Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Seeing how the other half watches

This post is far overdue, particularly since I have been back from the UK for more than 10 days now, but as you all might have noticed once or twice, I went abroad to visit my sister earlier this month with the added cookie that I would finally, after 13 years of waiting, get to see my first ever (really first two) Southampton FC matches.

The five of you who actually read this know that it has been a special season on the south coast, though the Saints did a fine job of lousing that up this past Sunday against Liverpool with a little assist from the umpires. I've been keen to get out to a game for years, but this was the first time the stars had truly aligned in any meaningful way. Both of the matches were incredibly exciting to watch, though one had a significantly better outcome than the other, but it really is striking how different the experience is from a sporting event in the U.S.

We can go into the myriad differences in sporting culture between the U.S. and the U.K. such as selling tickets only a month prior to the match or the organized en masse singing throughout the crowds, but the obvious difference is the entrenched history of separation between fan bases. In the States I have watched the Mets, Giants, Knicks, Devils, Blackhawks and Northwestern play in an opposing stadium roughly 45 times.While I will often mock the predilection toward boorishness that colors Philadelphia fans and I know violence is not unheard of in an American sporting venue, I have never felt as though I was in any real danger ever, and the vast majority of opposition fans I will sit near are perfectly pleasant if not overtly friendly.

Not once has wearing my opposition colors been a problem, though some razzing has been more aggressive than others.

Prior to attending the Southampton-QPR match on Feb. 7, my first ever venture to the Premier League, I was only able to secure tickets in the home fans section, meaning I would be surrounded by QPR fans as I watched the Saints for the first time. I was explicitly told by all friends with any knowledge of or experience with the English Football Hooligan culture not to wear my Southampton shirt when I was in the stadium, a notion that sounded ridiculous to. I did not take it seriously at first, but as the game drew nearer and more and more people insisted I steer clear of provocation, I relented and wore a gray long-sleeved shirt over my Saints jersey, rendering it unviewable.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

London Calling

I can readily admit that my sports fandom verges on or surpasses the excessive much of the time. There is no disputing that. What has made me even more remarkable over the past 15 years, however, is the dedication I've shown to teams I've picked up based outside of the United States, namely Southampton FC and Geelong FC. As the Premier League has steadily increased in popularity on this side of the pond, that fascination with Southampton has gotten significantly less bizarre, though it still boggles many minds that I chose a team with little economic chance of ever winning a championship and zero cultural cache in the States. Most Americans jump for a team that actually gives them a chance at glory, the Manchester Uniteds or Chelseas of the world, or a team that should be competitive, but can still claim a hair of underdog status like Liverpool or, lately, Tottenham.

Southampton is a different breed. No one -- no one -- gives a damn about this team in the United States. The Saints are the British equivalent of a lovechild between the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Bucks, a forgotten small-market blip that has bursts of aw-shucks little-engine-that-could competitiveness buttressed by the cold hard truth that they will never consistently be able to play in the same sand box as the big boys. They have little relevance and little efficacy in the States and the only thing more remarkable to me about Southampton's back-to-back promotions to return to the Premier League a few years ago was the fact that three separate strangers actually mentioned it to me when they saw me at brunch proudly wearing my kit the morning Saints returned officially to the top flight.

The interim years were difficult not just because the team's fortune took a steep nosedive, which I've alluded to here before, but because it was that much more difficult to follow how it was doing. Back in 2008 and 2009 the Premier League wasn't consistently televised in the U.S. so one can only begin to imagine how difficult it was to watch matches down in the third division. I spent irrational amounts of time watching play-by-play tickets on BBC Sports' website and Twitter trying to painstakingly glean whatever nuggets of information I could. That I bothered to do all of this for a team that played in a mid-level British city an ocean away was all the more bizarre considering that, like my Geelong Cats of the AFL, I've never seen them play a match in person.

Well, that all changes on Saturday.