Friday, September 12, 2014

Footy


If you know anything about spectator sport on this planet we live on, you likely understand that football or association football (to distinguish it from rugby football) or soccer (in America) is far and away the most popular sport on the planet. It is played by over 250 million people in more than 200 countries and the every four years World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world each year it is held.

If you know a little more than anything about spectator sport, you will also likely understand that the game of football as it exists today is mostly English. I say mostly English because people the world over have been playing games similar to football for centuries. But the modern game is mostly English for two reasons. First, a game pretty similar to today's game can be traced back more than 1,000 years on the island of Britain. And secondly, and more importantly, the modern rules of football which established the modern game were codified in English public schools in the middle of the 19th century. Today, England's Barclay's Premiere League is the most popular football league in the world where, generally speaking, the best football players in the world ply their trade. Now if England could only stand a chance every so often of competing in the World Cup…but that's a different story.

Despite the game's origins in the country where I was born and halfway raised, I had never to the best of my knowledge and memory in my first forty six years on this planet attended a professional football match in England. I say to the best of my knowledge and memory because my dad swears he took me to some matches in the 1970s but I cannot for the life of me remember anything to do with that. He's likely right, but I still don't remember. So one of my goals for my recent trip to England was to correct that situation and take in my first professional football match in the best league in the world.

Queuing. The tickets said get there 90 minutes ahead of time to avoid a queue. We did and we couldn't.
Vacations for me involve careful and a whole lot of planning and I knew I wouldn't have the luxury of waiting until the Barclay's Premier League schedule was released to buy a plane ticket at a reasonable cost. But I knew I would be spending most of my time during this vacation in London where there are six Premiere League teams. So I picked a span of days covering two weekends and booked a flight. I figured there had to be at least one game on at least one weekend that worked for me and I could figure the rest out later.

I was almost wrong. The second weekend I picked for my trip (last weekend as it turns out) was reserved for qualifying games for the 2016 European Championship so there were no Premier League games at all that weekend. That left me with a choice between three London home teams on the Saturday of my arrival to choose from: Queen's Park Rangers, West Ham United or Tottenham Hotspur. Fortunately, the Premier League stepped in and made my choice easy; they moved Saturday's Tottenham v. Liverpool game to Sunday, giving me a little breathing room in my schedule and not requiring me to rush directly from the airport to a match. An early morning rise for a 9:30 am ticket sale (4:30 am here in Arlington, VA) about a month before my vacation and I was on my way to the game for my first English football experience.

From a  matchup perspective, the Tottenham / Liverpool meeting was about the best I could have hoped for. It looked like it would be a close, competitive affair between two really good teams. Liverpool finished second in the Premier League the previous season and Tottenham ended up four spots further down the table, a respectable sixth overall. Both teams have had recent success but also have impressive histories. Liverpool boasts 18 First Division Championships (the precursor to the current Premier League) and seven F.A. Cups. Tottenham has only two First Division Championships but bests Liverpool with eight F.A. Cups. Both teams are expected to challenge for the Premier League title this year and Tottenham came into the contest as one of only three undefeated teams in the League and fresh off a 4-0 thrashing of cross-town rivals Queen's Park Rangers (or QPR for short).

In addition to the past accomplishments of both teams, the actual history of both clubs stretches back into the 1800s. Their success started shortly after each club was founded. Liverpool won its first First Division championship in 1901, just seven years after it was founded. That same year, Tottenham won its first F.A. Cup, 19 years after it first took to the pitch in 1882. Compare that history to two of the major U.S. sports leagues and there's a real sense of respect due these two franchises: the NFL began play in 1920; the NBA was founded in 1946. Both these clubs pre-date two of our most popular leagues.

