Appreciating the Other Game of Football

By Michael Walsh

My experience and knowledge of English football doesn’t stretch far past my days playing in my town’s youth league, a few games of FIFA 10 and a handful of televised viewings. But there was something extraordinary about my visit to Loftus Road Stadium in Shephard’s Bush, London to see home club Queens Park Rangers take on the visiting Derby County.

Coming from a lifetime of supporting North American sports, particularly baseball, American football and hockey, there was something absolutely refreshing about the experience of taking in another culture’s game. The supporters there just get it. It’s their game, it’s their club and it’s their way of life. There didn’t seem to be a soul inside that stadium that didn’t understand the process.

And that dedication to their club became evident right from the kickoff. Fans would cheer and jeer at the most minor positive or negative outcomes. A good clear? That player gets a respectful applause. A good scoring chance? The stadium erupts with a rowdy response. The referee makes a poor call in the other team’s favor? You might want to cover your child’s ears for a few minutes.

In American sports, I’ve found fan bases of both major and minor league teams to be a mixture of diehard fans, those who will applaud when a defenseman on their hockey team makes a nice keep in at the blue line on a power play, and casual fans, those who will run to buy a pretzel when Alex Rodriguez is coming to the plate with the bases loaded late in a game. But the QPR supporters all seemed to understand. Etiquette and knowledge were first rate inside Loftus Road Stadium. It was a refreshing alternate to the business-first sports model North America has adopted.

And even though the Rangers play in the Football League Championship, a step below the Premier League that hosts some of England’s best clubs, the fans stick to their blue and white striped players through thick and thin. The club finished 11th last season and currently sit 18th this year, not far from the threat of being in the relegation pool. The team hasn’t seen the Premier League since it was relegated in 1996 and has spent time since then playing in various tier two leagues. This kind of passion is hardly rivaled anywhere else.

More than just the atmosphere of sitting among the 12,569 devoted and energetic supporters on the dreary and rainy night impressed me. The game itself was more exciting than I imagined, with QPR dominating play the majority of the game. After a few misses and huge saves from the Derby keeper, the Rangers finally netted one during stoppage time at the end of the first half. It sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy, one that I could not help join.

I found myself becoming more and more fond of the Rangers and their fans throughout the rest of the game, and it’s not because they share their name with my favorite hockey team, the New York Rangers. With a raucous crowd and supportive chants soaring through the stands, QPR struggled to keep the lead, giving up a goal to Derby. You could feel the unease of the dedicated supporters around the stadium as the referee made a couple of questionable calls that infuriated fans young and old, leading to the use of a few expletives.

The game eventually ended as a 1-1 draw, a rather unsatisfactory result from an amazing experience. Fans filed out of Loftus Road Stadium and into the rain before departing into the rather quaint neighborhood surrounding it.

I admittedly won’t become a diehard fan of the game or the club from one lone experience. What I have gathered is a new respect and engagement level for everything the game of football means to the people that live and breath it. I’ll most certainly be tuned into this year’s FIFA World Cup and I’ll mostly certainly play FIFA 10 more often than before, but I probably won’t return to many soccer games unless I’m lucky enough to head back to England.