Over the winter break, I was fortunate enough to hop across the pond to London to celebrate the holidays with my family. Being the sports-minded individual that I am, I was eager to experience the culture of what is perhaps England’s most beloved pastime: soccer.
In its purest form, soccer fuels the multitudes of cities and neighborhoods in England, uniting fans and cultures alike. The chants and screams reverberate through stadiums like Wembley and Emirates, creating an impenetrable environment of passion and pride, one that is far different from the average American football or basketball game.
I had to see this all for myself. That’s why I went to a prime time Premier League game to see what the action was all about….is what I would say if I was actually able to obtain tickets. This brings us to the first point of soccer culture in England: club membership.
In the Premier League, which is the top level of the English football league system, clubs function in every sense of the word. Most offer one-off memberships which provide match tickets and other benefits such as luxury lounge access at home matches. They’re very similar to the American system of season tickets, except many clubs don’t have a single walk-up box offices where you can purchase tickets for any game of the season.
Matches bring up another important aspect of English soccer compared to other professional sports: it’s year-round. A typical Premier League season starts in August and ends in May. In accordance with American sport leagues like the NFL, most games are played on Saturdays and Sundays with holidays also included. Just as the NFL as Thanksgiving Day games, the Premier League has Boxing Day games which occur the day after Christmas.
Another defining component of some English soccer leagues is the system of promotion and relegation. This means that the bottom three teams at the end of the Premier League season are bumped down to the EFL Champions League, while the top two teams in the Champions League are brought up to Premier. It all adds a little more flavor to the season’s fixtures. If relegation existed within American sports, then the Cleveland Browns would most likely be practicing for the Arena Football League.
So given its differentiations from common American sports trends, what makes it so popular?
I think it all goes back to the fans. The following that the sport has within the country is nothing short of outrageous. An Englishman’s allegiance to their club is sacred, as exemplified by passionate and occasionally aggressive behavior at matches. It’s also not uncommon for fans of a certain club to travel in herds to away matches in attempts to both cheer on their team and outdo the home fans with the zealous spirit. Fans of clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool are notorious when it comes to away attendance and support.
Yet, being able to feel and see the culture within England is something that’s attracted me all the more to the sport. Despite the city’s lazy Saturday mornings, you could still feel lingering rumble of the fans in preparation. From distant cheers to flags being raised, you are certainly able to tell when it’s match day.
Pelé always been said that soccer was “The Beautiful Game.” Although that phrase has been subject to refutation by many in this day and age, my visit to England has definitely solidified that soccer, as beautiful and heartbreaking as it can be, is more than simply a game — it’s a culture.
Photo by Andrew Wittland