As a young child, my worldview was admittedly pretty narrow. I knew of places like London, Paris, Madrid, and Berlin through my fascination with history, but like most American six-year-olds, I couldn’t tell you what they looked like, or contextualize their locations.
All of that changed when I was introduced to the wonder of the Barclay’s Premier League. I wandered downstairs around 7 am on one autumn Saturday to find my father and brother already wide awake, sitting on the couch and watching a soccer game. I had heard them mention the league in passing, but I never really took the time to find out about it until this morning. I sat down in front of the couch and tried to follow along.
I soon found out that the team in the blue kits was called Chelsea, and immediately my mind raced. In the US, all of the sports teams have their home city in their names, so I fantasized of a beautiful city called Chelsea. It was by the sea and was full of flowers and greenery. Those thoughts vanished once my dad told me that it was actually a team from London, but I was still fascinated. For someone whose home teams are called the “Flyers” and the “Eagles” team names like Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers incited a more whimsical feeling that may have helped draw my young self to the world of football.
With the help of my brother’s jerseys I learned more about the players. It was exciting to me that Nani, who is from an island with a population of less than 300,000, could play for a giant club such as Manchester United, whose stadium could seat more than half of his home city. Players from countries big and small, from all backgrounds, and with all different playing styles came together to – despite linguistic and cultural barriers – find themselves united by a game. It’s really, in essence, what football is all about.
As I got older, I began to see the league as more than just a beautiful melting pot. Still, for all of its trials, it found a way to remain triumphant. The topic of a sixth-grade research project of mine was the Hillsborough disaster. A day that was supposed to bring excitement led to absolute tragedy, and through the immense hardship that followed, Liverpool stood with the families of the victims.
Throughout my research, the idea of the motto “You’ll never walk alone” really stuck with me. Isn’t that what it means to be a part of a team? You’re never on your own. There’s someone out there who you have at least one thing in common with, and just that one bond is often strong enough to overcome all sorts of barriers. Sometimes all you need is a common enemy to form a friendship, and sometimes that enemy is the opposing squad for 90 minutes.
Hillsborough was a research project, an event that happened before I was born. But since I started following the Premier League, I’ve obviously realized it’s not perfect. Instances of racism and discrimination among players and supporters have plagued many clubs. Luis Suárez, now infamous for a variety of reasons, was banned for eight matches and fined for making racist comments to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. John Terry has also found himself in the headlines on multiple occasions for making racially charged comments, both on the pitch and off, and that’s not the only incident associated with Chelsea. The vast majority of the world, from fans to FIFA officials, was disgusted when Chelsea supporters refused to let a black man board a car on the Paris Metro.
Football gives fans a place to be passionate supporters, but unfortunately it also allows bigots a platform to spew hate and disguise it as support for their team. More and more clubs are refusing to turn a blind eye to incidents, instead working with organizations like Show Racism the Red Card to educate players and fans alike. The Premier League can still do better, of course, but the push they’re making to make football games an enjoyable experience for every fan should be par for the course in every league.
Since starting to follow the league, I’ve been lucky enough to attend two games, both involving Arsenal. I was eleven years old when I went to the first one, and up until that point, I hadn’t yet declared a team. I had passively supported Tottenham when my history teacher informed me that that was his favorite team, but only to not stir the pot in class. I had acted ambivalently when my brother covered his room in Chelsea decals. I was infatuated with the spirit of Liverpool during my aforementioned sixth-grade project, but the team never really felt like it was mine. When I entered the Emirates stadium, all of that changed.
It was freezing cold when we exited the tube station, so we followed the lead of the mob of supporters and decked ourselves out in Arsenal hats and scarves, courtesy of the stands set up by residents of the area. It felt real; the community was involved with the team and everyone was passionate about the game. Despite being 3,000 miles away, it felt like home as we made jokes with the people selling food.
Five years later, nothing has come close to the feeling I had when we got to our seats. We were in the second to last row at the very top of the stadium, but it felt just as surreal as if I was sitting next to Arsene Wenger on the bench. The fans around us were from all over the world, and we didn’t share a common language, but for 90 minutes we were the best of friends, united by our common love of the North London team. Banners belonging to global supporters’ groups hung around the stadium, and one from my hometown hung next to ones from places I can only imagine. That’s when I knew that Arsenal was my team.
After attending the game, I had a new dream: to play for Arsenal. I envisioned myself as the first female Premier League player, leading a change that would make women’s football even more popular than men’s. I would make headlines. I’d travel around the world, inspiring young girls like myself to break into male-dominated fields without fear. I’ve since realized that that wouldn’t be necessary, as Arsenal fields a successful women’s side, but I continue to try and emulate the creativity and youthful spirit of the players every time I step on the pitch. Watching them made me unafraid to slide on defense or take a shot from outside of the 18, and some of my best memories on the field are when those improbable shots went in, or when my goalie high-fived me for making the tackle.
Now, as I anticipate the start of the new Premier League season, I’m reminded of the beauty of the globalization of football (a beauty many don’t think about when they criticize the modern game). When I turn on my TV at 7 am on August 13th I will be just one of the millions tuning in to see the start of the new season. When I tweet about the Arsenal game the next day, I’ll be one of the millions sharing their opinion on the match’s events. And when Arsenal wins the league this year, I’ll be one of the millions celebrating all over the world. The Premier League is, for me, a way to be part of something much bigger than myself.