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Among the Hugs: A Visit to Wembley

Forget hooliganism. When Barca and Man-U clashed in the Champions League final, the most dangerous things in the air were songs.

Wembley

The Australian-born, Queens Park, London resident sitting next to me on our British Airways flight was putting in a good shift as an aerial tour guide, but I could tell he was getting a bit tired of the whole act. “To the, ah, north? Yeah? I guess over there … that’s the Emirates. Over there is Stamford Bridge. No, I don’t know where The Den is, mate. Sorry.”

Throughout the entire approach to Heathrow, I had made my neighbor point out every football ground he could identify. Some people probably want to see London Bridge or Hyde Park or more recent additions to the London’s landmark roster such as the Millennium Wheel. I wanted to see where the football was played.

You can see the dominance the sport has on the country’s consciousness in the topography of the city. The landscape is littered with parks, pitches, grounds, and stadia, ranging from the magisterial to the condemned. And the poor guy with the bad luck of having the window seat in my row could see the dominance the sport had on my consciousness as I continued to pepper him with sightseeing questions.

“Where’s Wembley?” I asked, trying to convey that this would be the last, most important question I was going to bother him with. He sucked his teeth.

“Ah, Wembley? Ah, yeah, it’s out there,” he said, pointing vaguely to the north and putting his headphones back on.

*

“And what is the purpose for your visit?”

“I’m here to cover the Champions League final.”

The United Kingdom Border Patrol agent looked me over once, and then scrutinized my admittedly suspect passport photo. Looking back at the line, I tried to spot fans that were also arriving to take in that Saturday’s match. I saw one guy with a Manchester United “Chicharito”1 top. I also saw a guy rocking Beats By Dre headphones and talking to someone about a business deal that “needed a transfusion,” via Bluetooth. Given the fact that Manchester United were playing and the tickets were going for obscene amounts on the black market — prices only someone with Beats By Dre Bluetooth could afford — they were probably both in town for the game.

“And who do you think is going to win the match Saturday?” the border agent asked. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to test my knowledge of football and therefore the veracity of my reason for being in England. Should I say something insightful about it all depending on whom Alex Ferguson started in United’s midfield? Or that Javier Mascherano starting out of position in central defense could make all the difference? I chose instead not to be the most annoying person in the world.

“Barca.” I said to a nod and another few moments contemplating my passport photo. Since he’d opened the door, I thought I’d walk in.

“Who do you think is going to take it?”

He looked up, sighed and handed me my passport. “Barcelona is going to win. Welcome to London.”

Barcelona did win. Ferguson went with Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick in central midfield and the Barcelona trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets inflicted the kind of emotional trauma on them that will take a summer on the beach in Mallorca to undo. Mascherano was fine in central defense. And I was decidedly not in London. I was “over there,” as my belabored Australian had put it, 10 miles or so from Westminster Abbey, in the borough of Brent, in Wembley Park.

What is there to do in Wembley Park? Well, there’s an Ikea, a few Tesco’s, a Halfords, some Indian takeaways, a couple of pubs — and then there’s the home of football; the 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium. Opened in 2007, the “new” Wembley sits on top of the landscape like a recently arrived mother ship from a foreign world, its famed arch (which replaced the old Wembley’s famed towers) cascading over the skyline.

I had come to Wembley not only for Manchester United and Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League Final, but for a firsthand look at European football culture.

For an American, the attraction to European football is twofold. There’s the on-field draw, with the top European leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, and France) regularly producing and attracting the world’s top talent. Then there’s the off-field element — the lure of a fan culture that is at once recognizable (undying loyalty to hometown teams, insatiable addiction to sports media including blogs, tabloid newspapers, and talk radio) and inexorably foreign (the singing, the scarves, the hyper-local rivalries).

Most of all I wanted to see the passion. I’m not talking about voyeuristic, spot-a-hooligan thrill seeking. I’m talking about being around fans who seem to breathe in the sport, who follow their teams all over England and all over Europe, who are so passionate about their clubs, they are moved to song.

Anyone who has watched a North London or Merseyside or Manchester derby can’t help but be awed, not just by the quality and commitment (flying tackles, body-sacrificing blocks) on the field, but the full-voiced, profane pandemonium to be found in the stands. Now Barcelona and Manchester United aren’t exactly local rivals. But the two sides had won two of the past three European Cups. This was the rubber match. And while the Champions League final had come in for some severe criticism, with many in the British press lambasting UEFA for pricing out normal fans, I still hoped to see the undulating, rocking, “it’s all kicking off” feeling that I had been so drawn to watching matches on television back home.

