Like most football fans – especially those who don’t follow serial winners – Ruben Schönenberger supports a club that tests his loyalty and patience, here he explains how it gives him the tools to cope with most things that are thrown at him in the next part of our ‘What Football Means To Me’ series.
My first game at the Espenmoos, the ground of FC St.Gallen in Switzerland, was the last game of the 1994/95 season. I was nine years old at the time. While the team had to win to avoid relegation, bankruptcy was also looming over the horizon. To raise money for the club’s survival, dozens of volunteers sold memorabilia stickers around the ground; as a young boy, I did not understand much about the financial needs of football clubs, I just wanted to watch football.
Eventually, it all played out well. St.Gallen won 3-0 and enough funds were raised to avoid bankruptcy. In the following years, I grew up and became what you might call a die-hard fan. I travelled to every game, engaged in club politics, helped with tifos in the stands, and, at some point, even co-organised travels for my fellow fans to Europa League games as far away as the Russian city of Krasnodar. Over the years, my team won one championship – rather unexpectedly – and got relegated and re-promoted twice, respectively.
This seems to make up St. Gallen’s DNA in some ways: the club continued and still continues to be a team that usually fights against relegation more than anything else. With one exception, perhaps: avoiding bankruptcy. Financial problems and insecurities are constant dangers and have been for a number of years.
I took me a while to realise that my first game would turn out to be as typical as it could get: avoiding relegation on the pitch and bankruptcy off it. I started to ask myself, why do I support such a club?
Maybe – to quote Nick Hornby – it’s that “the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment”? While I don’t disagree with Hornby on this matter, I feel that the point is not fully made. The constant disappointment on the pitch helped to develop strategies for dealing with tough times. As St. Gallen is followed by quite a few fans, there’s even a self-help group of a reasonable size available at every game. The bonds that are created in the stands while dealing with defeat more often than enjoying victory tend to last a lifetime because you share loads of memories.
Tough times also taught me to cherish the moments of success. The rarer those moments, the more enjoyable they are. In St.Gallen, we are only fine if we are not fine; I started to use this phrase half-jokingly but it all helps with the coping mechanism. Winning constantly leads to expectations of having to constantly win: should your team win, you are satisfied at best, but not ecstatic. Not winning – or, rather, losing more or less constantly – leads to no expectations whatsoever. This is not to say that it doesn’t hurt to lose, but you learn to deal with it. And if you do win, you’ll live off it for months, maybe years to come.
Imagine the joy I and all St. Gallen fans felt, when the team managed to win 4-2 in Moscow against Spartak, thus qualifying for the Europa League group stage in 2013; and playing internationally for the first time in 12 years. Nothing ever beats that feeling of rare success.
*Ruben wants to give a special thanks to Nicole for helping him with the English in this piece.