SportsProf

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Report from London: Arsenal versus Portsmouth

My family is in London, and yesterday the boys went to the football match while the girls went to the theater. My son and I took the Victoria Line (after a detour) to the Islington-Highbury tube stop (that's the English vernacular for subway) and then walked about a mile to Emirates Stadium to see Arsenal, one of the stalwarts in the English Premiership (that's the top English soccer league for those uninitiated Americans who are reading this post), play in its home opener. The experience was amazing for many reasons.

First, I don't think anyone drives to the game. Which is impressive that the tube and the rail have to accommodate 60,000 fans who go to a North London neighborhood to this stadium, and the English authorities have figured out a way to get everyone in and out (mostly out, as not everyone arrives at the same time, but mostly everyone leaves at the same time) without getting people trampled. And they do just that. Still, given that I'm an American and given that many drive to games, this coordination is impressive.

Second, there is no tailgating, again, because there are no parking lots. So, many go to their favorite pubs before the games, hoist a few and get in the mood for some good football. As we walked down the street, we saw fans dressed in all sorts of Arsenal gear (mostly in jerseys) getting pumped for the home opener. Some, no doubt, were getting lubricated in addition to pumped. The variety of jerseys is pretty impressive -- they'll sell you a jersey with the name of any Arsenal player on it -- or your own. The two most interesting were "Genius" with the number 4 on it, as to suggest that Cesc Fabregas, one of the best Arsenal players (he wears #4) is brilliant (he is that, but he was substituted for at halftime because of a sore hamstring), or "Up the Arse" with a number I don't recall. Pretty amusing.

Third, the stadium is pretty interesting. You don't have paper tickets; you have a smart card that you insert into a slot near the turnstile before entering. You also climb stairs (about 20 in all) to get to the entrance, and once you enter you hit the concession stands. The area under the stands, however, is rather narrow, especially for a venue that holds 60,000. The average U.S. indoor arena has more space to stand.

Fourth, the Arsenal stores are pretty amazing in their own right. We picked out the jersey that my son wanted (okay, I'm a nice dad, but this is his one and only trip gift). He selected a blue road jersey with a collar, and then we had Fabregas's name and number ironed onto it (for a small fee, of course). The people working at the store said the lines were longer than normal becuase it was the home opener. As you may know, the biggest sponsorship of a Premiership team is purchasing the space on the front of the jersey. For years JVC was the sponsor of Arsenal, then O2, and now Fly Emirates. I'm sure in five years when the Chinese government buys more of Western Europe's debt you can envision Man U selling its space to "People's Republic of China." But I digress. The stadium is Emirates Stadium, and the jerseys are very popular. Many in the stadium wear them. It's also okay if you don't wear home red; the home fans were very nice and courteous. Several offered to take photos of my son and me. Others were very forthcoming about sharing their interest and experiences.

Fifth, the stadium itself is beautiful. Everyone sits under cover, even if the cover for those downstairs consists of a glass overhang so that the sun can permeate but you'd stay dry were it to rain. Thankfully, it was a very sunny day, and we were in shortsleeves, wearing sunglasses and drinking cold bottled water (a bit cheaper, even with the exchange rate, than the $4 bottles of water at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia -- and in the U.S. you can purchase a case of 24 bottles on sale at Target for $3.99). The field is perfectly manicured, and the sight lines are terrific. We sat near midfield, toward the top of the lower level, and had a perfect view of the entire field.

Sixth, Arsenal plays an Elvis Presley's "Wonder of You" before every home game. It seems shmaltzy, and perhaps it's intended to be, but no more so than the Red Sox's playing of "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth inning or the Phillies' playing of "High Hopes" after games. Then, before the game, the public address announcer (who is terrific) announces the first name of each player, and the fans respond by shouting the player's last name. It's pretty cool. The fans also have their chants, which start up slowly and end in resounding roars, such as "We Have Fabregas" or "One Arsene Wenger" (they love the coach of the team, whom they call a manager). That had me ask the question, why don't Philadelphia Phillies' fans shout "We Have Utley" or "We Love Uncle Charlie" or other things. Anything, after all, is better than either the wave or shouting charge after a simulate bugle call that comes over the loudspeaker.

Seven, Arsenal is a very good team (the Brits would say "Arsenal are a very good team" because numerous individuals populate the team; I actually think the Americans are gramatically correct here). They play great in transition -- when they stop the other team they move downfield quickly -- with speed and coordination. Abu Diaby scored 2 goals, William Gallas and Aaron Ramsey (the latter is an up-and-coming star) and Arsenal prevailed 4-1. The score would have been worse had not Portsmouth's goalie David James, who is on the English national team, not made a few great saves (his reputation is for spacing out every now in key moments and making a big blunder). Portsmouth's fans are to be commended -- they showed up and populated a section wearing blue and banged their drum for the entire game. The owners don't deserve such loyalty. The Russian oligarch who purchased the team several years ago has jettisoned 12 players and is trying to sell the team; I wouldn't be surprised if the team weren't relegated to the Championship League (the AAA equivalent in baseball) after the season. They looked very overmatched.

Eight, Arsenal goalie Manuel Almunia looked to me to be 7' tall. In actuality, he's only 6'4". It's just that many Arsenal footballers are rather short, including Andrey Arshavin, who is only 5'5". He has a mohawk dyed blonde and looks scary from afar.

Nine, it was pretty cool to see tube cars full of red jerseys heading home after the match. Perhaps that happens in New York, but nowhere else. But New York doesn't have 5 Major League teams; London has Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham, Chelsea and Fulham (please weigh in if I have missed any). Apparently you don't want to be wearing your Arsenal jersey near Tottenham or vice versa -- that rivalry can be as heated as the Yankees-Red Sox.

All in all, it was an awesome experience. The game was terrific, the pace refreshing (no time outs or stoppage between innings), the people festive, the people sitting near us nice, and pageantry at the season's beginning a great thing to watch, especially seeing the team enter the field for the first time of the season. The Gunners will have a good year this season, and we'll be following them from the U.S.

P.S.: Today we were heading home on the tube and ran into some Fulham fans, who were heading to southwest London to the Fulham home pitch (that's soccer field for us Yanks) to see Fulham host Chelsea (which is owned by the uberwealthy Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich). I asked the Fulham fans whether their team had a chance today; he said he doubted it and if he wanted to have fun he would have stayed fun but that he roots for Fulham because "I have to." So, you see, football really is in people's DNA here. My guess is that generations of his family have rooted for Fulham, which has about as good a chance of winning the Premiership as Charlie Brown had of kicking the football that Lucy Van Pelt was holding for him. Still, they go, they sing, they have a pop at their pubs, and they enjoy themselves.

All of this has been great to experience.

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