17,067 miles traveled. 30 passport stamps. 38 football matches. One semester. This is my recap of my European expedition this fall.
The London Quintet
During my semester at the University of Westminster in London, my housing was located in the Old Street area of the city. This gave me prime access to the northern tube line, placing me no more than 20 minutes from all of the city’s primary tourist attractions, and, more importantly, within a couple of stops of two of London’s most prominent football clubs. Before I arrived in London I purchased two club memberships, which are required to buy tickets for most teams in England, for Arsenal and Chelsea, but by the time I was done I had seen at least a game at all five of London’s Premier League stadiums.
Here is my final ranking of the stadiums based on curb appeal, atmosphere and quality of football:
1. Stamford Bridge (Chelsea) – A middle ground between a classic football ground as the centerpiece of the neighborhood and new-age stadium through renovation and expansion. It also preserves the atmosphere of a beloved English club despite having a global fan base and several football tourists like myself dropping in to see a match. I saw three matches there, all convincing wins, and the atmosphere was electric each time.
2. Emirates Stadium (Arsenal) – When I first saw the Emirates, it looked as if an alien race had come to earth and decided to park its spaceship in the middle of an English neighborhood. It is massive and totally contrasts the rustic residential area surrounding it. It is by far the most modern football stadium in London (and it has the best seats), but the club’s global popularity, while immensely profitable, does come at the cost of a raucous home crowd. Several sets of away fans come into the Emirates and serenade the silent Gunner fans with “Is this a library?” chants. The hardcore Arsenal fans still sing their hearts out, but with the most expensive ticket prices in the country, the club has a much more business-class audience than any other Premier League team, and the result is a duller atmosphere.
3. White Hart Lane (Spurs) – Spurs are in the midst of a transition period with their home ground. On one hand, they have a classic stadium and a great atmosphere, but on the other their growing success and popularity has led to an increase demand for tickets, thus the expansions that left the stadium looking like an unfinished LEGO set during my one visit there. It will be interesting to see how the stadium will look after its facelift, but I am sure Spurs fans will want to be sure that the renovations don’t turn into anything major like a move away from White Hart Lane. As a trial, Spurs played their Champions League games at Wembley this year, and the crowds there were abysmal compared to their usual home gatherings. They need to stay at the Lane, even if it means renovating each stand one-by-one to match the ascending interest level in the club both domestically and abroad.
4. Selhurst Park (Crystal Palace) – The only stadium not accessible via tube, I had to take the Overground service to get to Crystal Palace, which seemed more like a suburb than any of the other grounds I visited. There was not a lot of street traffic and there were no tourists wondering around. If you were there, it’s probably because you are from there. This breeds the most familial aura of all of the stadiums in London; the VIP boxes sit on top of a Sainsbury’s, the English equivalent of an Albertsons, for God’s sakes. Before the game the gathering of the kids for games and kickabouts outside was enjoyable and everyone around seemed to know each other, which reminded me a bit of the tailgaiting scene in America. They even had a mascot posing for photos with people.
5. Olympic Stadium (West Ham) – The Olympic Stadium is a beautiful facility and the surrounding area in Stratford is lovely, which is what you would expect for an Olympic Park from a recent summer games. But this is not a stadium fit for football. From stalemates with stadium security about bans on persistent standing, which led to a standing protest at the game I attended, to the ground lacking the distinct atmosphere that gave the Hammers a home-field advantage at Upton Park, the only good thing about West Ham’s move to London Stadium is that they didn’t pay for it (though I am sure the tax payers who don’t support West Ham aren’t as happy). It was the only stadium I have been to across Europe where the seats behind the goal seemed preferable to sideline seats because the gap the Olympic track creates between the field and the stands is so large on the sides. Perhaps the club will find a way to better tailor the stadium to football in the future, but for now there is reason for West Ham fans to be upset with their new home.
Before my semester even began, I had already made a trip to my No. 1 destination: Barcelona. It is my infatuation with the Catalan club FC Barcelona that propelled me toward studying abroad in the first player, as the salacious playing style of Lionel Messi and his compatriots seduced me into football fandom. If Barcelona in its entirety was an airport and the Nou Camp, I would have loved it, so the fact that Barcelona was probably the most beautiful city I have ever been to was a nice bonus.
