Six o'clock at the Cock 'n Bull, and footy's on the telly. It's a fiver to get in, but this is Man United in an FA Cup match, and the only empty seat is in the Gents. Lager taps bow like Japanese businessmen; a telephone rings off its cradle, cartoon-style. "People are always calling for the football results," says the publican, a Liverpudlian. "Drives the staff mad." Ninety-two professional soccer teams play in England's Football Association on any given Saturday between August and May, and their fans require up-to-the-minute match accounts. For no other league in the world fills pubs and pint glasses at six o'clock. In the morning. In Santa Monica, Calif.
The team names that carom in off the satellite each week are magically evocative, like stickers on a steamer trunk: Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur, Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers and West Ham United. At the Cock 'n Bull an English expat named Pat says he supports Aston Villa.
"That's like being a Cleveland Indian fan," says his mate, 36-year-old Lawrence Emanuel, an ex-Londoner who supports Arsenal. "You know what Villa have in common with a dodgy brassiere, don't you? Neither one of 'em's got any cups."
Cups, of course, are trophies, and now you know why Villa fans are always getting slagged. When star David Piatt left the Birmingham-based club for riches with Bari in the Italian league, the captain of England's national team was asked if he missed the Villa. "No," Piatt replied. "I live in one."
As for London's Arsenal (the Arse to its legion of dislikers), the Gunners have stayed in the highest of England's four divisions for 77 consecutive years. That's longer than any other side has avoided "relegation," the annual doomsday rite by which teams that finish at the bottom of the standings are cast into the fires of a lower division. Emanuel drives a car festooned with Arsenalia, eliciting thumbs-ups from countless L.A. motorists. Alas, "most of 'em think I work at the Arsenal," he says, sighing. "It's a bar on Pico."
Whereas the Arsenal Football Club is on the Avenell Road in North London, near The Gunners pub, the Arsenal Tavern, the Gunners Fish Bar, the Arsenal Cafe, the Arsenal Wine Store and the Arsenal Motor Garage. Simply take the Piccadilly line to the Arsenal tube station, where—as a jug-eared Arsenal-shirted teenager recently told me—"People are always nickin' the Arsenal signs."
Indeed, the far-flung flocks that follow England's most famous football clubs—Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and its neighborhood rival, Tottenham—make the collective fandom of the Chicago Bulls look quaint by comparison. "I am writing to you from Bulgaria," begins a letter in the March issue of the Arsenal fan-club magazine, Gunflash, a publication with roughly the reach of the Gideon Bible. "My name is Momchil Chavdarov. I am 17 years old and a keen Arsenal fan...."
On Saturdays from August to May soccer pilgrims pour forth from the Arsenal tube stop. Down a narrow street lined with Victorian houses, sits a stadium known simply as Highbury. Above the entrance to the North Bank stand is a regal sign in red and white. WELCOME TO HIGHBURY, it Says. THE HOME OF FOOTBALL.
The words are a model of British understatement, everyone entering agrees.
England is the birthplace of soccer. The very word comes from the second syllable in Association Football, which is the proper name of the game governed by the Football Association, whose FA Cup final was played May 20 for the 114th time. It is the oldest, most prestigious domestic cup competition in soccer: a season-long knockout tournament, played in addition to the regular 10-month league schedule, that prunes more than 450 English teams—from amateur sides to international powers—to just two. That pair plays before royalty and a barmy army of 80,000 others between the twin towers of Wembley, the most sacred sight in soccer, in northwest London.