During my first tube journey into Central London back in February, I was caught unaware by the sudden appearance of Wembley Stadium, rising enormous above its one-and-two-story surroundings in residential Northwest London. The UK’s footballing Mecca is a massive structure – it seats about 90,000 and its stately arch dominates the suburban landscape for miles in every direction.
After passing the landmark at least twice a week for the past two-and-a-half months, the novelty has worn off. In fact, the stadium is used so rarely that it’s easy to forget it’s there at all. That makes weekends when Wembley hosts an event all the more jarring, like when both semi-finals of the British soccer’s main cup competition took place in the stadium.
On Saturday evening, I was riding home from the city, picking my way through a British history textbook when the tube reached the Wembley Park station. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by jubilant Chelsea supporters, liquored up and noisily celebrating their 2-1 victory over Arsenal. Trying to be subtle, I took off my red sweatshirt (Arsenal’s color) and soon gave up the absurd notion of getting any more reading done.
The following afternoon, I boarded the tube on my way into the city to find a smattering of Manchester United jerseys, the wearers of which slumped low in their seats a few stations later when the train was flooded with the blue shirts and painted faces of Everton F.C. (United’s semi-final opponents). Once more, I quietly put away my book as the blue-noses pounded on the ceiling and sang “Manchester is shit” for the next three stops.
“We’ve been waiting years to go to Wembley,” one grinning Evertonian told me above the din.
It’s hard to explain just how big a role soccer plays in the British national consciousness – there’s simply no American sporting equivalent. Take America’s favorite pastime, for example: Major League Baseball consists of 30 teams spread across the U.S. and Canada. Beyond that, there are a number of minor league franchises that mostly act as feeders to major league teams. In American sports, there is a clear division between the major and minor leagues.
Almost everywhere except the United States, professional soccer works within a series of leagues, or pyramids, with a tiered hierarchy from world-class clubs in huge stadiums down to tiny semi-pro teams that play in front of fewer than a thousand spectators each week. In England, the Premier League is the top flight, home to heavyweights like Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool. The next three tiers are the Championship League, League One, and League Two, all governed by an organization called the Football League. At the end of each season, the bottom finishers from the Premier League swap places with the top finishers from the Championship and so on down the pyramid.
It sounds confusing, and it is (if you’re lost, Wikipedia explains it better than I do). Within these top four leagues alone, there are 92 clubs and, if anything, the supporters get more devoted the further down you go. The most notoriously overzealous supporters in England are associated with Millwall FC, a club that has toiled in anonymity for the past 25 years, never reaching the top division. Granted, brick-throwing is probably not the best show of club loyalty, but I feel it’s a point worth making: I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard about anyone getting violent over the result of a St. Paul Saints game.
Clubs are closely and inextricably tied to communities here. Last month, my friend and I went to see Queens Park Rangers FC play at their ground in West London. It was an unremarkable stadium, about a third the size of most NFL arenas, and the intimate, energetic atmosphere of the match was something we simply don’t have in the United States.
Many of these fans come from families that have supported their club for decades, and whether it’s Manchester United playing to be the Champions of Europe or the Queens Park Rangers playing Sheffield Wednesday for tenth place in the second tier of English football, the supporters show a level of pride in their team, a kind of camaraderie among the home supporters that no American ballpark can match. There’s just something about match day in London that we never had back home.