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An American in London, or how I fell in love with The Beautiful Game

Seventeen years and seventeen days ago, I fell in love in the back of a cab. I was in a London black cab on my way to Wembley Stadium, which is like riding a rickshaw to the Great Wall of China or a camel to the Great Pyramid of Giza. That is to say, I was traveling to a postcard icon in a postcard icon when I fell in love with soccer.

Seeing Wembley for the first time during a Cowboys-Lions NFL preseason game -- as I was assigned to do that day -- is roughly equal to seeing the Rose Bowl for the first time during the Rose Bowl Flea Market. It was a shame, a fact repeatedly impressed on me by the cab driver, who pointed to a red-shirted striker on a Nike billboard and said: "Now that's proper football, yeah? That's Ian Wright, yeah? He's like your Charles Barkley, yeah? Controvershul, yeah? Plays for Arsenal, yeah?"

For an hour, that cabbie indoctrinated me in all things Arsenal, capping every sentence with "Yeah?" -- as if commanding me to commit his words to memory.

Which I did. That fall -- at my earliest opportunity -- I went to see Wright and Arsenal play at Highbury, their antique stadium in a residential neighborhood of North London. I was a hopeless naïf. At a pub across the street called The Gunners I tried to tip the barman. He looked at the coin I slapped on the bar and gravely slid it back with his index finger, as if we were playing chess and he'd just put me in checkmate.

And he had. I had no way of escaping The Gunners -- pub or team -- nor any desire to do so. That Arsenal team wasn't particularly good: They had finished 10th the previous year, the Premier League's inaugural season. Nor were they terribly exotic: Virtually every member of the squad was English. But the game was played with a pace and skill I hadn't seen growing up in Minnesota, exposed only to the Bears of Bloomington Lincoln High and the Minnesota Kicks of the NASL.

And so I instantly became obsessed. I silently vowed to see as much live English soccer as a man could possibly do while living in Minneapolis.

The following season, I traveled to St. James' Park in Newcastle. The man seated next to me pointed to a spectator with better seats than ours and said, "That guy there, he's the next prime minister." But I didn't care. I was looking beyond Tony Blair, to Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan and forward Peter Beardsley.

English soccer had the same appeal as college football in America, Keegan told me that afternoon. "You can look at the old black-and-white pictures of men playing the same game a century earlier," he said. And in doing so you could see an unbroken chain leading directly to this very moment.

At Loftus Road, home ground of Queens Park Rangers, I met Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish, Keegan's successor as Liverpool striker. Our meeting now seems impossibly long ago --1995. And it is: Dalglish's Blackburn team would win the Premier League that year, the last -- and first -- time someone other than Arsenal, Man United or Chelsea would do so.

Indeed, I fell for soccer so long ago that Man City winger Shaun Wright-Phillips -- 11 years old on August 8, 1993, when I saw his father on a billboard -- has since had a long professional career of his own. Arsenal now features zero to two English players on any given Saturday. Highbury became a block of luxury flats.

But my enthusiasm for the game hasn't dimmed. On the contrary: If my baseball and basketball fandom peaked in high school, at age 17, well that's how old I am as a soccer fan: 17 years and 17 days. Perhaps I am peaking now, like fall foliage.

If I'm watching an entire sports event on TV these days, start to finish, it is almost certainly an EPL match. (I can't stand that acronym, EPL, which always puts me in mind of the Evansville Public Library.) The league is as crass as any in America, every bit as mercenary and willfully anti-competitive (there were three 6-0 scores just last weekend).

But no matter. The flame still burns, fueled by those first few years of intense passion, when I was going to Wembley for the Coca-Cola Cup Final (Liverpool v. Bolton, to judge by the commemorative drinking glasses still in the cupboard) or the '95 Cup-Winners Cup semifinal at Highbury, when Arsenal played a Sampdoria team managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson.

That season, for fun, I flew from Minneapolis to New York to Glasgow, then immediately drove to Dornoch, in the north of Scotland, to play 36 holes of golf. That night, over whiskey, in a hotel bar -- not having slept for 36 hours -- I watched Arsenal play Real Zaragoza in the Cup-Winners Cup final on TV. In the waning seconds of extra time, just before the game would go to penalties, I saw Zaragoza midfielder Nayim score from the halfway line against Arsenal keeper David Seaman.

In my punch-drunk state, I thought it was a hallucination. Even the dog beneath the bar looked up in disbelief.

