Blood, Sweat, and Tears: London Soccer
According to FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, over 265 million people play soccer.[i] This number includes only registered players, and it does not include fans. Soccer is the most played sport throughout the world, and London is no exception to this popularity. Soccer or some version has been played in London for almost a millennium. Whether it is in the streets or in 60,000 seat stadiums, soccer is always being played in London, and there are over 50 professional teams in London. Between these teams and teams in surrounding areas, there are intense rivalries, and these rivalries are present throughout London. Soccer is an undeniably intrinsic part of London culture.
In order to understand the rivalries and the intensity, a brief history of London soccer is necessary. Beginning in the late 12th century, soccer has been played in London. The first reference to soccer occurred in William FitzStephen’s 1174 description of London. “After lunch all of the city’s youth would go out into the fields to take part in a ball game,” said FitzStephen.[ii] FitzStephen continues to say it was viewed as a form of entertainment, and “older citizens, fathers, and the wealthy would come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously.”[iii] Every trade had its own team, and there were rivalries between trades. Soccer was not always well received by officials in London, and one monk even called it “undignified and worthless.”[iv] A series of monarchs starting with Edward II and continuing through Oliver Cromwell banned the playing of soccer, but these bans were not successful. Young men continued to play this game, and they disregarded any potential fines. London authority finally began to come around to soccer, and the game started coming out of the shadows around 1660. Games become more popular, and officials saw the game as beneficial for the youth.
Soccer started being played in London schools around 1749, and as one school official said, the game offered a “formidable vehicle for character building.”[v] Games were also played between cities, and the field length would often be the distance between the two cities. Some fields were over 3 miles long, and these fields led to rivalries between cities and the creation of fans. The style of game varied between these cities, but for the most part, it was a very violent game. According to one player at Westminster, “the enemy tripped, shinned, charged with the shoulder, got down and sat upon you… in fact did anything short of murder to get the ball from you.”[vi] Often times this violence spewed into the stands, and on a few occasions, soldiers were needed to end the disturbances. In 1848, a meeting took place, and although the process “in framing new rules was slow”, eventually a centralized set of rules was written.[vii]
The game’s most significant rule change occurred in 1863. Founded in 1863, the Football Association was meant to be a unifying organization. Members for different clubs met, and they formed the best set of rules to date. These rules are closest to the modern rules, and they revolutionized the game. It was no longer one of pure physicality and brunt force; these rules turned into the game into one of skill and beauty. It established rules regarding safety and the equipment used by players, and this was the most significant advancement for soccer to date. On July 20th, 1885, another major development occurred: the legalization of paying players. Officials decided it was beneficial to allow “the employment of professional football players”, and this increased the level of competition.[viii] This is when some of the most famous teams in London were founded: Chelsea, Arsenal, and the Queens Park Rangers all were founded in the following decades. Rivalries naturally ensued due to the proximity in the city, and the rest is history.
Surprisingly, the bitterest rivalry in London does not occur between traditionally well-known teams. It occurs between West Ham United and Millwall. This rivalry, or derby as called in England, has a history of violence as recent as 2009 when 20 fans were injured and 1 was stabbed.[ix] This rivalry stems from the 1880s when both teams were founded, and the animosity began. Originally founded in 1885 by dockers at the Isle of Dogs, the team had immense support from the workers of the area. This unwavering support lasted for 10 years until another team came into existence. West Ham United is located on the other side of the Thames River at the Thames Ironworkers, and immediately a rivalry was born between the two sides. The two clubs are separated by less than 5 miles, and this proximity was bound to lead to animosity.
In a sense, the Thames River is symbolic of the division between the fans. The fans live in the same neighborhood, work the same jobs, and live nearly identical lives. The only dividing factor is their clubs, which are separated by the Thames River. Yet these fans refuse to recognize their similarities. They insist the others are not true fans, and that they are more knowledgeable than the others. They call the other fans names, and as one West Ham United fan says, “They really are scum.”[x] The hatred between these fans has existed for over a century, and it will continue for many years to come.
West Ham and Millwall is not the only rivalry in London, but only the most famous. Another rivalry or derby occurs between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers. Both of these teams are in the English Premier League, the highest division of English soccer. This rivalry is not as prominent as the other derby, but nonetheless the West London derby is highly contested. While the derby has only been played for 45 years, it is one of the most watched as both teams compete at the highest level. With these two clubs, wealth is the dividing factor. Chelsea is one of the most expensive areas to live in London, and it is favorably received. However, White City where QPR is located is constantly listed as “best avoided.”[xi] Chelsea is known for signing high profile and expensive players such as Didier Drogba, and Ranger supporters despise them for it. This has caused many violent occurrences between the fans of the two clubs. There were even a group of Chelsea fans called the Chelsea Headhunters that incited violence, and as one member said,” You’d come out the ground and there’d be fighting.”[xii] In other words, they did not have to look for it; the disagreement between fans would simply be right in front of them on the streets of London.
Hooliganism has been a part of London soccer since its inception. Violence, at one point, was normal for matches between certain clubs, and their fans embraced it. The fans ardently supported their team as an escape from every day life, and it gives them a chance to unwind. The fans feel as if they are part of a bigger, collective effort, rather than just their own lives. As one supporter of Chelsea said, “I could immerse myself in it and take out my frustrations,” and fans of all London clubs echo this sentiment.[xiii] No matter how much the London police and soccer governing bodies attempt to end hooliganism, it will always remain a part of London’s culture.