Ethnic diversity: Latin American, African and Turkish businesses side by side by side.
In addition to the history represented by both clubs that Sunday afternoon, the game was being played at Tottenham's home ground, White Hart Lane, which is itself an historic place to watch sport. Tottenham has been playing at the ground since 1899, although it looked significantly different back then than it does now. When White Hart Lane was founded, the seating consisted of some temporary stands relocated from their prior playing ground. The place started being built up from there which is different than what we see in the United States, where stadiums or arenas are built from the ground up in one construction project. The initial phase of construction at White Hart Lane took about six years with the construction of main stands that held about 60,000 people, mostly standing. Since 1905, construction has continued seemingly without stopping. Pieces of the stadium have been filled in, demolished and rebuilt in the 1920s, 1930s, 1980s and 1990s.

At its peak capacity, White Hart Lane held about 80,000 fans. Today, with the implementation of fixed seating everywhere, it holds a little more than 36,000. The team is in the process of building a brand new super-deluxe stadium directly to the north of the current ground but for me, the prospect of seeing a match in a place as historic as the current home was thrilling. I've seen a lot of sporting events in the United States, but I don't think I've ever watched an event in a stadium started in the 1800s. Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the Yale Bowl all come pretty close but they are all at least 13 years younger than White Hart Lane.

The stadium today sits in a tightly packed neighborhood, which I love as an immediate distinction from stadiums I have visited in the United States, which mostly tend to be in suburban locations surrounded by seas of parking. It didn't always used to be that way in America; before the 1960s there were a number of downtown stadiums for football and baseball but despite a recent trend of baseball parks and smaller arenas for basketball and hockey moving back into urban neighborhoods, the truly large stadiums (typically for American Football) in the United States remain isolated automobile access only fields.

Automobile access at White Hart Lane just doesn't work. Most fans going to a match travel by the London Underground (or Tube) and our journey there was no exception. After a stroll through Hyde Park and a bacon bap breakfast sitting beside the Serpentine, we made our way to the Victoria line to the Seven Sisters station and began our slightly less than half hour uphill walk along High Road to the ground. Being a tourist in London often isolates you from some of the more colorful neighborhoods in the city so a trip out to Tottenham definitely got us into a part of London that I likely never would have seen if I hadn't been going to the game.

The stores and businesses lining High Road are varied and unique but almost all of them cater to different nationalities. It is obvious that the neighborhood is a mixture of immigrants from different backgrounds which is a great change of pace from the London city center. On the way to the stadium we passed Polish, African, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Eastern European restaurants and stores with unique service offerings. The oddest might have been the place that specialized in sending goods back and forth to Ghana (no where else - just Ghana) and the overall makeup of the street was summed up nicely by a sign hanging outside the Solictors.com storefront advertising free immigration advice.

Built over time - White Hart Lane packed into the neighborhood looking decidedly un-homogeneous.
As you approach the stadium on match day, the sidewalks and roads become more and more packed and you see more fans in Tottenham kits. If you are not careful and if you are completely ignoring the throngs of fans everywhere, you could almost walk right past the ground. White Hart Lane is set back a little off High Road, almost hidden behind the shops lining the street on the east side of the road. The main vehicular access to the small stadium parking lot is down tiny Bill Nicholson Way, named after the famous manager who guided the team to 11 championships in his tenure with the club. The parking lot provides a little separation for the west side of the ground back off High Road but the other three sides are packed tight to the surrounding neighborhood.

Entrance to the stadium is via a series of small doors on the perimeter of the ground which lead to stairs which carry you up efficiently to your assigned seating area. There are no grand interior concourses; the streets outside the stadium serve that purpose. Once you pass the small cages with a ticket scanner locked inside (likely a holdover from more dangerous times at English football grounds), there is no wasted space at all inside the park. The stairs and tunnels push you directly to where you need to be to watch the match. The spaces are tight and controlled until you finally emerge from the tunnels and find the expansive manicured green pitch laid out before you, surrounded on all four sides by two tiered stands with blue seats.

Our seats were located in the southeast corner of the upper tier which gave us a great view of the entire pitch. Although it was admittedly difficult to see clearly what was happening at the goal mouth at the opposite end of the stadium, the view at our end was perfect. Despite its size, the place is really pretty intimate. We were seated about six rows from the top of the stadium but we were really close. Just like the interior tunnels of the stands, the space around the pitch was used super efficiently. The two tiers of stands are built right on top of each other; the seats are tight at either side and in front and in back of you; and the distance between the touchlines and the stands is as small as it can be while still functioning as a stadium. It promised to be a great atmosphere to watch a sporting event.


