Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why West Ham? East End Humor, Dedication To Flair


(Published in print in the United States – November 2001; reprinted in EX magazine in England)

This story was meant to appear in September, just after I returned from my annual family trip to England and pilgrimage to one of the shrines of that country's soccer culture.
On Sept. 8, I had cemented fandom of English Premiership club West Ham United by traveling seven-plus hours by train, round trip, to watch the Hammers play away at Derby's Pride Park in the Midlands. That journey came two years after I saw the Hammers host Watford at Upton Park in East London on Sept. 11, 1999.
So I was all set to regale readers of our twice-weekly soccer columns with an account of my drinking a few dozen beers with a few thousand of my closest friends on the matchday.
OK, maybe it wasn't really a few dozen beers and maybe my fellow revelers were total strangers, but you get the overall feel of the proposed piece.
Then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred and it all seemed so irrelevant. One of the best days of my life paled in comparison to the morning our world changed forever. By the time I felt like writing about that soccer-filled Saturday again, the European season was in full swing -- and we try to maximize our space here in order to provide you with the news you're so used to seeing.
But the life of an international soccer fan living in America has its intriguing moments. It seemed everywhere I went in pursuit of my passion -- Philadelphia's satellite pub the Dickens Inn, South Jersey Barons matches, the local high school sidelines -- fellow soccer guys would see my claret-and-blue jersey and repeatedly ask the same question: Why did you choose to back West Ham?
Most of the Britons and Irish I see in the aforementioned places, as well as hardcore American fans of the sport (and there are many), support the teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Celtic, Newcastle, Spurs or Liverpool. That's understandable. They have high-profile players and very rich histories. Nearly all of their matches are televised via satellite to worldwide audiences.
But I wanted to choose a team from London, the part of England I know well. My wife Victoria was born in Suffolk and still supports Ipswich Town, although she comes from more of a cricketing family. My twin sons Benjamin and Alexander are still at the age where they change their allegiances on a weekly basis, depending on which club was on TV last or which shirt looks the coolest. (For the record, Ben most mentions Newcastle and Italian club Roma while at play; Alex prefers Everton and Roma, too.)
Already steeped in the history of the world's national teams as a teenager, I gradually warmed to what West Ham stood for upon further discovery in the mid-1990s. Here was a team that housed England's most-revered "football academy," a youth-development system unrivaled until Liverpool pumped out quality youngsters in the 1980s. Manchester United picked up the mantle in the 1990s, but the Hammers had set the precedent.
And it was the way West Ham played its soccer that closed the deal for me. It was a commitment to the beautiful game, to a brand of football easy on the eye. Hammers fans cared first and foremost about how the game looked, with the match result a distant second on the priority list. The game was played "on the floor" (as opposed to the air) and invention was openly encouraged.
My other Euro club is Lazio of Rome (my deceased great-grandmother came to the United States from that city in 1913), but they don't quite hold the sway of the Hammers. Watching the Italian Serie A is like watching the ballet -- and it can be just as moving. But there's a raw nature to the English game that demands attention. (Heck, maybe it's the weather.)
You would have to understand the character of those who inhabit cockney East London to fully appreciate the approach to their Hammers. An eternally humorous bunch, their hardscrabble verve is on full display along Green Street near Upton Park's West Stand. I made that trek for the 1999 match and often stopped in my tracks to take in sights, sounds and smells.
It's a very Indian part of East London. The hot foods and sitars emanating from the shops and streetside stalls mix with a constant banter. The ground holds just under 27,000 but is being revamped this year for a capacity of 40,000-plus. The starting eleven is usually as cosmopolitan as the stadium's urban surroundings.
For most matches this year, the Hammers' main team sheet includes two Frenchmen, a Czech, an Australian, a Trinidadian, four Englishmen, a Scotsman and an Italian. Oh, that Italian -- he's one Paolo Di Canio, their No. 10 shirt, and he's simply the most captivating athlete I've ever watched.
He's talented and outrageous. He promises to, ahem, off himself if the Hammers don't win a trophy during his tenure. He refers to his jersey as a "second skin" and the Upton Park faithful know his dedication is absolute. You see it in the way he throws himself into every tackle, how he leads the stands in the Verdi's "Rigoletto" aria they sing with his name inserted in the right location.
Speaking of which, the songs that fill the air on matchdays provide a fan with whimsy and sheer joy. European soccer in person is an auditory experience. It takes some thought to lyrically modify songs as different from each other as the pop band Spandau Ballet's "Gold" to "Chim Chim Cheree" from "Mary Poppins." But mostly, the Hammers hordes adore Di Canio for scoring the goal that dumped Man United from the fourth round of the FA Cup last season. It was priceless theater.
Clive Morris of Crawley, England recently e-mailed comments to the monthly Hammers News: "The (club's) numerous lows are so low that the occasional highs make you feel so good."
You can keep your big clubs to yourself, lads. I'll be sticking with the claret and blue.