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A Guide for Game Hunting in England’s Premier League - NYT

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  1.  NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England — The Newcastle versus Liverpool match was about to start, and the police officer at the gate was providing advice for those sitting in the away section, amid several thousand tanked-up Liverpool fans.
  2.  
  3. “They might be a little drunker than usual, considering the time of day,” the officer warned, speaking of the away fans (it was 5:45 p.m.). “Are you a Newcastle supporter?”
  4.  
  5. I was not sure.
  6.  
  7. “Make sure you’re not; you won’t have any trouble if you cheer for Liverpool,” he said. He looked concerned. “They’re the ones wearing red.”
  8.  
  9. Premier League soccer is growing ever more popular worldwide. A survey by Britain’s national tourism agency in 2011 found that about 900,000 tourists — 61,000 of them American — attended games that season. The league broadcasts to 212 territories for a possible reach of 720 million homes, with more and more Americans watching the games.
  10.  
  11. But nothing on television can provide adequate preparation for the startling, exhilarating, bewildering, exhausting experience that is a live English professional soccer match. (First lesson: Pick a side). With the most recent season just finished, here is a primer on what to expect should you find yourself at an actual game.
  12.  
  13. It will be noisier than you are used to. Emotions will be higher than they are at home. The food will be awful. People will be drunk. The weather will be bad. Many of the supporters, even the ones cheering the loudest, will not appear to be having fun as we know it, and will be expressing their feelings in novel combinations of swear words. The discomfort, the din, the rudeness, the cleverness, the chanting, the verbal abuse, the unalloyed ecstasy, the abject despair, the love, the hatred — all these are part of the ritual, essential to even to the most meaningless, late-season, non-standings-affecting match.
  14.  
  15. Today’s Premier League is in fact a modern-day iteration of an old experience. As charged as the atmosphere still is, it has changed a lot since the dark days of the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, when English soccer was a byword for criminality, violence and hooliganism.
  16.  
  17. That was the time of the Hillsborough disaster, the Bradford City disaster and the Heysel Stadium disaster, when spectators were sometimes beaten senseless or burned or crushed to death in stadiums; when games were halted and teams were banned from playing outside England; when mayhem ruled the standing-room-only terraces; when rival fans controlled by criminal gangs fought not only in the streets and the stands but on the field, midmatch; when even the tough fans of continental Europe feared the thugs of England.
  18.  
  19. Pockets of violence still break out, as happened recently when fans from Millwall (team motto: “No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care,” sung to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”) brawled with one another at Wembley during the F.A. Cup semifinal against Wigan. In Newcastle, the home fans ran riot after the team lost to Sunderland (one fan punched a police horse in the neck). But by and large, soccer has turned peaceful. The serious hooligans have been barred from games, their photographs circulated, their images captured on surveillance cameras, their passports confiscated when their teams play abroad, their whereabouts known.
  20.  
  21. Children and women now feel comfortable at matches. People are less likely to beat you up. The outlawing of all-standing terraced seating in the Premier League in the early 1990s means that fans have to buy tickets in advance and sit in assigned seats, so they are not crammed together and are easier to track. Police and stewards monitor the crowds and remove people caught drinking, committing violence, throwing things at one another or engaging in racist or other abuse.
  22.  
  23. “There’s been a huge decline in the kind of public disorder which dominated English football from the mid-’70s and late ’80s,” said Mark Perryman, a research fellow in sport and leisure culture at the University of Brighton and the author of “Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation.”
  24.  
  25. “Going to a football match today is an entirely different kind of occasion.”
  26.  
  27. When he was a child in the 1970s, an Aston Villa fan said at a recent game against Chelsea, it was virtually impossible to go to an incident-free game.
  28.  
  29. “In the terraces when your team scored, everyone would lean forward, and the people in the front would be crushed against the barriers,” he said. “Lads would just fall down on the ground and disappear. It’s a lot better than it was.”
  30.  
  31. Still, if you come from America, where it is possible to sit next to a rival fan without fear of bodily harm, English soccer games can be disorienting, unnerving experiences.
  32.  
  33. RULE NO. 1: Stadiums are strictly segregated according to team allegiance. The team whose fans you are sitting with is the greatest sports team in the history of sports.
  34.  
  35. “I’ve been at a match when I was sat in the wrong end,” said Steve James, 47, a Manchester United fan, recalling an occasion when, desperate for tickets, he and his unable-to-keep-quiet mates found themselves in the Nottingham Forest supporters’ section during a crucial game. “The stewards will actually drag you out.”
  36.  
  37. At Goodison Park in Liverpool, where Everton was hosting West Ham recently, the Everton fans behind the goal in the rowdy Gwladys Street section of the stadium delivered a nonstop succession of elaborate chants expressing their love for Everton — players, coach, former players, former coaches — and their contempt for everyone else, including teams and players that were not there, like Manchester United.
