The team wore white. The language was blue.
There’s a helpful sign on the backs of seats in the family section at White Hart Lane, home of Tottenham Hotspur. “Mind your language,” it begins. “The north stand is our family stand,” it continues, with the second part of the sentence boldfaced. “Therefore, our club would like to remind supporters to show consideration for the large number of children and families that occupy this area.” Then, more boldface. “Please refrain from using foul and abusive language or behaviour of a threatening nature.”
When my younger son, Eli, pointed out this stern, bright yellow notice to me, he had a huge grin on his face. He had just turned 10, was earning an allowance for the first time and was ready to expand his vocabulary. This was our second Spurs game since moving to London, and we knew what was coming. As far as he was concerned, White Hart Lane was a safe space where he could learn to cuss.
Sure enough, the obscenities began to rain down a minute or two later, and my two sons could not contain their glee. A player for Manchester City had broken away toward the goal, but at his moment of opportunity he stumbled over, collapsing and then recoiling, his face contorted in agony. We were in the third row, so this happened almost at our feet.
The crowd, already standing, began to erupt, as if the ancient Romans had returned to rule the city and a fallen gladiator was before us. Our section began heaping all manner of abuse on this hapless invader. Fans yelled insults about his backside, insults about his front side, insults about his tender parts and insults about his mental health.
“That man across the aisle just used the F-word!” Eli said in a loud whisper.
Yes, I got that. Because it was hard to miss. So was the guy screaming the same word right behind us. Even the British child in front of us, who had probably been to a hundred of these games, turned around with a look of awe and excitement.
I went back to reading the rest of the sign on the chair.
“Stewards will be monitoring this area closely ...” Sure they will. “... and any supporter who does not comply with this request risks being ejected from the stadium ...”
Let’s not kid ourselves. That’s not going to happen.
“... and having their season ticket or club membership cancelled without a refund.”
I highly doubt that. Soccer is hard for many Americans to embrace. Even the British were a bit conflicted at first. A forerunner of the modern game was banned by King Edward II in a 1314 decree warning that “there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise.”
A half-century later, his son King Edward III tried again. While his archery law required bow and arrow practice on Sundays and holidays, he forbade as distractions sports like football and cockfighting “under pain of imprisonment.”
I, too, had mixed feelings, until we went to see Spurs play. Our seats were right behind one of the goals, which had the disadvantage of making action at the far end of the field a distant muddle. But when the game came to our end, it felt as if we were in the middle of something profound. We ducked at errant shots and ricocheting corner kicks; my brother-in-law, watching the match on TV in America, saw us in the crowd more than once.
It was my older son, Casey, now 14, who first latched onto Tottenham after we arrived in 2013. It was a middling club at the time, but Casey dismissed supporting Arsenal, the north London team preferred by most of his friends, as akin to rooting for the New York Yankees. And we were New York Mets fans.
As he put it, “I wanted a team that wasn’t the utter best but that wasn’t the utter worst.” As it happened, he picked Spurs just as their fortunes began to improve; this season, Tottenham is in second place in the Premier League.
The full cultural significance of soccer took a while to sink in. During the 2014 World Cup, I joined a crowd at a local tennis club watching England’s national team. After about 20 minutes — which at that point was more televised soccer than I had ever watched at one time — I got up to leave. The club’s cook, who had bonded with me over a mutual appreciation for heavy metal, shot me a stricken look. He began gesturing, out of view of the other men, in a downward motion. “Danny,” he mouthed. “Sit down.”
Clearly, walking out on the home country’s World Cup game before the final whistle was a breach of protocol. I sheepishly obeyed.
The gravity of being a soccer spectator was further driven home after I heard a warning issued by a recorded voice on Tottenham’s ticket line. It was a woman’s voice, speaking like a stern headmistress.
“Tickets purchased on this line are for home matches at White Hart Lane and home supporters only. Anyone found supporting the visiting team will be ejected from the stadium and will not be refunded.”
Opposing fans at White Hart Lane and at all other Premier League stadiums are segregated into special sections, often surrounded by phalanxes of security guards in bright orange coats.
There is reason for vigilance. In 1985, English clubs were banned from European competitions after 39 people died when rioting by Liverpool fans led to a stampede during the Champions League final in Belgium. Rioting by Spurs fans in 1974, at a cup final in Rotterdam, prompted the club’s chair to implore them on the stadium’s loudspeaker, “You are disgracing the British people.”
Our family has learned to take the game seriously. When Tottenham’s star striker, Harry Kane, scores, we join in a guttural chant: Ees-un-of-er-own, ees-un-of-erown, ay-ree-kane, ees-un-of-erown.
And we know when to keep quiet. A couple of years ago, before we entered the stadium to watch Spurs play Manchester City, Casey paused for a moment, uncharacteristically attuned to his surroundings.
“If we lose,” he advised me and his brother, “you can’t say a word until we’re on the Northern line.” It would take three trains to get home, and the Northern line was the last one. He had learned that making any comments after a loss was sort of like joking about a bomb at the airport. I couldn’t remember my son ever lecturing me about anything. I was touched.
Eli was more interested in other details. After we reached our seats for the game, he pointed up to the scoreboard and began reading a message flashing on it.
“Keep the passion,” the words said. “Lose the language.”
He was giddy with anticipation. Spurs lost that day. We kept our ears open and, afterward, our mouths shut.
Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur scores his team’s second goal past Petr Cech of Arsenal from the penalty spot at White Hart Lane on April 30.