The team wore white. The lan­guage was blue.

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DANNY HAKIM New York Times News Ser­vice

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.

GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

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.

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