I was standing outside the Upton Park station, looking at the clouds covering the sky in a grey coat. Claret and blue surrounded, with words of nervous anticipation and guarded expectation for a playoff victory talked in guarded tones. "Don't go Green Street there" my mate Chris had said, expecting me to want to impersonate a hooligan. But the famed Hammers support did not seem so imposing then. "Hell" I thought, "I might just get a scarf here."
With my American mate Settle and his Irons' supporting compatriots we moved down Green Street. To the left was the imposing Alpari Stand, with its giant beige towers reminding you of the Boleyn Castle. After a proper of lunch of pies and mash, it was onto the legendary Boleyn Tavern, next to the ground and packed to the gills with Hammers. "No Away Supporters" said the sign you see immediately upon entering. This was truly the lion's den, with nary a free inch and Crossed Hammer tattoos seemingly ever. This was East London.
Armed with a pint of Carlsberg, we began the journey to the large room in the back of the tavern, where our mates stood and the hardest chanting supporters rang out and doused each other with plastic pints. Upon settling in there, things seemed as they should. "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" was sang out in a pub-wide rendition. The chants of "Irons" and "East London" rang out, as did the traditional songs of hating Millwall. There was even a full rendition of "There Were 10 German Bombers in the Air", amusing in that the day's Welsh opponents probably helped take down the Jerry just as much these East Londoners.
But then things changed. A new chant rang out.
"We'll be running round Tottenham, We'll be running round Tottenham with our willys hanging out. Singing I've got foreskin haven't you? F**KING JEW."
The good feelings that had me excited for the match sucked out of me like an unclogged drain. I put my hand up to my chest, making sure the Magen David chain I wore was tucked safely into my shirt. I looked over at Settle, and in making eye contact we had a wordless conversation. This is actually happening.
From there, the West Ham supporters continued on to "Let's Go F**king Mental." As they jumped up and down, dousing each other in chaotic revelry, I was taken back to back to the summer of 2004. I was a 13-year old boy caught up in a wave of soccer excitement after the 2002 World Cup, loving to play the game and being indoctrinated by a steady dose of English counselors. Looking to satisfy my ever-growing curiosity for the game, I cracked the spine of Franklin Foer's "How Soccer Explains the World."
Within the book were tales of Yugoslavian Ultras, Sectarian violence, and Italian bribing. But what caught my eye was a section on Tottenham Hotspur's supporters. How in the face of anti-Semetic chanting, they re-appropriated those insults and turned them into a badge of pride, embracing a Jewish identity. As a Jewish kid looking for a club to support, that tale helped push me towards Tottenham Hotspur.
A bevy of other factors forged me into a Spurs supporter. But it was that first tale that was something I always held onto, my ace in the hole in reminding myself why I supported Spurs after countless heartbreaks. But it was always an abstract idea, one in the ether of my mind. Even when I first went to White Hart Lane and chanted myself among the "Yid Army" and inducted Louis Saha upon his first goal as a "Yiddo", it had not hit me yet. It was only when I myself heard that chanting in Boleyn, the one which linked my religion, culture, and football team as something to be abused that I got it.
It means something that Tottenham supporters stand with the minority and count themselves brothers-in-arms. Whether or not this is right for the whole of the club is not what I debate, I'll defer to The Sleeper's Sleep excellent article for that. All I can say is that for me, it means something. That as a Spurs supporter that I come into a rich culture of standing together, rather than easily isolating what is different.
I am not saying there is no room for hate in football. The richness of rivalries drives the sport, a source for passion in all countries. If you want to hate another team for their success, for their colours, for their style of play, for geography, or for just plain old hate, you are free. But when those things which define us as people become the sources of hate: race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender---that is the wrong kind of hate.
Spurs supporters are not perfect. Abusive chanting always seems to come out of the North London Derby. Embarrassing, wrongful, things have been said. But at least in my experience, standing in the pubs around White Hart Lane, the wrong kind of hate was not in the air. If there is something one can pride themselves on as a Spurs supporter, is that almost all seem to try the upmost to not let abuse bleed into football rivalry.
Sitting in Upton Park as the jubilance rang out as the Hammers were on to their way for Wembley, I felt no joy for West Ham. And that's OK. I can admit that my experience has seen my hatred for West Ham rise. I still hate Arsenal, and I can assure you that I will be rooting against Chelsea with all my heart in the Champions League Final (unless, of course, Arsenal finishes in fourth place). I wish them all the worst luck on the pitch. But I will never let that rivalry bring the darkness of abuse into my chanting or my heart. That is my pledge. I hope you all can make the same.