Fourteen years ago, I made my first trip to London for one outlandish reason. A video game company that was launching a King Arthur-based title had invited me and several other journalists over to stay in an old medieval castle and check it out. The game was mediocre but the trip was a blast, and I returned home with fond memories of a charming country—plus a beautiful scarf declaring allegiance to my favorite English soccer team, Arsenal.
Which is kinda silly considering I had never actually seen them play.
See, back then it was not so easy to watch English Premier League matches in America, so all I knew about the squad I had learned reading Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s excellent memoir about his love/hate relationship with the club. (Yes, this book got turned into a kinda terrible Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore baseball movie, but before that it was… a kinda terrible Colin Firth/Ruth Gemmel soccer movie. By far the best Hornby book to hit the screen is High Fidelity, for a young Jack Black’s music snob antics alone.)
But since then, thanks to ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel and now NBC Sports, it’s possible to watch tons of EPL matches every weekend in sparkling HD. Now I’m able to follow Arsenal regularly, becoming much more knowledgeable and, ostensibly, legit in my fandom. And I’m not alone. A few years ago, a friend I played soccer with in high school got married; his groomsmen gifts were English football warmup jerseys—and none of the guys found that the least bit odd. On the contrary, we were quite stoked.
So when I recently got invited to London for another outlandish reason—and realized Arsenal was playing Reading in the semifinals of the Football Association Cup at London’s iconic Wembley Stadium while I was in town—I resolved to finally see this storied squad take the field with my own eyes. (Note: The FA oversees English football and is not to be confused with Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the world governing body that’s getting a bit of bad press these days.)
While that “hooligan” headline is a stretch, I had quite an adventure, one that opened those eyes in a plethora of ways. Here are just a few things I learned watching football across the pond. (Yup, I’m calling it football from here on out. Deal with it.)
1. Buying tickets online is a waste of time… and money.
Searching for a seat in the States, I quickly got pretty bummed. I knew this was a big match, but even the nosebleeds were selling for well over 300 pounds, roughly $450 US dollars. Add in the outrageous “service fees” and there was basically nothing for less than 600 bucks. But then it hit me: If England is anything like America, there’d be scalpers crawling the ground. So I resolved to just show up and try my luck.
2. We’ve probably become a bit too reliant on our phones.
Landing Saturday morning, I figured I had plenty of time to grab a nap, bike around London and then catch the tube out to Wembley, a good 40-minute subway ride, for the 5:20 kickoff. What I didn’t bank on was my phone somehow having no Internet service—despite the fact that I called ahead to change my plan (thanks for nothing, AT&T)—meaning that, an hour before kickoff, I was standing in a bodega just a couple blocks from The Olde Curiosity Shop, desperately asking the kindly fellow behind the counter how to get to Wembley by tube. He wanted to take a picture of my moustache. I figured it was a fair trade.
3. Brits are friendly, if sometimes misinformed.
Minutes later, I withdrew the maximum amount I was willing to pay for a ticket from an ATM. But then, as I stood on a tube platform and casually studied a wall map, I discovered that as nice as that fellow was, his directions were terrible. Recalibrating, I realized I’d need not one but three different tubes to get out there. But if I made all the right moves, I just might pull it off. Thankfully all the other folks I bugged along the way knew their stuff, and I stepped off tube with just minutes to spare.
My first real reaction when I took my seat in this 90,000-seat soccer palace was surreal and utter awe. It was somehow simultaneously bigger and smaller than I thought it would be, and it was glorious.
4. Scalpers are… pretty much the same everywhere.
I would love to brag that I haggled with some cagey old Brit to score tickets at a reduced rate. But that’s not at all what happened. As I descended the steps toward the massive stadium, festooned in my Arsenal warmup shirt and 14-year-old scarf, a young black dude was quick to pounce on me. “You need a ticket, mate. You need a ticket, don’t you.” It wasn’t even a question. He herded me away from some cops and produced a lower-tier ticket for the Arsenal section and named a price that was half what I’d seen online. In retrospect, I think my lateness was a bit of an advantage; it was kickoff time and he was probably just wanting to dump his remaining tix and get out of there. “You swear this isn’t fake?” I asked, like that was going to make a difference. He nodded, 200 pounds changed hands, and off I went.
5. The security guards are shockingly nice.
Relieved that the somewhat fake-looking ticket actually got the green light at the scanner, I raced toward my section as the crowd roared in the early minutes of the match. But I hadn’t really eaten all day, so I stopped at a concession stand and grabbed two chicken curry pies (meat pies are huge there) and a large beer. Giddy with anticipation, I strode toward the entrance to my section… only to have a security guard inform me that no booze was allowed in the stadium. Did not see that coming. But as you may know, England has had more than its fair share of in-stadium tragedy, so I’m guessing this rule is one of many wise modern precautions. But here’s the crazy part: After I told the guard that I’d take football over beer and set the cup on the ground, he asked if I’d be coming back for it. “I suppose I could,” I replied. “In that case, I’ll make sure the cleaning guys don’t throw it out,” he promised. Wow. All I could think was: Where in America would that happen? Oh, and in case you were wondering, when I returned to the concourse during halftime, the guy was still dutifully protecting my beer. I’ll never forget that.
