If you want a short cut into the heart of British culture, watch the British at play. They’re fierce and passionate about their sport, whether participating or watching. The mood of the nation is more closely aligned to the success of its international teams in major competition than to budget announcements from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or even the weather.
The British invented – or at least laid down the modern rules for – many of the world’s most popular spectator sports, including cricket, tennis, golf, rugby and football. Trouble is, the national teams aren’t always so good at playing them although recent years have seen some notable success stories. But a mixed result doesn’t dull the fans’ enthusiasm. Every weekend, thousands of people turn out to cheer their favourite team, and sporting highlights such as Wimbledon or the Derby keep the entire nation enthralled, while the biggest sporting event of all – the Olympic Games – is coming to London in 2012.
Despite what the fans may say in Madrid or São Paulo, the English football league has some of the finest teams and players in the world. It’s the richest too, with multi-million-pound sponsorship deals regularly clinched by powerful agents. At the top of the tree is the Premier League for the country’s top 20 clubs, although the hegemony enjoyed by superclubs Arsenal, Liverpool and globally renowned (and part US-owned) Manchester United has been challenged in recent years by former underdogs Chelsea, thanks to the seemingly bottomless budget of Russian owner Roman Abramovich.
The football season lasts from August to May, so seeing a match can easily be included in most visitors’ itineraries – but tickets for the big games in the upper division are like gold dust, and cost £20 to £50 even if you’re lucky enough to find one.
A popular witticism holds that football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, while rugby is the other way around. True or not, rugby is very popular, especially since England became world champions in 2004; it’s worth catching a game for the display of skill (OK, and brawn), and the fun atmosphere on the terraces.
There are two variants of the game: rugby union is played in southern England, Wales and Scotland, while rugby league is the main sport in northern England, although there is a lot of crossover.
The main season for club matches is roughly September to Easter, while the international rugby union calendar is dominated by the annual Six Nations Championship (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy) between January and April. It’s usual for the Scots to support Wales, or vice versa, when either team is playing the ‘old enemy’ England.
Cricket has its origins in southeast England, with the earliest written record dating to 1598. It became an international game during Britain’s colonial era, when it was exported to the countries of the Commonwealth, particularly the Indian subcontinent, the West Indies and Australasia.
To outsiders (and many locals) the rules and terminology may appear ridiculously arcane and confusing, but if you’re patient and learn the intricacies, you could find cricket as enriching and enticing as the many thousands of Brits (especially the English) who remain glued to their radio or TV all summer.
County cricket is the mainstay of the domestic game, while international one-day games and five-day test matches are played against sides such as Australia and the West Indies at landmark grounds like Lord's in London, Edgbaston in Birmingham and Headingley in Leeds.
Tennis is widely played at club and regional levels, but the best-known tournament is the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon when tennis fever sweeps through the country for the last week of June and the first week of July. In between matches, the crowds traditionally feast on strawberries and cream; that’s 28 tonnes of strawberries and 7000L of cream annually, to be precise.
Current British tennis darlings are Andy Murray (who has ranked at number 3 in the world) and 14-year-old Laura Robson (who won the girls’ junior championship in 2008). Demand for seats at Wimbledon always outstrips supply, but to give everyone an equal chance the tickets are sold through a public ballot. You can also take your chance on the spot: about 6000 tickets are sold each day (but not the last four days) and queuing at dawn should get you into the ground.