The presence of this fan culture was practically nowhere to be seen or heard in London the day before the game. I saw a few Barcelona fans milling around Hyde Park and Oxford Street (one of London’s main shopping thoroughfares) and the papers all led their back pages with previews and predictions for the next day’s big match. But for the most part, London, its residents and its media, seemed to be moving along like it was any other early summer Friday. Sure, the football was in town, but there were more pressing questions, such as why Cheryl Cole got dropped from the U.S. version of X-Factor (apparently it was due to her Geordie accent) (poor lamb) and where Kate Middleton got that dress (she copped it at Reiss) (I read a lot of papers Friday)?

Back in Wembley Park on Friday night, there was little to suggest nearly 100,000 football fans, corporate hangers-on, media, and madmen were about to descend on the industrial-tinged neighborhood. A few of the bars had begun to hang flags, signifying their allegiance to either Barca or United, and here and there you’d see pockets of fans decked out in their team’s colors. But sitting in the Blue Room, a hybrid Indian restaurant/bar/nightclub/live-music venue/copy-and-fax center/estate agents (not sure about the last two), I was feeling a little down. I had expected to be surrounded by the braying fans of football’s two biggest clubs. Instead, after a protracted campaign to get more ice in my Jack and ginger, I settled in to watch a deafening live band play a very, very (very) long version of Panjabi MC’s “Beware Of The Boys,” trying in vain to remember all of Jay-Z’s verse from the track (“All I do is get bread … something, something”2). Turn down the music a little and add more ice and this was basically a Friday night in Brooklyn.

Man-U Fans

The first thing I learned on match day was this: When it comes to wearing stupid headwear to an internationally televised sporting event, he who arrives earliest with the Barcelona-colored court jester’s hat … is the earliest. Or possibly gets laughed at by, cumulatively, the most amount of people over the course of the day. Either way, at 11 a.m., on the outskirts of Wembley Stadium, it was just me and Trinculo down by the car park.

With Wembley Way, the main pedestrian walkway leading up to the stadium, still putting on its makeup (giant, sort of creepy, long-legged dolls were being inflated, fried food was being fried, and various attractions like “Are You As Tall As Wayne Rooney” were being erected), I took a lunchtime loop of the surrounding area, walking down Empire Way.

Slowly but surely, the fans began to pour out of the Wembley Park tube station and, put to the eye test, the overwhelming number of early arrivals were Barca supporters. On the whole, the Barca fans, from Catalan and elsewhere, were incredibly gracious, articulate and warm. On more than one occasion during my stay, a Londoner would affectionately mock them with something like, “Ohhh, Barcelona fans they’re sooooo cosmopolitan.” And, by and large, they lived up to the stereotype, happy to talk about their political and social ideals, their team and its dominance with anyone who wanted to chat.

Chief among the takers on this offer in the early afternoon were Manchester United fans. Outside of the tube stop, on the pedestrian bridge over Wembley Way, outside of off-license liquor stores and on the sidewalks of Wembley Park, United and Barca fans interacted with great affection for one another. At one point, an Australian United fan and a Barcelona fan broke down the language barrier separating them. The Barca fan kissed the club badge on his red, yellow and blue replica jersey, prompting the Aussie to roll up the sleeve on his United top to reveal a United crest tattooed onto his upper bicep. The Barca fan kissed his own hand and slapped the United fan’s tat, leading to a manly embrace.

A touching scene of camaraderie and sportsmanship to be sure, but there was a game to be played and a trophy to be won. I expected a little more teeth to the buildup. It was a little too much Epcot Center World Showcase Pavilion and not enough Thunderdome.

Well, when in need of a Thunderdome kind of atmosphere, apply Carling and Stella liberally and frequently, then step back to watch the magic happen. The day grew longer, the voices got a bit louder and the discarded 16-ounce cans accumulated in number on the sidewalks and in the gutters.

As a seemingly endless amount of lager-soaked happy hours ticked by, a smart, if provocative piece of crowd management was employed to keep the peace: the segregation of fans from bar to bar and restaurant to restaurant.

The night before, one or two spots had hung a United or Barca flag. Now everyone had chosen a side. Manchester United fans took over Pepe’s Piri Piri and The Torch Pub while Barcelona fans had The Greyhound, The Moulin, and most strikingly, the McDonald’s.

A bashful, shy approach to one of these establishments basically got you nowhere. You either needed a Mancunian accent or a command of Spanish or Catalonian. In a pinch, however, I found that sustained eye contact and the appropriate team scarf worked. So I ran back over to Wembley Way, bought two scarves, one for each of the teams, and proceeded to gain entrance to a few places. Inside, I found a lot of small groups making up big groups; cliques of fans from various parts of the world milling around, talking football, but mostly, talking on their phones, trying to coordinate the arrival of their friends or meeting places for later. What I learned mainly from my experiences in these pubs was that there are few things scarier than bald, white teenagers who give you a leering “I’m only here to drink beer and kick ass, and I just ran out of beer” look, and, seemingly, the larger the man the smaller the mobile phone he’s using.