One of the things I was looking forward to the most about this match was the atmosphere created by the crowd, and in particular the singing that English football fans are famous for. Unlike in the United States, where fans buy the best available ticket in any section to go watch a game, English football fans are segregated into home and away sections. It's a decades old tradition that I imagine started due to the close proximity of cities in England and was preserved through the practical necessity to keep rival fans away from each other when football matches served as excuses for hooligans to get drunk and fight the other team's supporters.

Those hooliganism days are long since past but the tradition remains. At White Hart Lane, the home supporters occupy a little more than 95% of the stands that circle the pitch and the away supporters are confined to a small area in the southwest corner of the park, easily identifiable by the slightly futuristic prison looking police watch tower hanging from the stadium roof right above their seats. That section filled up first on the day of our match and sure enough, the Liverpool fans broke into song first, likely buoyed by their being packed in tight in enemy territory.

Before kickoff though, the Spurs fans filled in the remaining empty seats in the home stands and started singing their own songs, which are really adaptations of traditional or public domain songs into football themed anthems. Tottenham's traditional anthems are "Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur" set to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "When the Spurs Go Marching In" set to "When the Saints Go Marching In". Their fans also have a sort of slow dirge where they chant "Come On You Spurs" several times over. Those words, in addition to other phrases that reference the history of the club and particularly legendary manager Bill Nicholson, are posted around the stadium perimeter. I attend a lot of sporting events in the United States each year and the tradition and support hits you in the face at White Hart Lane and it's absolutely wonderful. Electronically encouraged chants of "Let's Go Wizards!" don't come close to what happens at Tottenham's ground every week. We have a lot to learn.


After all that buildup, unfortunately the game happened. The hoped for close contest between two contenders ended up being nothing of the sort. Liverpool turned out to be the better team by far on that Sunday afternoon. They were more aggressive, faster, controlled the ball better and were way more surgical in their attacks. Whenever Liverpool controlled the ball they moved quickly; the Spurs looked at least one step slower each time they were being attacked and when they finally got control of the ball, their runs were one on one or one on many affairs. There was no passing, no runs down the sidelines and no real chance to score (no scoring by the home team is exactly what happened). I can't tell you how many times a Tottenham player started a run in the midfield, only to find his opponent getting back faster and making him pull up, stop the ball and try to dribble around his defender. It didn't work.

Seven minutes into the first half, Liverpool scored and the crowd became noticeably deflated (well, except for the southwest corner of the ground). The chanting and singing stopped and despite hanging on that 0-1 deficit until half time, the prospect of the home team scoring looked bleak. I hoped maybe the second half would be better but a score came even quicker in that half on a ridiculous penalty call just two minutes in; the Liverpool player was touched gently on the arm and fell down instantly and unfortunately the referee fell for it. 2-0. The rest of the game was an exercise in futility and Liverpool's third goal, a beautiful run from midfield that left Spurs defenders looking far more than a step slow, sealed the home team's fate for the day. About five minutes before time, the home faithful started heading for the exits. And in the southwest corner of the stadium, that remained noticeably red (Liverpool's color), you could hear the crowd singing Liverpool's anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone".

I wore my brand new Spurs kit to the game (see the first photo above) but I can't say I'm a die hard Tottenham fan by any stretch of the imagination. My expectations were high for this game and I can't say I was totally satisfied with the experience. It's just too bad that the visiting team took the home crowd out of the game so early. But I have to tell you being a fan of the New York Jets and Washington Wizards, I often leave games disappointed. So I'm glad I went and I feel like I have now experienced something quintessentially English that I had missed in my youth. As we exited the stadium we heard one fan say "You can't play bloody QPR every week!" Nope, you can't. Maybe the next time I go I should pick a weaker opponent. Come on you Spurs!

The end of the match - the blue you see is empty seats; the red is Liverpool supporters.

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