Going to games at the Nou Camp was such an odd experience. The first football match I ever saw in person was Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid, their second biggest rival in Spain, though their relationship not nearly as hostile as their rivalry with Real Madrid. Upon entering the stadium, a couple from Canada was in front of me and the guy was jumping around like a five-year-old on Christmas morning. “Holy shit,” he screamed as he saw the pitch for the first time. This reaction was far from unique. While I wasn’t quite as struck by the atmosphere – I guess covering two NBA Finals up close can do that to you – at each and every game there were thousands of people who were seeing a game there for the first time.
It makes for an odd sporting atmosphere. Surely the locals are right to be a perturbed that a large chunk of the stadium is constantly filled by people who are more interested in taking selfies than watching the game, but because the players are well aware of the spectacle each of their games is, they aim to please so that all of those first-time visitors have their own Messi memories to take home with them. As luck would have it, Messi went off injured during the first game of my trip, but luckily he was back by the next time I was in Barcelona. I sat just 15 rows off the pitch when he scored a hat trick against Manchester City in the Champions League in his return, and he was directly in front of me as he celebrated his second goal.
One of the things I did before I invested so much money into tickets for this trip was research what was considered a good seat at a football match. Unlike basketball, where courtside seats are the gold standard, most people told me that a more elevated perch was preferred in football if you wanted to get a good understanding of the tactical flow of the match. While I found this to be true during my trip, I did have to at least try a front row seat at midfield, if only so I could say I was within shouting distance of Messi.
My last trip to Barcelona was a four-day stay at an AirBNB about five minutes from the Nou Camp. But as it turned out, I had to stay at a Holiday Inn for the first night of the trip in order to receive a package. After having tried to purchase a ticket to El Clasico, the term for any time Barcelona plays against Real Madrid, through their official website, I had to settle on a ticket from the secondary market. Unfortunately, there is no StubHub equivalent across Europe, so I had to have a physical ticket – even though it was just printed out anyway – delivered to an agreed upon address. You’d think $900 would buy a little convenience.
Although it was a bit of a hassle to get my hands on the ticket, when the two teams took the field I realized that the price tag didn’t matter; this was an experience I will never forget. I often say how little I care about the OSU-OU rivalry because, despite being a student at OSU, I have no skin in the game. And yet, having grown up in Texas and having nothing in common with the people of Barcelona or Madrid other than the bits of Spanish that cross cultures, I hate Real Madrid with the same intensity as a lifelong Barcelona supporter, and that tension was in the air from the moment I entered the stadium that day.
98,485 supporters filled the Camp Nou that night and it is estimated that 500 million watched it elsewhere. It was as global an attraction as I have ever been to, and as far as being a fan goes, it is the coolest sporting experience I have ever had.
American Sports in Europe
Coincidentally, during my semester in London there were a record three NFL games in the city, including a massive festival during my first weekend there in which the NFL shut down a huge chunk of Regent Street. While all three games in London were close to sold out, I found myself wondering how many of the fans in attendance were Brits won over by American football and how many were Americans who found a perfect excuse to take a mini-vacation to London. Most of the people I saw at the Regent Street event were Americans and for the duration of my trip I didn’t meet a single person who expressed an interest in American football.
Aside from those weekends when the NFL was in town, there was a spooky devoid of American sports coverage or interest in the circles I traversed. There was NBA gear in the sporting goods stores, but Kobe Bryant, who retired last season, jerseys were the only ones prominently displayed. I also remember that the Adidas store in the Placa de Catalunya (one of the main tourist spots) in Barcelona had the entire wall of the fitting rooms painted with a mural of Derrick Rose in a Bulls uniform. I joked with the manager about them needing to paint a Knicks jersey over it and he was surprised to hear that he had changed teams.
There were a few folks I met who liked basketball, which makes sense because of how global the NBA has become. Once I saw someone on the tube wearing a Kyrie backpack and I told him it was the first one I had seen in the UK. As it turned out he played semi-professional basketball in one of England’s leagues and was watching highlights on his phone when I introduced myself. There was also an Apple store worker in Barcelona who was helping replace my malfunctioning headphones who told me she was a big NBA fan, particularly of the Gasols, who both hail from Barcelona.
After having spent three months overseas during both NBA and football season, I have come to the conclusion that it is easier to be a football fan in the US than a basketball fan in Europe. I stayed up until six most mornings to watch Kevin Durant’s first season on the Warriors, which made it tough to get through the next day, which often included either class or cross-country/continental travel. On two occasions I abandoned the comfy chairs and 24-hour cafe at Terminal 1 of Barcelona’s airport because the Wifi never worked, instead venturing to Terminal 2 to watch the San Antonio Spurs play on the more reliable Wifi there, though it came at the expense of a place to sit.