  38.  
  39. One chant, to the tune of the French song “Alouette,” consisted of a long call-and-response recital of names — “Psycho Pat” and “Tricky Trev” were two of them — who, it turned out, played on the beloved Everton side of 1985, the club’s best year ever, when it won the league and the European Cup Winners’ Cup and (according to the fans) would have won much more had its inexorable push to victory not been thwarted by a series of unfortunate and unfair events.
  40.  
  41. Twenty-eight years is nothing. English soccer fans have very long memories.
  42.  
  43. RULE NO. 2: Fans are prejudiced on behalf of their players to the point where, if a player were to jump up and down on the bloodied corpse of an opponent during a match, the fans would accuse the opponent of faking it.
  44.  
  45. At one point in the Newcastle match, the Newcastle fans taunted the Liverpool fans by bringing up the shameful recent episode in which the Liverpool striker Luis Suárez bit the Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic on the arm (Suárez was barred for 10 matches).
  46.  
  47. Were the Liverpool fans ashamed by this reminder of Suárez’s immaturity and weirdness? They were not. To the tune of the part of “Sloop John B” that is about wanting to go home, the Liverpool fans praised Suárez’s machismo. “He bites who he wants,” they sang proudly. “He bites who he wants. Luis Suárez — he bites who he wants.”
  48.  
  49. Meanwhile, the Everton fans still speak with admiration about Duncan Ferguson, a team legend who, playing in Scotland early in his career, spent three months in prison after being convicted of assaulting an opposing player during a match.
  50.  
  51. It was not Ferguson’s fault, according to an Everton fan riding back to London on the train after the game.
  52.  
  53. The other player, he said, was not tough enough and “went crying to the police.”
  54.  
  55. RULE NO. 3: Sometimes, it feels as if you are in a police state.
  56.  
  57. Do not be surprised if, en route to the stadium, you are greeted by a phalanx of police officers, some whom may be riding horses and wearing riot helmets.
  58.  
  59. Do not be surprised if someone pats you down for illegal alcohol or “missiles” before letting you into the stadium.
  60.  
  61. Do not be surprised at being shunted, like a criminal, through an entrance gate so narrow it looks as if it were built for elves or people entering a peep show booth.
  62.  
  63. During a recent Sunderland match against Southampton, security guards patrolled the stands, ejecting fans who were shouting run-of-the-mill abuse at their opponents. At the Everton game, the guards walked up the aisles, making the people standing up go back to their seats. In Newcastle, the Liverpool fans were put in a kind of cordon sanitaire, escorted to and from the parking lot by the police to prevent them from coming into physical contact with the Newcastle supporters.
  64.  
  65. At the Chelsea-Aston Villa game, some Chelsea fans, unable to control their excitement after a score by Frank Lampard made him Chelsea’s career leader in goals, jumped over the barrier and rushed the field (this is known as a “pitch invasion.”) Within seconds, dozens of officers and stewards had sprinted over to the Chelsea section, surrounded the fans, and bundled the offenders out.
  66.  
  67. Standing under a no-alcohol-past-this-point sign, a Newcastle security guard explained that he believed he and his colleagues were sometimes the only thing between the fans and a free-for-all.
  68.  
  69. “You link arms and hope the fans don’t break through,” he said, describing the situation when away supporters try to leave their special segregated area and attack home supporters. Sometimes, he said, the fans sitting at the top of the stadium throw things at the people below. “You have to put your hands over your head and hope nothing hits you,” he said.
  70.  
  71. The guard said the fans had been particularly nasty during Newcastle’s most recent outing with its Northeast neighbor Sunderland, the game that ended with semi-riots in downtown Newcastle. When he got home and took off his parka, he said, a cascade of coins that fans had thrown at him fell out of the hood and pockets.
  72.  
  73. RULE NO. 4: The fans’ happiness is not straightforward.
  74.  
  75. At a match in January, Arsenal was trouncing visiting West Ham, another London team, which meant that most of the people at Emirates Stadium, their home ground, should have been in a good mood. (The West Ham fans were crammed into such a tiny section that their mood barely counted).
  76.  
  77. But there was an underlying restlessness, and every time Arsenal did anything wrong, like lose possession of the ball, a portion of the home-club fans began abusing the manager, Arsène Wenger, for not having won any trophies in several years.
  78.  
  79. One man sitting near me was uttering a torrent of profane anti-Wenger imprecations in a low monotone, in the manner of a psychotic cattle auctioneer narrating a pornographic movie. What was his problem, I asked, given that the team was ahead by four goals?
  80.  
  81. “He’s effing useless,” the man said (among other things).
  82.  
