If you want to fully understand a country, you have to understand its sporting rituals. And in the United Kingdom, that means deciphering soccer (or football, as its known to 62 million Brits). The beautiful game was refined, popularized and given rules in leisure-conscious Victorian Britain.
By BRENDAN SAINSBURY
The Washington Post
Football enjoys quasi-sacred status in the country of its conception, a worshipful feeling best summed up by the late, great Liverpool coach Bill Shankly. A no-nonsense Scot, he once famously declared: Football isnt a matter of life or death. Its more important than that.
And theres no better place to see Britains soccer passion than in the city of Manchester, a onetime powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution where the countrys National Football Museum opened this summer.
Im an expat Brit living in Vancouver, British Columbia, but soccer is in my genes and the thing I miss most about my native country. So news of the museums opening had me frantically readjusting my annual family vacation plans.
After several years of paying lip service to hockey and baseball, I concluded that my Canadian wife and 6-year-old son were ripe for a bit of soccer indoctrination in the games spiritual home.
The museums location is no accident. Manchester plays host to two of the worlds most iconic soccer clubs: the trophy-hoarding Red Devils of Manchester United and their traditionally inferior sky-blue rivals, Manchester City.
The balance between Manchesters red and blue halves shifted in May 2012 when, after a captivating nine-month-long duel, Manchester City pipped reigning champions Manchester United to win soccers revered Premier League title with quite literally the last kick of the season.
It was Citys first title win in 44 years, a moment of sporting drama akin to Bobby Thomsons shot heard round the world that won baseballs National League pennant for the New York Giants in 1951.
Feeding off the frenzy, my family and I arrived in Manchester soon after the museums July inauguration. The bold collection of more than 2,500 exhibits (chosen from an archive of approximately 140,000) was unveiled a couple of weeks before Mancunian Danny Boyles dazzling London Olympics Opening Ceremony and served to remind visiting fans like me that Britain can still deliver top-class entertainment outside the Olympics-hosting capital.
The expanded new collection is modeled on an earlier soccer museum bivouacked from 2001 to 2010 in the Lancashire town of Preston. The current museum is housed in the futuristic Urbis building, which was built in 2002 as part of Manchester city centers regeneration after a devastating IRA bomb blast in 1996.
The exhibits are spread over four floors, with the higher levels (three and four) hosting temporary exhibitions, while levels one and two are dedicated to permanent displays about soccer history, the media, fans, stadiums and the global game.
Fortunately for my son, we found them interspersed with half a dozen kid-friendly interactive activities, including a virtual penalty shootout and a ball-passing accuracy test.
On first impression, the collection appeared vast and all-encompassing, even to my well-trained eyes, covering subjects from womens soccer to the art of sports commentary. Controversial modern topics, such as the issue of stadium safety, which blighted the game during my youth, werent brushed under the carpet.
A poignant illustrated commentary cataloguing the Bradford stadium fire of 1985 and the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, when 96 fans were crushed to death at a match, brought back chilling memories.
As a self-confessed soccer nerd, I found the history section particularly fascinating. Opening with a 1594 quote from Shakespeares Comedy of Errors (Am I so round with you as you with me, that like a football you do spurn me thus?) thats designed perhaps to refute claims that the game originated somewhere other than Britain, it traveled through an impressive array of well-preserved exhibits: a book of soccers first written rules, dating from 1863. Details of the worlds first international match between England vs. Scotland in 1872. An FA Cup trophy from 1896. Shirts worn by Stanley Matthews, Bobby Moore and Diego Maradona. And most poignant for a Brit like me the ball used in Englands 1966 World Cup victory.
Tearing myself away from grainy photos of Old Etonians in Victorian hats, I was impressed by the way the museum branched into broader areas, tackling the image of soccers first trend-setting superstar, George Best, the mathematics of team tactics and the role of those forgotten heroes, the referees. A screen replaying various fouls and infringements during a game invited me to be the referee before evaluating my rulings. After scoring two out of five, I resolved never to loudly question an officials judgment again.
Going to a soccer game is no longer the cheap day out it was when I was a boy. Tickets for Premier League matches start at $75. So it was refreshing to find the National Football Museum is free. The optional interactive activities the quirkiest of which allowed me to commentate off an autocue to a recorded game cost extra.
You buy credits stored on a computerized ticket that are then swiped through a sensor in the various activity zones. The activities were a big hit with my young son, who ran himself ragged on the energetic pass master station. Fortunately, I was able to revive him in a ground-level cafe.
Any technical, directional or soccer trivia questions we had were dealt with by a well-briefed team of roaming aides, all of whom helped to ram home the museums abiding message: its underlying inclusiveness. This isnt just a dull list of statistics for fact-collecting geeks, as my soccer-neophyte wife will happily testify. Instead, by capturing the passion, style and drama of the game, the National Football Museum reveals soccer for what it really is: a rallying national obsession, as British as William Shakespeare or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
National Football Museum
What: A new museum that opened this summer dedicated to all things soccer. There are four floors of more than 2,500 exhibits, including interactive activities and permanent exhibits on historical soccer history, the media, fans, stadiums and the global game.
Where: The museum is housed in the futuristic Urbis building, which was built in 2002 in the wake of a devastating IRA bomb blast in 1996 in Manchester, England.
Cost: Free, but some activities cost extra.
Sainsbury is a freelance writer based in British Columbia. He has written more than two dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet.