Football culture in the UK

6 02 2012

Anyone who knows me knows that I am very passionate about sports and have affection for sports all over the globe. It should come as no surprise to any of you then that the following blog post will be focussing primarily on football (or soccer for you North American readers).

The aim of this post however is not to focus on whether Manchester United or Manchester City are going to win the Premiership, but rather it is to tell you a bit more about the culture of the United Kingdom. While on the surface this post will focus on football, the goal (pardon the pun) is to provide a commentary on how significant football has become in Britain. Throughout this post I will attempt to cover contentious issues such as geographical division, race, and the idea that football is “religion” in the UK. This is a topic that fascinates me, and while I don’t intend to write a book, or a PhD thesis, here I feel as though I could.

My first experience with the significance of football culture in Britain dates back to my days as a Year 9 student at Matthew Arnold School in Oxford.  As a new student I was constantly ridiculed by my classmates for my lack of knowledge of the sport and quickly realized that I must learn to love it or suffer through a very tough year. After watching a match on TV with my Dad about one month into the school year, I decided that I would support Chelsea and happily went along to school the next day thinking that this would stop all the comments and I could begin my quest to make friends. Was I ever wrong!

Once you support a football team it then becomes a matter of how knowledgeable you are about said team. You are quickly asked why you chose that particular team, you are asked to name your ideal starting XI and you are expected to know every player on the squad, how they were acquired and how much money they make. Who knew that memorizing the incomes of Dan Petrescu, Dennis Wise and Gustavo Poyet would be the most crucial homework I had throughout my year 9 experiences?!

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I have now settled into my new home in Highbury/Islington. Those of you that know the football geography of London will be chuckling at the moment as you will know that my new home is smack dab in the centre of Arsenal territory.  While I thoroughly enjoy the area I live in, it can be downright scary as a Chelsea supporter. On one of my first trips to work following my move from the Chelsea friendly suburb of Hammersmith I noticed a young boy, probably about 10 or 11, wearing a Chelsea hat and scarf.  What I saw next was shocking.  As this boy walked into the tube station with his father he was being verbally abused by business men, dressed in suits, on their way to work. Insults I will not repeat in this blog were being shouted at this poor boy and it was drawing laughs from the ever growing crowd of people that were making their way to work. The boy and his father eventually got on their train, physically unharmed but perhaps emotionally scarred.

Now I realize that if I were to wear a Vancouver Canucks jersey in Toronto or a Crusaders shirt in Auckland that I would hear the occasional comment, but having done both in the past I never have had the same fear for my safety as I would walking around the streets in the Arsenal area wearing a Chelsea kit.  This is the fundamental difference I have noticed in the UK. The football club you support has become more significant than your religion, your race, your hair colour, and your gender.  While it is no longer socially acceptable to make a comment about someone’s physical appearance or sexual orientation, it appears to be perfectly fine to judge somebody solely on the football team they support.

The football culture of London as a whole is one that is worth describing as it is quite astonishing how divided the city has become over their football.  Currently, five teams in the twenty team Premier League are located in London and next year that will likely increase to at least six. While I live a stone’s throw from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, (I can hear the crowd noise from my house) I am only two tube stops from White Hart Lane (Tottenham). Recently I have been teaching in Hackney which is located right between Arsenal and Tottenham.  The other day I tried to use an article about Arsenal winning their recent FA Cup match to teach the students about recounting the past. While this was particularly engaging for half the class it was as upsetting to the other half who were Tottenham supporters. As a supply teacher I have to be conscientious of what part of London I am in when I discuss football.

The schools I supply teach in are exceptionally diverse from a cultural and religious standpoint. Many of the schools embrace this by educating the children about holidays such as EID, Hanukkah, and Christmas.  From my experiences in inner city London schools there are rarely any issues with racism or people poking fun at other people’s religion. While I am not naive enough to think these problems are a thing of the past, it is apparent that the major point of contention amongst kids is what football team they support. Often times as I enter a classroom I am asked instantly what team I support and why I support them. I have to be careful, as in some schools I have said Chelsea and the class will immediately turn on me. I have learned to answer this question now by telling the students I am new to Britain and haven’t picked a team yet. This leads to a day of them trying to convince me to become a supporter of their local team, but it is better than the alternative.

While the people in the suburbs of London are very passionate about their football teams the centre of London is a totally different environment. Central London can only be described as sort of a neutral ground where all fans interact with one another without too many problems. There are no teams located in Central London, and in fact the most common football team paraphernalia you see is Manchester United. This has inspired a famous football chant when London clubs play up north in Manchester: “we’ll race you back to London”. This implies that many of the Manchester United fans are actually living and/or working in London, something that is in all likelihood true. London is the financial hotbed and most of the big companies seem to work out of a “London office”.

The idea of the London business man filling the seats of Old Trafford (Manchester United) not only provides a commentary on the variety of people that work in London, but it also is a good example of the north and south divide that exists in England. The supporters making the trip up to Manchester to support their particular London club are chanting this partly to say to the working class city of Manchester, that unless you work at a “proper” job in an office in London you can’t afford football tickets.  The north/south divide is a very contentious issue in England and will probably be the focus of another blog post somewhere down the line.  I am currently reading a book that focuses primarily on this issue and as someone who has only lived in the south of England, but has a very northern family; it is another issue that interests me greatly.

I had the opportunity to attend my second Premiership match this week and, as I was only 14 when I went to Stamford Bridge, (Chelsea) I was far more observant this time of the crowd and the atmosphere that surrounds a football match. With a few friends I went along to Craven Cottage (Fulham) to watch a midweek match against West Bromwich Albion. Not being a rivalry game and because it was mid week, the crowd was slightly tamer than the typical football match until Fulham put away a goal early in the second half. It was great to hear the crowd chanting in unison “you’re not singing anymore” to the West Brom supporters who had made the journey and had been singing all match.

Listening to the various crowds around the Premiership and even in the lower leagues is actually quite a good way to learn about England. One of the more famous examples occurred back in 2004 back when Wayne Rooney was playing for Everton. Prior to his transfer to Manchester United he was playing a game in Old Trafford and the crowd chanted “He’s fat, He’s Scouse, He’ll probably rob your house, Rooney, Rooney”.  While this was a personal attack on Mr. Rooney, it also poked fun at people from Liverpool (Scousers) and the stereotype that crime is abundant there. The creativity of the football crowd and the rivalry between cities is unlike Canada or New Zealand and creates a very enjoyable atmosphere for watching a match…just don’t get caught on the wrong side!

Football and the culture that surrounds it is a good metaphor of London as a whole. The teams these days are very multi-cultural and primarily owned by foreigners but all that truly matters to the football fan is the badge on the front of the jersey.  While there are still religious divides and racially motivated incidents in Britain the far more common identifier is what football team you support. While in Canada or New Zealand supporting the rival team might result in a joke or two the choice of football team is no joke to many Britons. Some rivalries are based on religion, the most famous being Rangers versus Celtic in Glasgow, while others based on simple geography, but wherever you go in the UK the rivalries are intense and often very heated. It is a major part of the British cultural identity and this is why I felt the need to write about it.

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