On January 2nd, I fulfilled a dream of making it to England to see a Premier League match. In short, the game ended Chelsea 0 – 0 Southampton – a dud of a result.
I never saw the ball pass into the back of the net, nor did I see a penalty or a red card. But I did see David Luiz scream at the fans to urge the team on, I did see Morata miss multiple opportunities to score, and I did see a Southampton player take 5 minutes to walk 10 feet to the side of the pitch after falling “injured” in the 80th minute.
This was the Premier League at its purest.
The next day, Manchester City would pull off a thrilling 2-1 win over league leaders Liverpool. That game would have incredible goals, consequential decisions, and Jurgen Klopp committing adultery with a water bottle. It was a spectacular game that highlighted the Premier League at its best, not at its most average. Its most average was on display for 90 minutes on a cold, dreary, Tuesday night in London.
Ever since I was 10 years old, I have been obsessed with the world of soccer. It was a world that entered my life through the blinking screen of FIFA 10 and then stretched through each fiber of my body over nearly a decade of waking up at 6:00 AM to watch matches and spending hundreds of hours reading and researching the strange game.
I remember listening to my father advise my uncle on coaching a 6-year-old girls soccer team one morning in the early summer of 2010. My dad laughed through the phone. Having coached both my sister and me in many YMCA tee ball, soccer, and basketball leagues, he was a veteran.
“It’s simple,” he said. “You kick a ball into a net.”
It was clear. When it came to the intricate tactics and details of soccer, my dad was no Pep Guardiola.
Since that phone call, however, my father has been at my side throughout my discovery of the brilliance of European soccer. I have not played as many matches in FIFA or watched as many hours of NBC Sports with anyone as much as I have with my father.
When, as a 5th grader, I chose Chelsea as my team – fueled by my enjoyment of using Didier Drogba in FIFA and the serendipitous coincidence that Alex Rider, still my favorite literary character of all time, was also a Chelsea fan – my dad chose Liverpool.
He had a chance to create a bond within our household in which we could follow the same team, celebrate the same victories, and comfort one another in defeat. But no, instead he chose to import a rivalry from across the Atlantic ocean that would sprout up whenever our two teams met. Watching Steven Gerrard’s title losing slip against Chelsea in 2014 remains one of my highest – and my father’s lowest – points of our lives as novice soccer supporters.
That’s one other thing the game has taught me – your own victory is rarely so sweet as another’s failure.
This past week, however, when my father and I strode down Fulham Road with our mouths gaping at the sight of Stamford Bridge which spilled out in front of us in all of its clunky and chaotic brilliance – we understood that this simple game was, in fact, a religion. And we were converts.
Following a two-month process of purchasing tickets, we splurged and got access to Chelsea’s “1905 Club.” A service often used by international fans who only have the chance to see Chelsea a few times a year. The service provides drinks and a meal before the match, seating in the upper stand opposite the traveling supporters, and even a small “1905 Edition” Chelsea Scarf. The frills of the special service along with England’s legal drinking age had me buzzing as we left the club restaurant and headed for our seats.
As we walked along the Shed wall, with supporters streaming in all directions, it all felt so typical. For everyone else, this was merely another game of the season. A game Chelsea should have won easily that would serve for an enjoyable evening.
As an American soccer fan in London, however, this match was everything. Hearing “The Liquidator” blast out over the pitch followed by the screaming chants of thousands of fans was more electric than any NFL, MLB, or NBA game I have been to. The only comparison would be with the NHL, my local Nashville Predators to be specific.
Simply put, it is rare to find such a coordinated support effort amongst American fanbases. And, when they arise, they are rarely nurtured but instead commercialized and left to rot.
Chelsea, a team that is often criticized by rivals and at times their own managers for having weak support and a quiet stadium, still delivered a spectacle of immense proportion to the few American fans who found their way through the gates that evening. We couldn’t care less if the atmosphere was not equivalent to a Champions League match at Red Star, Dortmund, or Galatasaray. It was our first time – and we soaked up every moment.
Yes, many clubs in England and Europe, Chelsea in particular, continue to struggle with problems of racism and violence. These problems find holes in competitions across the world in which they can slip through and rear their head. The rise of marketing and television viewership, however, will hopefully magnify the consequences of such issues and forever exterminate their presence. Until then, it is on the supporters to maintain the atmosphere and remove the hatred.
The jeering, the hand signals, the constant coaching from the stands – it was all so brilliant. So much anger and passion were focused on the pitch that the ground was sure to implode. As the match wore on and the frustration of the supporters grew – the atmosphere grew dim.
Throughout the 90 minutes, I was continually reminding myself to savor it all. So frequently we take for granted the opportunities that come our way. We tell ourselves, “That was fun. I can’t wait for next time.” So often, however, the following time does not materialize, and we are left to reminisce on the events of our past. As I left the Bridge and headed for the Fulham Broadway train station, I realized that the match was now a memory. One that, regardless of the score, I will cherish as a culmination of my love for this alien sport called soccer – no, I apologize, it’s not called soccer it’s called football.