February 10, 2006

Football No. 1 Priority in U.K.

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When one considers England (if one must), what comes to mind are giant red buses and guards with weird fuzzy hats.

You might also think of Churchill and his ubiquitous brandy snifter or perhaps Hugh Grant, bad teeth or that annoying guy from Coldplay.

But in Britain itself, everyone talks about soccer. It is part of the national culture – even more so than tea time and bad comedy.

British football is a way of life. Bill Shankly, the U.K.’s Vince Lombardi, said on a TV show in 1981: “Someone said ‘football is more important than life or death to you,’ and I said, ‘Listen, it’s more important than that.'” Shankly died shortly thereafter.

So it was that on the day Coretta Scott King passed away and George Bush gave the State of the Union address, no one in England was talking about anything American. The hottest topic of the day was the Premiership battle between Charlton Athletic and West Bromwich Albion to be fought that evening.

There are Americans who have heard of, say, Chelsea or Manchester United, but who are Charlton and West Brom? They are kind of like the Royals and the Tigers but they presently are in a fight for their very lives.

The two teams are perilously close to last in the Premiership. And, in a sick twist on Darwin, the bottom three clubs at the end of the season are booted out of the league and dropped down to a lesser league. Like a general stripped of his rank, the shamed teams are simply banished to minor league hell with callous indifference. Dante would shudder.

A plunge from the Premiership for either team means less exposure, less money and less of a chance to sign top-notch talent. It is a downward spiral into obscurity from which few teams recover.

Against this backdrop, we took the tube to Charlton Stadium for the big game. At the station, we first saw a mass of fans with red Charlton jerseys. Smashed beer bottles of all colors and shapes littered the tile floor like pieces of a stained-glass window.

We remembered the warning of Philip Stubbes that football causes “fighting, brawling, contention, quarrel-picking, murder, homicide and great effusion of blood.” Stubbes wrote that in 1583.

English soccer hooligans – in the popular perception – rarely evoke images of courtesy or restraint. The stereotype is condemned by English officials, but it does have its foundations. In fact, the Metropolitan Police are sending thousands of extra officers to Germany to prepare for hooliganism during the World Cup. On the night of the Charlton-West Brom match, the hooligans were out in full force.

The tube hooligans were chanting indecipherably while a lone bobby was inrains were overloaded, but the berserk multitude heard nothing. They burst down the escalator like water over a broken levee. The hooligans – with patent disregard to civility – had earned their reputation.

We were a tad taken aback by the barbarism but even more concerned about the forced closing of the station. So we hailed an illegal cabbie for a ride to the stadium, but the tube debacle caused us to miss most of the first half.

Luckily for us, this was soccer, so there was no score.

Entering the stadium was surreal. It was another world. Known as the Valley, the site of Charlton’s pitch was built in 1919. It makes Fenway Park seem modern.

Rafters filled with fans rose high in each direction. The indecipherable chants now were an eerie roar throughout the stadium – like a grotesque hymn from an outcast religion. Most fans were drunk but they were knowledgeable and attentive, like you might expect at a Montreal hockey game.

To the untrained eye, however, not a lot was going on. British sports journalists are often vilified for schlock reporting of off-field soap opera events. But the on-field action does not allow for colorful reporting.

After 90 minutes of play plus extra time, the scoreboard remained empty. The match ended in a scoreless tie. The crowd of tosspots left the pitch cursing names like Hreidarsson and Curbishley. Like an enraged Viking horde, the hooligans stormed hapless Third World sausage vendors.

So we do not know which team will be booted out of the league for incompetence.

A British colleague once asked, “Why are Americans so obsessed with American football? There is no beauty in it. Soccer is like poetry.”

Poetry, like art, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And soccer’s sonnet is not quite John Donne. Yet, as German sculptor Ulrich Ruckriem said, “People don’t want art, they want football.”

The hooligans would agree.

charge of crowd “control.” He was shouting that the

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen