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.

I wouldn't claim that all British soccer fans are violent hooligans with no rational decision-making process. In fact, following the game while having a pint at a bar, one QPR fan noticed my Southampton jersey and struck up a conversation about how impressed he was with the Saints' composure. When I told him it was my first Premier League match, he bought me a beer. He got himself a pitcher of Guinness. For himself. But even if most of the fans are perfectly pleasant, genuine people, there is still an ominous tension that hangs in the air, which is hard to avoid when opposition fans are segregated with a ring of security around them. As the game nears its final moments, dozens more security personnel gather around the field to prevent trespassing or rioting, hunched down as if they're prepared for battle. Seeing these kinds of preparations at a regular-season game is kind of mind-blowing, particularly considering bags are barely checked as you enter the building.

It also doesn't help that some older grounds feel almost like a prison. Seats are tight, concourses are narrow and buildings are made entirely with concrete and little imagination, as if the era of building a stadium that is itself a work of art rather than a utilitary venue has not yet arrived. In some ways that's not a bad thing. Loftus Road Stadium, which QPR calls home, is one of the smallest grounds in the Premier League at less than 19,000 fans, making the building have a tight, intimate feel that almost gives it a Fenway-like charm.

As for the game itself, there was a magic in watching the players I had watched on television up close for the first time, much like how a five-year-old must feel the first time he sees Major League Baseball live. Players like Nathaniel Clyne and Graziano Pelle had only existed in a TV universe to me an ocean away, almost as if they were fictional characters on a scripted drama. Our seats were in the first row (because why not), and being right there, watching the real players run up and down the pitch, gave it an awe-inducing reality I haven't felt since god only knows when. It also shows you just how good these people in the best league in the world are even if you already knew they were good.

And they are really good.

The crowd itself brings a consistent, driving energy with chants and songs in massive unison that bring an energy largely not duplicated in North America. I kept my emotions mostly intact during the game, which Southampton probably should have won with ease, but instead struggled to generate quality scoring opportunities in the final third. In the end, the match had run into extra time heading toward a nil-nil draw, a disappointing result considering the Saints are challenging for Europe while QPR is battling relegation. However, in the 93rd minute Southampton went on the break and Maya Yoshida fed Sadio Mané, who had been challenging the QPR defense all day, and Mane pivoted inside the penalty area and punched the ball with his left foot into the far corner of the net for a magnificent winner.

The goal happened just yards in front of me, and the challenge at this point after such a dramatic winner, was not arousing attention from the surrounding QPR fans. Somehow my friends and I bit our tongues, but it was as thrilling an ending as one could hope for in their first Premier League match. As I left, that tension still hung in the air as Southampton fans left the away section singing the club song literally above the home crowd, as the away fans have a separate entrance and exit to the stadium.

After four days of being touristy in London and, among other things, eating my first scotch egg, I headed down to Southampton for a match at St. Mary's, a trip that was an adventure in and of itself. I took the train to this mystery port city I had been rooting for for more than a decade and found a place that was roughly equivalent to Buffalo or Gary, Indiana in terms of intrigue and development. I did my trek around the stadium itself to look at the place, which even though it was desolate several hours before the match, was still something of a sight for sore eyes given how often I had read about it over the years. I also made my obligatory trip to the team megastore, though apparently a week too early.

A few hours and about £100 later I waited around in a pub that, unbeknownst to me, was actually a gay bar, before meeting up with Mike and his brother Chris, a pair of Saints fans I had met through the wonders of Facebook message boards. Going to a match with a pair of people you don't actually know can be an intimidating experience, but we all seemed to hit it off and Mike and Chris were far more generous than I ever would have expected.

Sitting in St. Mary's for the first time was its own kind of magic, and it didn't hurt that the view was fantastic. The stadium is only 14 years old, and as such was far more modern than Loftus Road, but amazingly still felt somewhat antiquated by American standards. The seats were smaller with less available leg room, the inside concourses, though much bigger than QPR's, were bereft of any sort of decoration team-specific or otherwise, and the most ornate parts of the building might have been the official betting stations, a notion that is totally insane for someone used to watching sports leagues pretend to sanctimoniously be above the fray of gambling.

Southampton and West Ham United also played a game that appeared headed toward a nil-nil draw, only this one was an incredibly frustrating one for the Saints. West Ham lost a man to a red card when its keeper played a ball outside the box with a full half hour left to play, and the final ten minutes essentially saw them down to nine men as Andy Carroll struggled to play on one leg. A few days later it was announced he would miss the rest of the season. Despite a decided advantage and numerous opportunities, Southampton was never able to break through and my first visit to St. Mary's ended goal-less.

My return trip to London included many conversations with Saints fans, a fascinating insight into the post-match sports discussion across the pond (cliff notes: they're just like us, but with different positions and names involved), and also ran into the chanting parade of West Ham supporters making the ride back home. It was a fascinating introduction to international soccer culture, something that, to this point, I have been largely unfamiliar with outside of a television. The only thing that would have made the experience more satisfying would have been two wins instead of one.

I'm not too worried about that, though. I'll see Southampton win at St. Mary's eventually. Next time it won't take me 13 years to get there.


  1. wait so you were in Southampton and didn't come see me?!?!

    1. I could have sworn I reached out to you and never heard back. Also, how far from Southampton is Reading? That's where you are, right?