A year later, covering Wimbledon, I sat next to Seaman at a Thai restaurant called The Blue Elephant near the Fulham Broadway tube station. Even full of Singha beers, I had the sense not to ask him why he wandered so far off his line in Paris. Instead, I thought The Blue Elephant must be a Michelin-starred culinary temple if the Arsenal and England keeper deigned to eat there.

That week, I saw Seaman again, at Wembley, starting in goal for England against arch-nemesis Germany in the semifinals of the '96 European Championship. I went as a spectator, with a professional footballer named Tony Gale, who had won the Premiership with Blackburn a year earlier after several seasons with West Ham. The hype preceding England-Germany was unlike any I had ever seen before a sporting event, in both tone and magnitude. The instantly infamous headline in The Sun on the day of the game was, tastefully: LET'S BLITZ FRITZ!

Anyone who has read this far knows what happened that night: England lost on penalties, their operatic midfielder Paul Gascoigne having just missed converting a goal-line cross that would have ended the game on a Golden Goal. Leaving Wembley in another black cab afterward -- Gale was driving; the cab belonged to his family -- the defender asked me how old I was.

"Twenty-nine," I said.

He told me I'd better find a love other than soccer or -- it was the first time I had heard the expression applied to life -- "you're gonna pass your sell-by date."

I returned to Minneapolis after two weeks in London lugging, as I always did, a separate suitcase full of soccer books and fanzines. The customs agent at MSP plucked a copy of the Arsenal fanzine One-Nil Down, Two-One Up out of my duffel. He held it by one corner, as if it were a diaper, and said: "What are you, some kind of collector?"

I hung my head. He made "collector" sound like "pornographer."

In that benighted age before the Internet, fanzines were one of the few ways of following English soccer from afar. And so Sportspages, the all-sports bookshop off the Charing Cross Road in London, became the game's literary salon, a place to buy classic books (J.L. Carr's How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The F.A. Cup) and random fanzines (There's Only One F in Fulham).

Ah, Fulham: I was in London last winter when Fulham hosted Shaktar Donetsk in a Europa League match. I wanted to attend, in part to see Shaktar Donetsk, for whom Joe Strummer had named a song, and in part to see Fulham's home ground, Craven Cottage, the best stadium name in world sport. (Craven: "Lacking the least bit of courage; contemptibly fainthearted.")

But it was a cold Thursday night, and my 75-year-old father had just come off knee-replacement surgery, and we watched in a hotel bar instead, a little pint-glass icon in the corner of the screen. The icon signified that the bar was showing the telecast legally. But looking at it, superimposed on the screen, all I could see was the intersection of two loves: Soccer and beer.

And now my soccer-fan-self is 17 years and 17 days old. In less than a year, my soccer-fan-self will be old enough to drink.

I know where I want to celebrate that milestone. Before Sportspages -- like so many other independent bookstores -- closed for good, I used to go out for beers with the staff after business hours. During one such session, in a chain pub near the Charing Cross tube station, I put a coin in a machine on the wall and hand-cranked out a fistful of peanuts -- one of which, petrified, sheared off part of a molar. To this day, I can't feel that jagged pit in my tooth without thinking of London, and soccer, and Sportspages, and feeling the onset of a crippling hangover.

I've learned countless lessons since then: Never eat peanuts from a box on the wall; never tip a London barman; it's much faster, and cheaper, to take the tube to Wembley. (The new, billion-dollar Wembley, alas; it replaced the drafty one where I fell in love.)

Sitting at home in Connecticut now, hearing Tony Gale do color commentary of EPL games on Fox Soccer Channel, I'll watch with my three kids and think of his Wembley warning about my sell-by date.

I still see friends from Sportspages, sometimes in person, sometimes in print. Our days of driving from London to Leeds to see Arsenal play at Elland Road are over. But they are now producing great football writing of their own. Rob Bagchi of The Guardian is author of The Unforgiven, about Don Revie's Leeds United teams. David Luxton is a literary agent helping to bring into being, among countless other works, Jonathan Wilson's Inverting The Pyramid and Ian Hawkey's Feet of the Chameleon.

Last winter, in London, David and I had lunch at a tapas joint called El Pirata. On the way to our table, he pointed to a framed photo by the bar. It was of Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas, posing in the restaurant.

"Must be a great place," I said.

"I thought you'd like it," David said.