6. Hooligans aren’t what they used to be.
In the past, the behavior of some supporters was way out of control. That’s how Frodo Baggins and Jax Teller ended up starring in a 2005 film called Green Street Hooligans. But these days, with (I suspect) the banning of beer in the stands and seats for every attendee (there used to be scores of dangerous standing-room-only areas called terraces), things have calmed down quite a bit. That being said, fans remain unafraid to speak their minds. As I made my way to my seat about five minutes into the match, the first thing I heard was a burly guy nearby leaning back and loudly ribbing me with the words “TWO pies??”
One pie down, one to go!
Still, I really should mention that my first real reaction when I took my seat in this 90,000-seat soccer palace was surreal and utter awe. It was somehow simultaneously bigger and smaller than I thought it would be, and it was glorious. My ticket was well worth the pounds, as the seat turned out to be in the second freaking row, and the colors, chants and closeness to the players was breathtaking. When it comes to really big sporting events, nothing beats being there.
7. British fans talk differently.
Here in the States we have our own ways of talking about the game. Sure, we’ve picked up some of the lingo from the verbose English commentators—and the media force that is Men in Blazers—but born-and-bred Brits still have a uniquely eloquent way of observing that we’ll never be able to compete with. Things I overheard: “They seem to be bereft of ideas at the moment.” “So gutted when Fabregas scored for Chelsea last week, mate!” And “Wizardry!” That being said, I couldn’t help but grin when the portly bloke next to me, a fellow Gooner named Paul who’d taken a three-hour coach from the North Country down to Wembley, threw his hands up at a particularly disappointing Arsenal pass and cried simply, “For fuck’s sake!”
Let’s go Gunners! The author and a hundred of his new friends
8. They dress a little differently too.
Put it this way: The match kicked off in the early evening, the temperature was over 60 degrees, and in that entire 90,000 seat stadium, I’m pretty sure I was the only one wearing shorts. Besides, you know, the actual players.
9. Piers Morgan is a very… reserved Arsenal fan.
Being pretty locked in on the match itself, I didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings during the first half—except to literally hug Paul when diminutive, awesome Arsenal striker Alexis Sanchez scored a beautiful goal a few minutes before halftime. But early in the second half, I noticed the guys next to me snapping a selfie—and realized that just two seats away from me was none other than avowed Arsenal superfan Piers Morgan! As you can see from this video, however, he was slightly less locked in…
10. But he still kinda gets it.
A few minutes later, Reading scored to tie the match. I’m hardly a huge Piers Morgan fan, but I couldn’t resist leaning over and asking: “So Piers, what’s your prediction at this point?” He looked at me and, like some pasty middle-aged Clubber Lang, just said, “Pain.” Considering this match against a much weaker opponent—Arsenal’s a legendary club that won the trophy last year; Reading resides a division below in what is called “The Championship”—went into extra time, he wasn’t entirely wrong.
11. Watching a match is different without social media.
I must confess that if I’d had Internet access, I might have been staring at a little screen a fair amount as well. But lacking the ability to text or email or tweet was, in the end, quite liberating. Instead of trying to show off to my buds (there’d be plenty of time for that later) I could concentrate on the match, attempt to join the Arsenal chants and jump for joy—and hug Paul again—when Mr. Sanchez made this rather odd but magical/heartbreaking play…
12. In the end, football connects.
Counting the journey to Wembley, the match itself and the evening that followed, I’d say my scarf started no fewer than a dozen conversations, all positive. Even the one with a Reading fan in the bathroom after the match: “That was a sad way to lose,” he lamented. I could only nod in agreement and sympathy. Later, on the tube home, a woman asked: “Did Arsenal win? Were you at the match?” “Yes,” I proudly replied. “I support Wimbledon,” she said. “But my ex was a huge Arsenal fan.” Still later, as I sipped a pint on a stool at a pub near my hotel, reveling as though I myself had netted that howler of a game-winning goal, a guy walking past tugged my scarf. “That was close,” he said. “And it wasn’t pretty,” I said. “But it might be two in a row this year,” he said with a smile. I flashed one back as we shook hands. And although I’ll be in the States for the final this Saturday, you can bet I’ll be pulling hard for the Gunners. Maybe even a little harder than normal, now that I’ve seen them live…