30 AUG 2018: With the World Cup of Soccer having dominated TV and the sports pages this summer and British and European season currently kicking off, I can’t help but recall the first professional game I ever attended, an experience that cemented my life-long devotion to “the beautiful game.”

Oddly enough, my enduring memory from the match is the horses – dozens of them, trotting dutifully beneath their earnest police masters along the route from a London tube station to the White Hart Lane stadium to ensure that rival fans from West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur didn’t get into it, as they were likely to do back in the early ‘80s.

Not having any particular horse in the race as it were (I was a Liverpool fan), I made the adventurous decision to join the West Ham “away” fans at the game, though both teams hailed from London. Spurs were the more genteel of the two teams with the Hammers supporters as likely to be skinheads as the more typical rough-and-tumble east Londoners. Indeed, when 38,000 Tottenham fans politely chanted, “Come on, you Spurs!” during the match, the 2,000-strong West Ham minority drowned them out with an eloquent “Fu** off, you Spurs!”

Brilliant. And not because I enjoyed profanity or hooliganism, but because this was Britain (at the time), and what better way to immerse one’s self in the culture of a place than through sport – whether it’s drinking beer with the bleacher bums at Wrigley Field in Chicago, dodging sumo wrestlers ringside at a tournament in Japan, picnicking at a cricket match in the Caribbean, or hurling insults that would make your mother blush at Old Trafford in Manchester?

A friend of mine, international sports aficionado Eric Barber, remembers his first British soccer game fondly. “Back in the ‘80s when I lived in London, I picked a team out from the table (standings) in the newspaper and decided to go see them play,” says the senior director of national sales for Realstar Hospitality, which counts Days Inn, Motel 6 and Studio 6 among its brands. “I showed up at Chelsea vs. Tottenham, and I immediately noticed that there were a lot of rough looking men with Union Jack and spider web tattoos on their bald heads, and the police were kept on platforms above the crowd, ostensibly for their safety. It was rough, vitriolic and exciting, and I started going back every week. Fortunately, those days tend to be behind us now and the entire experience is a lot more family-friendly.”

Indeed, last year I attended a game and witnessed a mildly loutish fan chastised for language little worse than what one hears on TV these days. “This is the family section,” he was scolded.

Either way, whether remembering the good old bad days of British football, or today’s game with its corporate boxes and ticket prices that could fund a small country (at least for Premiership games), going to a match there is a quintessentially British experience.

“There is a massive sub-culture to football in the UK,” Barber explains. “They have ‘casuals,’ who are hardcore fans that had to adapt to snappy looking clothing, casual as they call it, so as not to stick out to the police. This became a new normal and now fashion is such an important experience of the game day experience.

“English fans are known for their cheeky senses of humour and the songs they sing reflect this,” he continues. “They are not always G rated, or even PG rated for that matter, but they can be quite funny and unique.”

And what would match day be without a wee visit to the pub?

“I always like to start in a local pub on the way to the stadium and meet a few locals. They tend to be very friendly,” says Barber, adding, “When you [finally get to the game and] come out of the tunnel and see that beautiful green pitch, it can give you goose bumps, and the fans usually have found their voice and create a very special atmosphere. At halftime, join the scrum for a pint and a pork pie – it’s part of the ritual. And I always have a sausage with grilled onions after the match – these vendors are found all over England outside stadiums.”

Like Barber, more and more visitors to Great Britain are taking in games, with interest buoyed by surprisingly comprehensive coverage of the British league on cable TV in North America. Certainly, tickets for top teams must be arranged in advance or bought online for scalper’s fees, but it’s easy to walk up to an affordable first- or second-division game on the spur of the moment. Recently, I caught an FA (Football Association) Cup game with Barber and some other travel industry types, in town for World Travel Market, at Greenwich (south London) for a mere £10 (about $20).

As a microcosm of the population, the Canadian travel industry is chock full of supporters of teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Huddersfield Town, even the tiny Brentford Bees in suburban London, whose stadium importantly boasts a pub on each corner for pre- or post-game consultations.

Such is the popularity of the game for visitors that most larger stadiums also have their own team museums, which are open, even on non-game days. Anfield, the iconic home of Liverpool Football Club, combines its museum with stadium tours that can be upgraded to include former star players as guides. Britain’s national stadium in London, Wembley, is another prime attraction for visitors and naturally offers tours. Of course, every stadium facility has its own gift shop for team jerseys and paraphernalia.

If that isn’t enough, the newish Shankly Hotel in Liverpool, owned by the grandson of legendary team manager Bill Shankly, caters specifically to the legion of Reds’ fans who make a pilgrimage to the city to support the team, Merseyside’s most famous ambassadors not named The Beatles.

Those lucky enough to actually attend a game at Anfield will get chills when the 54,000-strong crowd sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the game, the team’s anthem and homage to the 96 fans who died in the Hillsborough stadium crowd disaster in 1989 – a defining moment in Liverpool’s civic history that has inextricably and forever linked real life (and death) with the fantasy world of the team and the sport of football.

With such reminders everywhere, it’s easy to see that football/soccer – like hockey in Canada – is intrinsic to British culture and identity. And for visitors, discovering it can be a real kick.
 


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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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