Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's Not Hooliganism, It's Passion

My experience of Arsenal was long, tiring, and a lot fun. Finding a pub with an entertaining atmosphere, as well as one televising the Arsenal match, was shockingly difficult. However, at the end of the day, with the kindness of the local folks, along with the entertaining passion the home fans displayed all day, my trip could not have been a bigger success.

Today, the Arsenal Football Club defeated Stoke City 4-1 at Emirates Stadium. However, that is not the story for today. Instead, I would prefer to talk about the incredible culture that surrounds Arsenal, and more specifically the connection between the football club and local community.

In America, one of the most loyal and enthusiastic cities to their hometown sports team is Green Bay, Wisconsin. On Packers’ Sunday, the town closes down and all eyes are centered on the green and yellow men at Lambeau Field. In Arsenal, just like in numerous cities throughout London, football takes priority over everything else. On game day, nothing is more important than showing your support and cheering on your respective team.

As I exited the tube station, the only one in London directly named after the football club, I entered a street surrounded by red and yellow uniforms, Arsenal’s team colors. Directly outside the station there were booths, or little shops, selling Arsenal t-shirts, scarves, baseball caps and other paraphernalia.

If today was any indication of the normal game day routine in Arsenal, there are zero cars on the road. Instead, the entire street is jam packed with Arsenal jerseys. The home jerseys, which most fans were sporting, were bright red, with maroon and white trim down the sides. In the middle of the chest wrote, “Fly Emirates”, which was flanked by the Nike logo on the right side and Arsenal crest of the left. Drakes’ Street, the road leading to the arena was a sea of red.

I could smell the scent of locals drinking beers outside the stadium as clear as the sky on this beautiful spring day. In almost a treasure hunt kind of feeling, empty beer cans were tossed on the sidewalks leading up to the pitch. Outside the entrance to the pitch, pubs were overflowing with fans from both sides that were frantically singing cheers for their team.

Purposefully, I had arrived early, to get a sense of the pregame festivities and as well to accustom myself with my surroundings. I had hoped to find a nice pub with fellow Arsenal fans to watch the contest with, meanwhile taking in some of the culture. Unfortunately, things went a rye for me in several regards.

Prior to my trip, I had done some research to find a pub in Arsenal to watch the game, and, believe me, there are a ton to choose from. The problem on this day was after I had sidetracked off my original trail from the tube station into the stadium, nobody seemed to know where the one pub I had set my sights on going to was located — and I mean nobody. I must’ve asked fifteen separate police officers and traffic officials, and close to a dozen more fans drenched in Arsenal apparel, all with the same, unsuccessful result. I approached one policewoman on the streets and asked her if she knew where the infamous, Arsenal Tavern was. Her response, “I don’t have the damndest clue”. It seemed neither did anyone else.

I went on, walking up and down Drake’s Street for well over an hour, until I finally found my destination. I walked in prepared to see a bar covered with Arsenal uniforms and televisions broadcasting the game all over the walls. Instead what did I find?

Seven people!

Eventually I managed to find a place down the street that was a little more upbeat. A sign hung over the entrance in black that wrote, “Home Fans Only.” I entered feeling right at home with my jersey on! Inside, I stood next to cousins, Steve and Dave, from Arsenal, wearing matching uniforms. We exchanged pleasantries and began talking. We mainly discussed football, American and European. Talking to these guys, who looked not a day over 30, I could feel the accepting nature they had towards a foreigner such as myself. I figured this was probably because of the bond we shared due to the Arsenal uniform.

That’s the beauty of sports. It’s the same throughout the world. Fans come together and accept each other for having common characteristics.  In Arsenal, sharing interest in the football club is one of the greatest things you can have in common with the locals, as I experienced firsthand.

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