Sporting London

by Hilary Crowe

It seems I’ve cast London as the bad boy lover in the melodrama of my latter teenaged life; I had been romanced by a steady middle-to-high school diet of the Clash, the Stones, and the Cockney rejects around which Guy Ritchie’s heist flicks are centered. Next to the sepulchral college dormitories, institutionalized expectations, and predictable (un)fulfillment of such social constructions, I myself had constructed London as a long-awaited prince on a white horse that’d deliver me from dullness.

It’s been a month since I’ve fled to London, but I find myself even more entrenched in those demons of daily life I sought refuge from: battles with feckless bureaucracy; shoddy infrastructure; and academic apathy are still the rule of the day. But here in London, the nights are the better for it: awkward gaps in time between museum hours, dinners, and shows are spent in comfortably crowded bars. Hands, still shaking from flagging down a devastatingly handsome bartender and nervously ordering a round for the first time, find comfort around the stem of a wine glass or the dewy bottom of a near-empty tumbler. There’s always a world-class play or musical to see, and if ever one manages to grow bored of the city’s myriad markets, clubs, and pubs, the European continent is just a short flight or Chunnel-ride away.

To be sure, every young relationship has its peaks and valleys, and London’s infrastructure is my daily disease: the Tube is reliably unreliable – everyday a new line is closed for renovations, wireless internet that moves at a snail’s pace is a luxury, and everyone must pay around £160 for five television channels. Unfortunately, in stereotypical male fashion, communication is not this bad boy’s forte. Also unfortunate is that I had grown bored of the wearisome trod to museums, restaurants, bars/pubs, and back, punctuated by three-hour long classes (a.k.a. welcome cranial and hepatic hiatuses). I was falling out of love, and, oddly enough, it took a football game to get me back on track.

Never a fan of sports (I won’t even run to catch a bus), I’m surprised to admit that last Saturday’s match between Fulham and Aston Villa was the most fun I’ve had since arriving in London. Shuffling up the Underground steps and into the herd lurching toward the stadium for the 4 p.m. game, I could hear already-drunk Aston Villa fans slurring the unintelligible words of a fight song outside the Eight Bells pub, still half a mile from the field, for an audience of stony metropolitan police. The Thames-side stadium was also heavily guarded by mounted bobbies and security guards; fans of Fulham, the home team, sat segregated by walls and guarded gates from a small, loyal contingent of Aston Villa fans, and alcohol was prohibited in the stands (most fans wisely pre-gamed – public consumption of alcohol, especially on the Tube, is neither illegal nor frowned upon).

As the footballers were warming up and I was trying to do the same, the purpose of such safety measures became abundantly clear. The whole of the Aston Villa section was singing a Spartan chorale laced with obscenities, crude gestures, and flag waving. They stood, collectively bent over the goal, the entire three hours. How the poor Fulham goalie managed to stop anything from hitting the net while that seething tsunami taunted him is beyond me.

I always knew soccer was an endurance sport, but seeing and almost getting hit by the amazing range of a defender’s sweeping kick, listening to those ceaseless Aston Villa sopranos, and fighting crowds to and from the stadium and the loo shed new light on an experience I had previously discounted as mindless entertainment only testosterone-fueled, culturally derelict cavemen of a historically stalwart, glory days-obsessed failed empire could enjoy. (For some Yanks who may be confused at this point: although football is something else in the States, what's called soccer stateside is the real football for most of the world.) From my field-side perspective, the gravity and intensity grown men brought to a sport I had tumbled with in the 7th and 8th grades seemed neither inappropriate at the time nor ridiculous in retrospect. Football had managed to do for me what London, as the honeymoon period began to wane, could not: boil the blood and pasteurize the ill humors and perturbing past from a not-so-stranger finally finding her place in a new city.

Underdogs and my new home team, Fulham, by the way, defeated Aston Villa 2-1.

(Photo of Fulham vs. Bolton in 2005 by d.nuttall via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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John Charles said...

Very nice!

You have arrived!!!!

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