Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My new team

I made it out to my first professional football (soccer) match, going down to London with my housemates to watch  West Ham United take on Wolverhampton Wanderers. On the right is Matt, my English housemate, who has been a lifelong West Ham fan. Last year I was repeatedly told I'd need to pick a team to support, so I staked my lot with the Wolves this year. It's their first year in the Premier League, so I figured they were in need of some fans.

The system is vastly different than American sports. The money gap between teams is enormous, there's no revenue sharing or salary cap, and teams get sent up and down between the different levels each year. Last year the Wolves finished at the top of the Championship (the league just below the Premier League) so they were promoted to the big time. Of course, if they finish in the bottom 3 out of 20 teams, they'll be sent right back. That made this game quite important, as both West Ham and Wolves were tied for 16th coming into it-one spot above relegation.

The result was fantastic for the Wolves, with a decisive 3-1 win that's made it very likely they can remain at the top. For West Ham, meanwhile, the loss at home was a disaster. I've never seen fans react so badly-there were frequent chants of "You're not fit to wear that shirt!" and "Give us our money back!" West Ham (the Hammers) are a gritty team from London's not-nicest neighborhood, with some pretty tough looking supporters. The possibility of them being sent down felt real, I could sense how crushing that would be to dedicated fans. I can't imagine what I would think if the Oakland A's were sent to Triple A after a bad season (though maybe if they move I'll get an approximation).

Beyond the fantastic fan support (the first half, which was scoreless for 40 minutes, they fans were very excited and loud and were singing and chanting in unison). The game itself was a also a revelation. Like watching ice hockey live for the first time, this is a sport that is just completely different in person on a big stage. Being elevated above the pitch, able to see the angles, brings a new appreciation that gets somehow lost on TV. Also the sheer speed and distance of ball movement was amazing. I found myself completely glued to the action at all times.
This was good because there's no getting up and walking around at a football match. There are only 90 minutes of play so everybody is seated the entire time. Alcohol isn't even allowed in the seats and there are no roaming vendors. Here Matt and Andrew are finishing a beer before the game. Most people seem to mill around outside the stadium eating and drinking in the hour before the match, then are seated during the whole contest. Frankly 90 minutes + 20 minutes of halftime is a much more reasonable length for sporting event than 3-4 hours of baseball.

Another interesting thing is the ticketing system. Each team organises its own supporter's club and you literally can't get tickets without joining. Technically I had to register as an official West Ham supporter to get these seats. There are a limited number of tickets for the visiting team, but these go right to the Wolves supporter's club. They physically separate fans of the opposing teams, and in fact it's against the rules to wear the other team's jersey in most of the stadium. Makes sense given the violent history of football hooligans.
Finally, the in-stadium gambling is quite a different experience. The table here is taking bets on the game. You can bet on pretty much anything.
You just fill out a little sheet like this with your picks and hand the guy your money. For example, I bet one pound each on the final score being 2-1 Wolverhampton, and on Nenad Miljas scoring the final goal. Both lost. It's a strange twist to the sporting experience in that the gambling is so normalised.

Overall, I loved the experience and am more enamored with my adopted team. They remind me of some of the things I liked about the A's. They'll always be underdogs because of the small size of their home town, but they fight hard and have very smart management. I probably won't get to this point, but Go Wolves.

34 comments:

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Brian said...

Ah man I miss you guys! Great to see you made it out to a match :)

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