  83. It works both ways. At the Aston Villa match, the fans’ disappointment at being poised to lose the match was allayed only by the sight of the Chelsea captain, John Terry, lying incapacitated and in obvious pain on the field with an ankle injury.
  84.  
  85. First they accused Terry of faking it. Then they started to chant: “Stand up! Stand up! If you hate John Terry, stand up!” while standing up. Then they accused him of some more things. They cheered loudest when he was carried off on a stretcher.
  86.  
  87. Fans are ecstatic to the point of insanity when their team scores. What makes them nearly as happy is the chance to taunt the opposing fans, the ones whose team has not scored. American baseball fans have rituals like the seventh-inning-stretch and the wave; English soccer fans have rituals like the giving-of-the-finger to the opposing supporters.
  88.  
  89. “People go into this crazed tribal mode, and you can get this mood of hate,” said John Carlin, an English journalist who writes frequently about soccer. He described the way fans celebrate goals as “orgasmic rage.”
  90.  
  91. “It’s a teeth-gritted, sullen business in which people suffer more than enjoy,” he said.
  92.  
  93. RULE NO. 5: The food is cruddy and no one really cares about it, but the alcohol is essential.
  94.  
  95. Alcohol is allowed to be consumed in stadiums’ snack areas, but not in the stands. To temper the annoyance this causes, hard-core fans tend to drink heavily beforehand — carrying plastic bags full of beer onto the train, spending hours in nearby pubs — and at halftime. They are not supposed to arrive at the stadium obviously drunk, but many have ways of getting around this.
  96.  
  97. Meanwhile, very little eating goes on in the stands; nobody is walking around wearing a friendly hat and asking if you want to purchase yummy seat-side treats. No cotton candy; no Dippin’ Dots. Inside, the snack bar menus tend to be basic, offering things like French fries with curry sauce; chicken pie; and Bovril, a hot beef-flavored bouillon masquerading as soup.
  98.  
  99. At St. James’ Park, the Newcastle stadium, the menu in the away-fans’ snack area consisted of one type of entree — meat pies in various flavors — and eight types of alcoholic beverage. “Three-course meal: 7.80 pounds!” advertised a sign. Course one: meat pie. Course two: flavored vodka drink. Course three: Twix bar.
  100.  
  101. At the Aston Villa game in Birmingham, Steve James, 47, took time out from chanting obscene remarks at the visiting Chelsea players to observe that because the game started early in the afternoon, the fans had had less drinking time than they might have liked.
  102.  
  103. Take himself.
  104.  
  105. “I have only had 11 beers so far,” he said. “I met my mates at a bar at 8 in the morning and had a bacon and egg sandwich and four pints of cider,” cider being an alcoholic drink here. “On the train, I had a few more. Then I had six in a bar when I got here, and a couple at halftime.”
  106.  
  107. Except for his addition problems, James did not seem drunk at all. “I don’t like to be uncontrollable or not know what I’m doing,” he said. “I have my limit.”
  108.  
  109. What is that?
  110.  
  111. “I have no idea,” he said.
  112.  
  113. RULE NO. 6: England fans are just as bewildered by you as you are by them.
  114.  
  115. Graeme Adams, an Everton fan, said he once attended a San Francisco Giants game and was bored to the point of inertia by the slowness of the pace, by the fact that everybody seemed to spend the whole time eating and by what he perceived as the narcoleptic listlessness of the crowd.
  116.  
  117. “It was unbelievable — you get told when to clap and how to cheer,” he said.
  118.  
  119. Many old-timers mourn the passing of the old soccer era, one they believe was more authentic, more passionate, more primal. This was before television moved in, before deep-pocketed foreign owners began throwing money at soccer teams, and before prices became so high that many working-class fans bankrupt themselves attending matches, if they go at all.
  120.  
  121. Others say the whole thing is in danger of becoming too Americanized.
  122.  
  123. Mark Perryman, of the University of Brighton, said he was not pleased by the way the recent F.A. Cup final began with an opera singer belting out the words to “God Save the Queen.”
  124.  
  125. “If there’s one group of people that don’t need to be told the words to the national anthem, it’s soccer fans in England, but it was so loud, no one could hear themselves sing,” Perryman said.
  126.  
  127. Meanwhile, he said, the screens at halftime showed what he took to be a Budweiser ad. “It was some kind of computer game being played by two individuals on the pitch,” Perryman said. “This is very foreign to English fan culture.”
  128.  
  129. Some American traditions will never work here, it seems.
  130.  
  131. Carlin recalled going to a game some years ago when, as an experiment, a group of cheerleaders was brought out to energize the crowd.
  132.  
  133. It energized the crowd, but not in the way it was supposed to: the fans all chanted the word “prostitutes” until the cheerleaders left.
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