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DESTINATION: ENGLAND

London likes its football bare-kneed, bare-knuckled

Pick a team, grab a ticket and settle in for a glimpse of stadium life and the local passion for the sport -- which can run high.

April 16, 2006|John Lee | Special to The Times

London — IT started at 2 p.m. on a grubby, low-ceilinged platform at London's King's Cross St. Pancras Underground station. A group of gangly teenage lads, clad in a variety of blue-and-white scarves and woolen hats, shuffled their feet and whispered jokes while devouring large candy bars with the kind of rapidity only ravenous adolescents can muster.

Their nervous energy touched a chord in me. I was returning to London to see my first live English soccer match in 20 years, and these were the first supporters I spotted, fans of my favorite team, Queens Park Rangers, or QPR. They looked about the same age I had been when I attended my last match.

When you grow up in or around London or if you're just a visitor, you have an unrivaled choice of professional teams to choose from, including some of the top clubs in English football. (Yes, football. I won't be calling it soccer for the rest of this story.)

Many are attracted to the bright lights of the Chelsea or Arsenal teams, but some attach themselves to the smaller teams for whom every supporter is vital.

These less fashionable London clubs -- QPR, West Ham and Crystal Palace, among them -- are the kind of take-you-on-a-roller-coaster-ride, break-your-heart teams that always seem worth supporting.

London is the spiritual home of football, said to be the most popular spectator sport in the world. Its modern rules were formulated in a pub in the city in 1863. Nearly 150 years later, London has 11 professional football teams.

The English football season runs from August until May, and although Saturday afternoon is the traditional match day, matches are also held during the week. Kickoffs are 3 p.m. Saturdays, and weekday matches usually start at 8 p.m.

Many Londoners go to these matches as if their lives depend on it. For a visitor, however, catching a football match offers an opportunity to peek into the local culture and soak up some sporting color away from the typical tourist haunts.

And as unhappy as fans may be to see England's football season coming to an end, they have this summer's FIFA World Cup to look forward to. The matches begin June 9 in a dozen German cities. With England one of the favorites, every pub TV in London will be tuned to the action.

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Excitement in the air

AS the packed Hammersmith & City Line train squealed into the station, the blurred pockets of blue and white coagulated into a single theme: The cars were jammed with QPR fans. After a few stops, we spilled onto the platform at Shepherd's Bush station and began the slow shuffle, in blazing spring sunshine, along cheerfully shabby High Street.

QPR is one of the smaller London teams, but attending a match here is just like catching a match at any one of England's 92 professional clubs. While the QPR faithful were walking toward their stadium, thousands of fans across the country were doing the same in their hometowns, strolling from the train station through residential neighborhoods, dropping into local pubs for a pre-match beer and practicing their well-worn chants for the match ahead.

Within 10 minutes, we were at Loftus Road Stadium, an ugly but functional melange of brick and blue corrugated steel that has stood here in various incarnations for decades, although it's not nearly as old as the club, which was founded in 1882.

The first stop was one of the official souvenir stands around the stadium's bustling exterior, my opportunity to catch up on two decades of missed merchandising.

I dutifully picked up a striped "We are QPR" mug, some temporary tattoos of the club's official logo (it seemed like a good idea at the time) and a white T-shirt marking the team's finest hour: its 1967 League Cup final victory over West Bromwich Albion. Recalling the 3-2 triumph still triggers a surge of pride in many supporters -- even those, like me, who weren't born when the legendary Wembley Stadium match took place.

I milled around for a while, rubbing shoulders with the other fans -- wide-eyed children attending their first match with proud parents; tough-looking twentysomethings who had come straight from the nearest bar; middle-aged, weather-beaten season-ticket holders who have supported the team through thick and thin (mostly thin); and lone old men shuffling toward their regular spots in the stadium, clutching bags of sandwiches and the occasional thermos of tea.

This disparate group was bonded for the next couple of hours by a shared love for a team that's often the dictionary definition of underdog.

With 20 minutes before kickoff, I pushed through the gate into the stadium, scaled the concrete steps and stood blinking in the aisle at the appealing panorama. Fans know this first view on match day: the empty pitch a blank sheet of possibility and the four steeply graded stands alive with the movement of supporters. It always elicits a shiver of excitement, no matter how many matches you've attended.

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