10 March 2008

Watching The Mighty Fall

I've been very nostalgic for England lately; it seems whichever way I turn, whether to books or films or perusing the internet or conversations with friends, there are reminders of the life I once led across the sea. Naturally my reminiscences have been miraculously filtered of any and all unpleasant memories: in my dreams of London, it never rains, the trains are always on time, and things that used to madden me - the early-closing shops and cafes, the resolute resistance to change, no matter how sensible, the rising crime and crumbling social order - have unaccountably vanished.

Now I see only picturesque and quiet streets, perfectly preserved and harmonious remnants of a more stately architectural era, colorful but completely congenial citizens striding happily through streets and parks where never a traffic jam is seen or a horn heard to be honked in anger. In short, a London that I never saw except perhaps in fitful dreams during the entire time I lived there, but a London that has become nonetheless real in my absence.

It doesn't make any difference, either, that old friends frequently complain that London is worse than ever, that they themselves are thinking of getting out, or already have. Obviously they're mistaken, I tell them, though at the same time, all such ruminations remain confined to daydreams; apart from the occasional visit, I'm making no plans to return.

Speaking of the occasional visit, though, I'm currently arranging a trip there in late August for my 12 year old nephew and myself. He's been fascinated by England ever since I moved there and Harry Potter burst upon the world, both of which happened about the same time, and this will be his first visit. I'm busily trying to figure out just what will appeal most to the 12 year old mind (shouldn't be too much of a stretch for me, I can already hear some of you saying), and apart from the usual castles, funny accents, and double decker buses, he's been promised at least one Premiership football match.

When told about that, he responded, "Fulham, I suppose?" (He knows his uncle well.) And normally that would be a safe bet, since I'm still a member at Fulham and can pretty much always count on getting tickets there. However, the odds on Fulham still being a Premiership team come August 2008 are dismal and dwindling rapidly, which could put me in the awkward and unpleasant position of having to shell out large cash to watch one of our historical enemies like Chelsea or Spurs (I will not pay for an Arsenal match that doesn't involve Fulham, that's already a given). I'll still go watch Fulham no matter what division they're in - they were in the old Second Division - currently known in FA Newspeak as "League One" - when I got my first season ticket, and if I'm honest, I sometimes enjoyed those old Second and First Division matches more than Premiership matches (certainly more than most of Fulham's Premiership matches this year). But I'm not sure a 12 year old who wants to see famous footballers will share my undiminished loyalty.

The first Fulham match I ever saw was an FA Cup tie against Barnsley that the Cottagers won 4-0. At the time I didn't even know the difference between FA Cup matches and regular season ones; I just had read that Fulham were playing that day, so I turned up at the stadium midway through the first half, bought a ticket and went in. What I saw delighted me enough to keep me coming back, and it was only weeks later when I bought my first season ticket. Which made for some awful symmetry these past couple weeks when I watched lowly Barnsley defeat first Liverpool and now Chelsea in this years FA Cup competition, from which Fulham had already been ignominiously dispatched by even lowlier Bristol Rovers.

For Americans who don't know what the FA Cup is, a gross oversimplification would be that it's more or less England's equivalent to the Super Bowl, with a couple of significant differences, one being that all teams, not just those in the upper half of the standings, have the opportunity to enter the playoffs. And when I say "all teams," I mean that literally: it's not just for Premier League teams or even just for First, Second and Third Division teams (which would be the equivalent of minor league teams in American sports. Any semi-professional or even amateur team can theoretically enter, and though it's been a while since this happened, can even win. To understand this in American terms, imagine a sandlot team from a local baseball league working its way up through the ranks to play the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Most years you can count on the winner of the Cup coming from the same small group that usually wins the Premier League title: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, with occasional appearances by Liverpool or a handful of other clubs. But this year, all these teams have already been eliminated, some of them rather humiliatingly so by teams far smaller. In fact the final four for this year's Cup is composed of stalwart nonentities Barnsley, Cardiff, West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth, of whom only Portsmouth are in the Premier League at all.

But watching Barnsley, who are struggling to hang on in their own division, take apart two star-studded multi-millionaire teams has been sheer delight, and a perfect example of why the English love the FA Cup so much: the opportunity to see the high and mighty brought down a peg. There's a sympathy for the underdog in almost all cultures, I suspect, but I doubt that it's refined and cultivated anywhere else to the extent it it is in England. "He wants taking down a peg or two" is language nearly any Englishman can relate to, and apparently I lived there long enough for its spirit to have thoroughly rubbed off on me.

The downside of this is that if/when Fulham get relegated to a lower division at the end of this dismal season, I'll get scant sympathy, even from friends. They'll be too quick to remind me instead of the couple hundred million pounds owner Mohammed al-Fayed splashed out on the team back when they were riding high, and the never-realized promises that we were going to be "the Manchester United of the south." In other words, almost everyone not a dyed-in-the-wool Fulham supporter, especially fans of the lower division teams we beat up on our way to the top division, will think it absolutely hilarious to see us come sliding back down again. They'll be singing, "Going down, going down, going down" and "Premier League, you're having a laugh" to us for the rest of this season and into the next. Ah well, perhaps in that light, being 3,000 miles away isn't so bad after all.

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