It’s a rite of passage of sorts to attend an English Premier League game. The global popularity of the sport, and the godlike reputation of the players, lends an air to these events that is not unlike an American professional sporting event.
But it is so much more, my friends.
The fans of EPL football are maniacal. Many families have been cheering for the same team for generations, and the ferocity of their screams and songs and chants borders on certifiable.
The fans of the visiting team, poor souls, are kept in a segregated portion of the stadium literally surrounded by security, and they enter and exit through their own separate, fortified door.
While all eyes are fixed on the field during play, the idea of relaxing in one’s seat before the game or during halftime is laughable. Instead, fans congregate near the beer, chugging their last pint as the game kicks off. No alcohol is allowed in the stands, a rule that the crowds abide by willingly, but in those precious minutes leading up to play, drinking is top priority.
As the minutes of the first half tick down, the crowds spill back into the concourse to queue up for their next beer. Chugging ensues until the second half starts, at which point drinks and meat pies are abandoned and the slightly more inebriated crowds pour back in.
If the game is going well, fans will sit with rapt attention willing the clock to move faster or slow down. Every goal attempt is preceded by the full stadium rising to its feet, hands to faces with a cringe or a yell. Shouting at refs is part of the fun, as is mumbling to your seatmates about the disgrace of a call.
The outcome of each shot is met with an audible groan or cheering so loud that it must be heard for miles.
If there happens to be a player on the opposing team who has recently faced child sex charges, he will be booed every time he touches the ball. If there happens to be a player on the opposing team who used to play for a different bigger rival team, he will be booed even more loudly.
If a game is going poorly, or appears to be stagnating, there is a subtle shift in mood. Families with younger children pack up and leave. Larger groups of fans hang out in the concourse, closer to the bars, eyes on the TV screens. If something happens, they’ll come back in. Mutterings about refs and injuries picks up in the crowds.
EPL matches are cable dramas within soap operas within an epic Shakespearean tragedy.
The fans are anguished if their team loses and elated if they win. There is no neutrality, no calm. It is frantic and stressful and it’s never, ever over. The next game is just around the corner. Histories are long, and a teammate’s 300th game on the field is announced and cheered. A player’s fate is an intricately choreographed dance of money and power and injury and negotiations.
In the UK, football isn’t just a sport, but a lens through which the rest of the world is viewed. The prospect of a team being relegated to a lower league literally sends fans’ worlds into a devastating tailspin. Being spared such a fate is met with relief and exaltation…until the first game of the next season.