One of the things I began to do as my family moved along into the late 1990s was to pick a team from the English Premier League, almost at random, to follow once we finally got the internet.
We call it soccer, they call it football or footie over there.
My interest was sparked by the arrival of the Columbus Crew and the MLS in the US. I decided I needed to learn a little more about the game even though I had begun to play it, watch it, occasionally referee it (kids games, when the official failed to show), and eventually coach it.
I knew absolutely nothing about the league, other than many people considered it to be the best in the world. Also, not being able to read Spanish, Italian or German was a factor in my deciding to follow along with the English league. I came to find out that not only is there a Premier League, but there are numerous other divisions below it, similar to baseball's minor leagues, in which teams all over England play. Then, below the professional teams, there are also an almost innumerable amount of amateur/semi-pro teams going, and all highly organized into leagues, and playing not only for league championship trophies, but also for numerous Cups as well.
The most amazing thing I found was at every level of the professional game not only is there a season-long competition to win the league title, but there is also a dog-eat-dog effort to achieve "promotion" and avoid "relegation". In the professional level, when a team wins the league title, it automatically gets promoted to the next-higher professional level. A team can also gain promotion by winning a playoff between (normally) the four teams which finish 2-5 in the league standings, or table. The promotion battles are tremendous fun to a fan, and for the lucky supporters are exhilarating.
Last Monday I watched a review show of the wrap up to the Premier League's season, in which the games that were featured were all concerned with the teams who were fighting to stay up (avoid the drop/go down/be relegated) in the Premiership, and not have to play the next season in a lower-tier of the football pyramid, as it is known. Staying up is literally worth millions of dollars (well, pounds actually) to each club. The focus of the show on these relegation battles brought home to me just how passionate the fans are about their football clubs. The agony on their faces as their club gave up a goal or just missed a score was incredible to see. These people have followed their hometown teams all their lives, and almost live and die with each win and loss throughout the year. The history of their clubs lives on at each match, as almost all the fans spend the entire match singing and chanting the songs they have grown up with since they were children.
Thousands of fans at these matches had earphones, listening not to the call of the games they were watching, but tuned in to other teams' games to keep abreast of the action as their lads fought to stay in the top flight league. In one case, a packed stadium at Hull City remained so even after their game ended as they were awaiting word of a hoped-for loss by a rival, after their club had kept them on edge by playing to a draw. The players also stayed out on the pitch (field to us) to await their fate. When word finally came with the hoped-for result, meaning they were staying up, the fans exploded with relief, and the video board proudly showed "WE ARE STAYING UP!" After waiting 104 years to play in the top English division, Hull City survived by a whisker to stay and play there again next year.
One of the largest clubs, Newcastle United, with some of the longest-suffering fans in the sport, had their hopes dashed after losing their last game. They were going down, and the tears streaming down the faces of their fans said it all. Even the players were hanging their heads at what had happened. Supporters till the bitter end, the Newcastle fans then stood and sang to their players, and displayed "We will support you forever" and "Newcastle till I die" banners as they began to second level of English football next season. And it begins again in August.
It was a great reminder about how much passion those fans put into following their teams, a level any team of any sport in the US cannot hope to match.