Football Tourism: London

Alternate title: Soccer Tourism: London. (Since I’m an American, and all, and we call it soccer or whatever.)

When you live 4,024 miles away from your beloved team, you’re forced to get creative if you want to see them play. Yes, Chelsea Football Club played a preseason match in Minneapolis two years ago, but I needed to see them play a league match in London. Rumors were swirling early last season that Chelsea’s stadium Stamford Bridge would be torn down before the 2018-19 campaign, so it was important that I visit the historic home grounds before it would be gone forever. These rumors, of course, were quashed this summer when new stadium plans were put on hold. Since I couldn’t see the future, I felt a sense of urgency. Plus, I needed to visit London, the hometown of my great-grandmother, and have some fun in a global city.

Pete and I met in the MSP airport for the flight to London. He grew up in Minneapolis and lived here until a couple years back when he moved to San Francisco for work. I was finishing my (first) gin and tonic at an airport bar when I was blindly hugged from behind. The week was off to a great start.

It was also in the MSP airport when I decided to document every drink of the trip. This idea was quickly abandoned after the third beer because of the presumed horrors of looking through dozens and dozens and dozens of photos of each of my consumed beverages. Drinking at college levels when you’re 32 on vacation and tracking every drink is a good way to convince someone that you have a problem, which you don’t actually have. So it was for the best to end this part and just enjoy the beer and wine and gin on my trip.

Our match tickets were acquired through the Chelsea In America (CIA for short) supporter group. The club sets aside a fixed number of tickets for supporter groups around the world. I requested the most expensive tickets I could find–midfield, lower rows of the second level, right behind the benches–because if I’m going to spend $1,000+ on a plane ticket, I might as well spend a few extra American dollars to get a good view of the match. It was 100% worth every penny/pence.

Though the purpose of our trip was to spend 90 minutes (plus extra time) on Fulham Road, we chose to stay across town in Shoreditch. Compared to the sleepy Chelsea/Kensington/Fulham area, Shoreditch was described to me as the Brooklyn of London: good food, good drinks, vibrant street art, young people, trendy shops, street markets, nightly football leagues beneath the high street station. Our Airbnb shared a block with a pub that had more cask beer than any pub should rightly have. It was perfect.

We spent a few days milling about London. The red-eye flight landed at noon on Wednesday. The match was 5pm on Saturday. A good amount of time to get acquainted. We enjoyed healthy amounts of fish and chips, 3.7% beers, wood-fired pizzas, learning proper English swears, walking 5-10 miles (8.05-16.1 kilometres) every day, looking to the right before crossing the street, and weathering a near-constant mist/drizzle.

We were instructed to pick up our tickets at Stamford Bridget the day before the match. This was a good time to learn the tube system before traveling to Chelsea on match day. Without hesitation, we two Americans boarded the wrong train, found a different train that should take us there, then got off two-stops early and walked a mile or so to the box office. Still, tickets were acquired, Cesar Azpilicueta away shirt purchased, and pints in the Chelsea Pensioner pub consumed.

Saturday finally came around. I woke up with a top-10 hangover. Between spending almost an hour in a local football pub bathroom while pregaming and nearly losing my stomach on the train, I made it to Stamford Bridge in tip-top/awful shape. And let this be a lesson to you. Though 3.7% cask beers may seem weak, if you drink them all day–and I mean all day–they will catch up with you.

The Blues’ opponent was Crystal Palace, a rival from South London, and Chelsea won the league last season. We had ourselves a proper London derby on our hands. The season wasn’t looking good for Chelsea so far. The boys were in second place on Boxing Day, only to see two shock defeats to Watford and Bournemouth in January drop them out of the top four. Manchester City had the title all but decided at the end of October, so all Chelsea sought was a finish in the top four and a place in UEFA Champions League. Crystal Palace, meanwhile, began the season without scoring in any of their first seven matches. They played Chelsea for their eighth match and scored, despite losing the day to the defending champions of England. Palace also beat Chelsea in this fixture of the 2016-17 season, so all were expecting a good match.

Stamford Bridge is a fucking fortress on match day. Blue banners draped over every wall possible, thousands of fans in blue shirts, even the match day police officers appeared to be Chelsea supporters. We walked the long way around the stadium–the “scenic route” as we called it–to find our gate. While most newer American stadiums have just one massive concourse that provides access to the lot of seats, Stamford Bridge seemed to have an assigned gate for every section. We also arrived just as the players’ bus pulled up. Eden Hazard, Willian, and Cesc Fàbregas paused for photos with fans, just as we paused to watch them with craned necks from external stairways. A series of short, narrow halls took us to our seats. I’m 6’2″, and I was almost too tall for some of the doors. Most commercial airliners are more spacious than Stamford Bridge passageways. Even walking into the restroom required walking in sideways because the doorway was too narrow for my modest shoulders. It was dimly lit, weathered, and rich from more than a century of history. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The match started slow, but picked up quickly. Chelsea dominated possession early on. Willian scored after 25 minutes, and a few minutes later, a Davide Zappacosta shot was deflected in for an own goal and Chelsea were up 2-0. My 40,000 fellow attendees then assumed we were in for a rout. We were not. Chelsea dominated play for the rest of the match, though didn’t manage to score again. I learned even more English swears from an older woman next to me. Palace scored at 90′ to set the final score at 2-1 to the good. All the pent-up frustration from the second half was released as an almost-sarcastic cheer when the final whistle sounded.

In a way, this match was symbolic of the Chelsea 2017-18 season. Started strong, failed to finish in that same manner. Still, we enjoyed ourselves for our first match at the Bridge. Pete and I took the long way back from Chelsea to Shoreditch. We walked through the touristy parts of town, our first time seeing the “sights” while in London. A couple pints later, we were in for the night, and more than satisfied with our transatlantic flight decision. I’d fly to Barcelona in two days to see Chelsea play at Camp Nou.