White Hart Lane.”
How do you become a soccer, er — football fan? Simple: Pick a team and go to a game.
(That’s that how it’s done, right?)
TOTTENHAM, England — The scarf.
Dammit, the scarf is going to give it away.
For the few weeks leading up to our vacation, I had done my homework on a sport I was just getting to know. Learn the players, learn the team, learn the history. So now, here I was standing in a way-too-cramped hallway in the upper level at White Hart Lane with a navy blue Tottenham t-shirt I had bought 20 minutes earlier and … a scarf.
It was so American, I thought. But how do you go to a soccer game — hell, become a soccer fan — and not get a scarf? I almost didn’t get it to be honest, but my wife liked it. (“Get the one with the letters,” was her advice.) So I paid the 12 Pounds and bought it, popped off the holder, draped it around my neck and walked in.
But now I’m standing in the hallway with real Spurs fans — the kind that live there and go every week and are deadly serious about this game — with the scarf around my neck and feeling very stupid about the whole affair. We’re watching the pre-game show on Sky Sports I believe, while everyone sucks back a Carlsberg and one fellow walks up to me.
“Nice scarf,” he says, smiling.
“You from the states?”
“I am,” I reply. “New Jersey. Here with my wife. This is my first soccer, uh, football game of any kind. I’m just getting into the sport and picked Tottenham to follow.”
He smiles back.
“Glad to have you.”
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If you’re wondering why I’m telling you this embarrassing story, it’s for this reason: If you’re a soccer die-hard, I was that guy. The guy who watched the World Cup every four years, got really into it, got really into the United States’ games and then totally shut it off after they were eliminated.
I was the “soccer is boring because they don’t score enough” guy. I was the “soccer is slow” guy.
Get it? Okay.
So once again when the World Cup started this June, I prepared myself for another month of short-term entertainment. Hey, Australia-Netherlands beats that third mid-day episode of Law & Order: SVU, right?! Then I began to think about it. If I was turning into Australia-Netherlands, why not others? Suddenly, I was watching most every game and reading everything that came out of Brazil — about the games, the characters, the people.
I wondered: Do I actually like soccer?
And more importantly: What do I do now?
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If you really want to know how I ended up feeling silly in a hallway surrounded by Brits wearing a Tottenham scarf, well, it will either make you laugh, cry or both. My wife and I had already planned a trip to London for a few days, so I figured if there was any time to become a soccer fan and follow a team, this was it.
I had to go to a game.
Since I already was that guy when it came to the sport, I decided not to be that other guy and latch on to a big club. So Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea were out. I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon of the defending champs, so Man City was out. Next, the team had be London-based and playing a home game. (Sorry, rest of the league.)
Down to West Ham vs. Crystal Palace … and Tottenham vs. Queens Park.
(Side note: When I read Blake Thomsen’s “Beginner’s Guide to English Premier League Fandom” in mid-July, I felt much more secure about all of this. I think.)
Without getting long-winded, Tottenham was the choice. I wanted history, I didn’t want a front-runner and I wanted to be at a home game. Plus, there was the added bonus that a friend of mine who had passed away almost two years ago, was a Spurs fan. He probably would make fun of me relentlessly for choosing them in the manner that I did, but I’d like to think he’d be alright with another Spurs supporter.
So we bought two tickets — I did my research on where to sit (East Upper, right near the top) — and we hopped on the Tube on a picture-perfect Sunday morning, bound for historic White Hart Lane.
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The train from Seven Sisters Station was calm. That was the first thing I noticed. No one with beer cans tucked in paper bags, no sneaking of pregame nips from cheap flasks, no chant attempts as everyone else minded their business. I’m not sure why I expected revelry, but I did. And was pleasantly surprised when it was peaceful.
“It’s so civilized,” my wife said as we pulled in to White Hart Lane Station. “This is so nice.”
What struck me as so unique about the game day experience at Tottenham was that it seemed so very neighborly. The Yankees are based in the Bronx, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that the community at large, identifies itself with the team or the ballpark anymore. In Tottenham, it felt like you were part of the fabric even though you were a foreigner.
This felt like 36,000 people taking the train to a high school football game, rather than the home opener for the 2014–15 season.
We walked around the grounds. Took pictures by the match day sign, but the old East Stand, of the security guards poking through the odd cut-outs in the wood fence. The entrance was so uniquely British: A 4-foot wide turnstile box. (Think entering a stadium through something the size of your hallway linen closet.)
My wife and I climbed the stairs up to the top, looking around, trying to catch our first glimpse of the pitch. (See, I’m getting better already.) She loved the old-school feel to it. That there was no blasting music awaiting your arrival, no legions of progame-hockers, no Steiner Sports-memorablia sellers, no distractions. Just the game.
After milling about in the hallway with the other fans — and surviving the initial scarf episode — we decided it was time to walk to our seats. I already had enjoyed the experience, validated my delving into a sport I mocked before I entered through the archway to our seats.
Then I saw the magnificent green grass below us.
Suddenly, the scarf seemed a little less foreign.