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Bleacher Report – Vikings

A Football Match Where Hooligans Take a Back Seat to Vikings

By By STEVEN ERLANGER

 

By

 

What brought them to London was not the queen or the changing of the guard or the wonders of Shakespeare, but the expanding reach of the National Football League, ever more hungry for the kind of global popularity and income that the world’s “beautiful game,” soccer, represents.

Sunday was Michaelmas Day — the year’s three-quarter mark, in football terms — and normally celebrated with church bells and a goose at dinner, not cheerleaders and American football. But at Britain’s national stadium, Wembley, a sold-out crowd of 83,500 people cheerfully watched a close game, as the Minnesota Vikings won a first victory over the still-winless Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-27.

For Christophe Rousset, 45, a French I.T. specialist living in London, American football appeals “for the strategy of the game,” he said. But as he carried his son Louis, 4, who was dressed in a Miami Dolphins jersey, Mr. Rousset said what he liked the most was the attitude of the other spectators. “There’s a really friendly atmosphere,” he said. “You never have to worry about other supporters giving you grief.”

He was, with nearly a half-million others, wandering the length of a closed-off Regent Street, one of London’s main shopping thoroughfares, on Saturday. The street was a shrine to the N.F.L. and its sponsors, with exhibits, games, burgers and wraps.

There were also areas for children and adults to practice the less fine points of the game, like gawking at the Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders, who were on display. While there were considerable amounts of beer, there was quiet security, too, and lots of families with children and a generally happy, even goofy atmosphere.

During the game, there was the usual kind of entertainment — Gene Simmons of Kiss doing an inevitably off-key version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” soldiers in camouflage uniforms unrolling team colors, flares along the sidelines and, of course, the cheerleaders.

The Steelers, an older, more traditional team founded in 1933, have no cheerleaders. But Neil Lamsdaal, 31; Matt Attwells, 30; and Steve Callaman, 29, had come to Wembley to offer their services. They were dressed in black skirts, yellow knee socks, tight white Steelers T-shirts over large bras and sported wigs of bright pink and platinum blond. “We thought we’d audition,” Mr. Lamsdaal said, waiting with the others in line for some American-style barbecue. “We’d get into the fancy dress.”

Sabrina Jeal, 27, who came with them, said what attracted her “are the different teams and fans coming together.”

“It’s not so hostile as the British game,” she said.

Asked about the mood, a Wembley security guard laughed and said, “If it were our lot, they’d be at each other’s throats, and then blaming us!”

While American football crowds can get surly, the contrast of this game to a British soccer match could not be sharper, said Charles Dagnall, a BBC sports commentator in Leicester and former professional cricketer.

“At a British football match, it’s all tribal,” he said. “No one talks to a stranger. They meet at the pub before, have more to drink at the half and leave straight away.” There is more steady boozing, he said, and the fan who dares stray into the territory of the other team’s fans had best be very careful.

Mr. Dagnall, 37, came to American football by accident, on “the standard British holiday to Florida and Disney World,” when he was overwhelmed by the size of the Tampa stadium and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now he does a weekly podcast on American football that perhaps 10,000 people download, he said.

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