‘Football’ for the Bear-shaped void in my British life

Newcastle United versus Wigan Athletic F.C.
Newcastle United versus Wigan Athletic F.C.

Collegiate athletics in Europe are nowhere near as important as they are in the United States. Even though I feel lucky to have escaped a football season that required trekking all the way to San Francisco to watch Cal suffer many unfortunate losses among sparse victories, I do miss gamedays in all their excessively spirited glory. People just don’t get into sports here the way they do in the U.S.

Luckily, as I lamented this void in my life, I realized I was looking at my environment too narrowly. Sure, people at the University of Edinburgh don’t seem to find sports to be as big of a deal, but the United Kingdom as a whole is a land saturated with soccer (football) hooliganism. So in late October, I took the 90-minute train ride to Newcastle, England with a couple friends to check “English Premier League game” off my study abroad bucket list.

I stepped out of the train station and felt suddenly like I had teleported back to Berkeley on a sunny fall Saturday.

The walk to the stadium was short and full of fans decked out in their Saturday best – black and white stripes to show their “Geordie Pride.” We browsed around the gift shop, which is a lot like the Cal Student Store in that you can buy so much Newcastle United gear that everything you wore, used, ate or touched represented your team in some way. They also had memorial plaques available to be engraved (as in, if you die, your family can get a plaque with your name and the NUFC seal on it … ). Talk about being a diehard fan.

The stadium again was a lot like being at an American football game. At concessions you could buy greasy food and cheap beer for excessive prices. They had a screaming deal on Coors Light – £3.70 for one or £12.90 for four! For those of you that aren’t familiar with the exchange rate –that’s a $6 bottle of Coors.

In spite of the rip-off imported beer, the atmosphere in the stadium was like nothing I’d ever experienced at a (American) soccer game. Though the people around me were certainly drunk, it wasn’t the same distracted, disoriented drunkenness that contributes to a lot of loud, semi-organized cheering in the student section at Cal football games. Yes, that alcohol-fueled, light-hearted enthusiasm was there, but it was mired with a bit of tension. Every fan, no matter how intoxicated, was intensely focused on every piece of the game; it’s almost impossible to articulate, but it was as if their personal hopes and desires were all resting on that match.

This is why soccer in Europe is more interesting than it is in the U.S. Besides the fact that players there are paid better than they will be in the U.S., attracting the most talented to play in European leagues, it is the crowd’s attention to and enthusiasm for the game that makes soccer so much more exciting here than it is in America. Every play, every move, every good pass, every quick run, every impressive steal, every shot, every cross and every goal (just the one in this match) are reflected in the crowd’s reaction. The general atmosphere of the crowd is a barometer for how well the team is performing.

The game I saw was actually a fairly dull one; Newcastle defeated Wigan Athletic F.C. 1-0 in a particularly unimpressive showing, which the crowd was constantly pointing out, many fans cursing loudly at every error or failed attempt on goal by the second half. But even such a low-scoring game had enough energy to compare with any college football bowl game.

Image sources: Alex Matthews/Staff

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