When the customs agent at Heathrow asked me the purpose of my visit to the UK and I told him it was to watch Fulham play in the Europa League semi-final, he said, “We’re all pulling for Fulham tonight.”
This is not the sort of thing Fulham fans are used to hearing. It’s not that people have ever particularly hated our team, more like they just haven’t ever found a particular reason to care about it.
Well, no longer. As the last English team to survive in European competition this year, people are indeed pulling for us, and really, it’s hard not to. It wasn’t always this way. As I looked out over the assembled masses going absolutely mental after last night’s come-from-behind victory, I had to admit that never in my wildest imaginings had I envisioned anything like this.
Except for those who support the likes of Manchester United or Real Madrid, moments like these are rare in football. Perhaps once in a decade – or maybe a generation – you’ll experience the occasional fleeting bits of ecstasy punctuated by years upon years of scoreless draws, blatantly unjust or incompetent refereeing, being taunted by visiting fans whose team has just humiliated you on your home ground, and for this privilege you’ll have paid out a fortune on tickets, programs, and away travel. My personal nadir – and it’s fairly minor compared with what some longtime Fulham supporters have endured – came on a diabolically frozen February night when I sat shivering with a few thousand other diehard fans waiting for the delayed kickoff (the opposing team’s coach had broken down) of a meaningless second division clash.
I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, and as the time ticked away, with no certainty that the match would end up being played at all, I thought how much more sensible it would be to just go back to my lovely, warm home, and I thought some more about how ridiculous and pointless it was to have paid out £12 or whatever (needless to say, this was a while ago) when in fact they should have been paying me to endure such conditions. Then I looked out across the pitch at the Fulham Football Club sign adorning the ramshackle old Stevenage Road stand and realized that, logic and common sense be damned, there was no place on earth I would rather be at that particular moment.
Many of my friends, and most of my family, don’t even pretend to understand my devotion to football in general and Fulham in particular, and I find it a little mysterious myself. I’m not that keen on most other sports, and now that I live in America, I’m reduced to spending hours hunched over my laptop to watch flickering or static images of Fulham matches being streamed (illegally, no doubt) over the internet when, if I were a bit more normal, I could enjoy a virtually nonstop diet of baseball, basketball, hockey and American football in dazzling widescreen HD.
But those sports just don’t do it for me the way English football does (okay, in a pinch I’ll watch Italian football, or even Spanish or German or Dutch), and so here I am back in London facing the delightful prospect of seeing four Fulham matches in a fortnight (five if I can sort out a way to get to Hamburg for the Europa League final) while also indulging another of my curious passions: British politics. I’ve been here for at least part of every general election campaign since 1987, and I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that I’m knowledgeable on the subject – or at least more interested – than most people who are actually able to vote.
I had only recently moved to London when Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, and after having been up almost all night watching the returns, a group of us were standing at the bus stop on a gloriously warm and sunny May morning, thinking that the distinctly un-English weather heralded a new and better era. Until, after waiting some 20 minutes for a bus that should have been there in 5, the mood shifted and someone remarked, “New government, same old rubbish.”
Which foreshadowed much of what people would say over the next 13 years: New Labour promised much, but like so much of modern British life, was primarily occupied with style over substance. Tony Blair seemed like such a likable, idealistic and earnest chap that it was difficult not to be swept along by his flights of fancy rhetoric, but over time it became painfully clear that he was a lot better at talking than doing.
Blair’s enthusiasm was probably the main reason I was initially open to George Bush’s argument in favor of what turned out to be the insane and hideously destructive war in Iraq. True, I never actually supported it, but for the first year or so I was willing to consider the possibility that it made sense, even if I couldn’t see it. After all, Tony was a very clever guy; surely he couldn’t be taken in by Bush if there wasn’t something to all those WMD claims, could he?
Well, apparently he could, or, if you buy the premise put forth in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, he and/or his wife were CIA plants and Britain ceased being an independent country long ago. Which would make these elections I find so fascinating rather pointless after all, wouldn’t it? Rather like football, though at least in football I sincerely don’t believe the results to be predetermined.
Anyway, I had to miss last night’s debate among the three party leaders in favor of attending the Fulham match, but I’ve listened to it being dissected on BBC Five Live for the last 12 hours or so (I fell asleep with the radio on), and it sounds as though momentum is shifting back toward the Conservatives and David Cameron after a couple weeks of people daring to believe that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats might pull off a result even more stunning than Fulham has managed.
Almost consigned to the sidelines is poor old Gordon Brown, who nobody seems to be feeling much sympathy for nowadays. Odd to think, in fact, that technically he’s still Prime Minister, commanding, as he does, less support than any Labour leader since Michael Foot led the party into electoral exile with the manifesto that became known as “the longest suicide note in history.” Foot at least deserved respect for the strength of his principles and character, as out of step as they might have been with the Britain of 1983; Brown seems to stand for nothing in particular, and it’s a mystery why he was so hellbent on forcing Blair from office when he apparently had no idea what he wanted to do once he’d become Prime Minister himself.
There’s something Nixonian about the eerily inappropriate smile that appears unbeckoned on the Brown visage at unpredictable and awkward moments; it can be almost painful to watch, as it so clearly goes against his nature. Better to look glum and dour (which is how everyone thinks of Brown anyway) than a vacantly grinning mental patient.
That being said, my own political sympathies remain more closely aligned with Labour than the other parties, but without credible leadership, it’s not likely the party would be able to accomplish much even if it miraculously manages to limp back into power. A few years in the wilderness are probably in order, along with a purge of most of the remaining placeholders, timeservers and hangers-on from the New Labour era.
Which means the most effective opposition, assuming the New Conservatives (David Cameron either constructed himself or was constructed as a center-right version of the Tony Blair blueprint) take power, will be the Liberal Democrats, whose own leader is also a Blair clone, albeit a somewhat more convincing one (only because you don’t really know him yet, certain cynics assure me). The real excitement next week will come if nobody gets a majority in Parliament and we get to go through a week or three of backroom deals and chicanery as the various parties try to cobble together a coalition capable of governing. Whatever happens, I’ll be here watching avidly and commenting excitedly for the two or three of you that actually care.
As long as it doesn’t conflict with the football, of course.