or whatever you’d call an obnoxious guy-I’d-like-to-punch who leads the chants and keeps people stirred up, can be seen with both arms down; the gesture seemed to come completely out of the blue. My friend and I looked at each other– “is that what it looks like?” I still have no explanation for this, but hope it was either young men’s ignorance or my own misunderstanding and oversensitivity.

It’s hard to believe those kids were ignorant, though, because World War II is still very present in France. In my conversations with French and British people, the role of the U.S. in both World Wars comes up with surprising frequency, and at my university there’s an entire hallway of cabinets that can only be opened using passwords corresponding to important years of the war. It’s a barely-healed wound, and I doubt that any French teenager would be unfamiliar with the weight of it. Maybe the kids I saw at the soccer game were making some other gesture I’m too football-stupid to recognize, like “kick the ball really hard into the goal!” or “we’re in so much suspense to see how this penalty kick turns out!” I can’t imagine they were being ironic, or actually intending to echo “Heil Hitler.”

An internet search at home called up a wider trend of incidents with this and similar gestures, which reassured me I’d not been crazy to give it a double-take. Past perpetrators claimed it had nothing to do with anti-Semitism or racism, which I frankly have to call bullshit on. I don’t know what I saw at the OL game, whether it was an ignorant distortion of or coincidentally similar to a well-known symbol of historic hatred and state-sanctioned genocide, or something newly hateful in and of itself. But it made the bottom drop out of my stomach.

Any and all further explanations welcome.

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