According to one of the doormen outside of a pub, who shied away at the idea of being quoted directly, bars in the neighborhood chose their allegiances somewhat at random. This made sense. I didn’t really recognize a true feel for the Catalan spirit inside of the McDonald’s beforehand.

A constable watching over traffic in a roundabout near the stadium explained that the segregation was just a matter of crowd management. The attitude toward public drinking was permissive, but intermingling among said drinkers needed to be managed. In fact, when the game finally started that evening, fans without tickets were shepherded back on to the tube and trains and into London. The idea being this large crowd would disperse across a large city rather than concentrate and possibly clash in a small, confined area.

That sounded like solid reasoning, but other than hugs or posing in each other’s pictures, I hadn’t seen much intermingling at all.

A one-man tribe, questing for some tribalism, I thought I’d give the stadium another loop. I walked by the statue of Bobby Moore (England’s 1966 World Cup hero), a whiteboard featuring colorful graffiti by visiting fans and watched fathers and sons shuffle through their match tickets, pawing at them as if to verify that they were actual holding entrance. Here and there a scalper, or tout as they are called in England, would open a closed fist to reveal an obscene price written on his palm (7,000 Euros in one case), but on the whole, shiny, happy football people were out in full force.

On the verge of giving into hunger, I thought about briefly retiring to my hotel for a dubious club sandwich, when I heard a noise; a muffled, echoing sound that seemed somehow familiar. I walked around to the north side of Wembley, the sound growing louder, when I turned a corner and saw them.

Hundreds of Barcelona fans, decked out in the electric orange, neon green, and the classic home red, yellow and blue of their team, standing on the steps leading up to the north entrance of the stadium, holding their F.C. Barcelona and “ANTIMADRIDISTA” scarves aloft, singing in full voice. All you could hear was their collective, deep lunged take on “el Cant Del Barça” and the chant “Ole Ola,” their voices rising into the air, reaching higher than the Wembley arch. Then I saw who they were singing at.

Decked out in their own colors, the home red and away black of Manchester United, dozens of Red Devils fans stood at the foot of the steps, waiting their turn. Showing they were no slouches when it came to being “soooo cosmopolitan,” the United fans responded to the Barcelona anthem with a chant of their own.

“WHAAAAT THE FUCKIN’ HELL WAS THAT!?!?” Sung to the tune of “London Bridge.” It was on.

More singing from the Catalonians, this time “Barca, Barca, Barca.” Which was met in turn with a barely musical chant of “WE’RE MANCHESTER UNITED! WE DO WHAT WE WANT!”3

So this was happening. Some kind of bizarre deleted scene from Glee, just with more scarves and alcohol. The United fans celebrated their musical heritage and their under-fire4 veteran midfielder/winger Ryan Giggs, singing, “GIGGS! GIGGS WILL TEAR YOU APART AGAIN,” to the tune of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The Barca fans responded by highlighting their own crown jewel, chanting the name, “MESSSSSI! MESSSSSI!” like it was some kind of sacred prayer.

Manchester fans pulled out their ace in the hole, offering an ear-drum-shattering shout of “ROOONEY! ROOOOONEY!!” This could have gone on, seemingly, for hours, and in truth the singing lasted for a while longer, but the Barca fans took the day when they responded, “ROMMMA! ROMMMMA!”5 They might as well have been shouting “scoreboard.”

Throughout all of this, I was milling around the Manchester fans. They were trying to G one another up, get different songs and chants started (the one about their teenage fullback Rafael Da Silva and his twin brother Fabio needs a little work). But despite being in the thick of the kind of chest-beating, finger-pointing, song-singing, scarf-holding antagonism I had flown over an ocean to be a part of, I couldn’t help but notice a little scene unfolding next to an Aberdeen Angus Beef Hamburger stand, at the back of the United supporters gathering.

A teenage Brazilian in a Gremio top and an England national team baseball hat was milling around. He was soon, for lack of a better term, surrounded by United fans, giving him the once-over. This didn’t look good. One asked him where he was from, and he forced out a “Brazil,” cautiously.

“You came all the way from Brazil?” asked a man wearing a green and gold scarf, representing the original colors of Manchester United and worn in protest of the debt-laden tenure of the club’s American bosses, the Glazer family.

The kid nodded.

“You came all the way from Brazil, yeah?”

Again, the kid nodded, looking a bit nervously at the three or four men circling him.

“You got a ticket?” one asked. The kid shook his head. “No.”

“You came all the way from Brazil and you don’t have a ticket? YOU FUCKIN’ LEGEND!”

A huge cheer went up as the United fans hugged the Brazilian kid, offered him three beers at once, and posed for pictures with him.

Nobody asked him which team he supported.

Chris Ryan is a staff writer for Grantland.

Chris2

Chris Ryan is an editor at Grantland.

Archive @ chrisryan77