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Give the Sports Scene a Go
London may have hosted the 2012 Olympic Games, but don't expect to see many residents practicing their javelin throws in Hyde Park or going for a synchronized swim across the Thames.
Sport in the capital comes into its own when it's watched, rather than participated in. You'll most easily witness London's fervent sporting passions in front of a screen in a pub with a pint in hand. And those passions run deep.
If you're lucky enough to score a ticket for a big football match, you'll experience a seething, jeering mass of mockery and rude chants, especially if the opposition happens to be another London team.
Amid all the aggression you might also catch a glimpse of why the excitement of English football makes it world sport's hottest media property.
And sport does mainly mean football (refer to it as "soccer" at your mortal peril). A generation of footballers lives the high life in London, their status somewhere between sporting rock stars and royalty.
Cricket, rugby, and tennis briefly impinge on Londoners' sporting horizons at certain times of year, but you're unlikely to see grown men crying at the outcome of matches at Wimbledon, or beating each other up about the Ashes.
The English may not be the world's best when it comes to football (they last won the World Cup in 1966), but they invented the modern game and the sport is the national obsession.
London's top teams—Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and West Ham—are world class (especially the first two), however, and regularly progress in the European Champions League.
It's unlikely you'll be able to get tickets for anything except the least popular Premier League games during the August–May season, despite absurdly high ticket prices (as much as £50 for a standard seat).
You'll have a better chance of seeing a match if you avoid the top-tier teams. And a quick tip on conversation: locals love to talk football, but if you're going to join in the banter it is imperative to know your way around the big teams.
Arsenal. Arsenal (aka the Gunners) is historically London's most successful club. Under the managerial reign of Arsene Wenger they have shed their boring image to become proponents of tippy-tappy, attractive, free-flowing football—while hardly ever employing any English players. Emirates Stadium, 75 Drayton Park, London, N5 1BU. 020/7619–5000. www.arsenal.com. Tube: Arsenal.
Chelsea. Chief rivals of Manchester United in the Premier League, Champions League winners in 2012, and Premier League title and FA Cup winners in 2009 and 2010, Chelsea (aka the Blues) is owned by one of Russia's richest oligarchs, Roman Abramovich. In recent years the team has been forged into a formidable and ruthless footballing machine. Stamford Bridge, Fulham Rd., Fulham, SW6 1HS. 0871/9841–905. www.chelseafc.com. Tube: Fulham Broadway.
Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham Hotspur (aka Spurs)—bitter North London rivals of Arsenal—has underperformed for decades but there are strong hints of a revival with a bevy of England national team regulars. White Hart Lane, 748 High Rd., London, N17 0AP. 0844/499–5000. www.tottenhamhotspur.com. Tube: National Rail: White Hart Lane.
West Ham. Known as "The Hammers," West Ham, despite the name, is the team of the East End. After a long period of failing to match their former glories, the Hammers have created a more consistent team, but one unlikely to claim many trophies. Boleyn Ground, Green St., Upton Park, London, E13 9AZ. 0871/222–2700. www.whufc.com. Tube: Upton Park.
At its best, cricket can be a slow-build of smoldering tension and excitement. At its worst, it can be too slow for the casual observer, as five-day games crawl toward a draw, or as the English weather interferes and rain stops play.
Lord's. Lord's—the home of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC)—has been hallowed cricketing turf since 1814 and MCC rules codified the game. Tickets for major Test matches are hard to come by: obtain an application form and enter the ballot (lottery) to purchase them. Forms are sent out in early December or apply online. Test Match tickets cost between £28 and £95. Much cheaper county matches (Middlesex plays here) can usually be seen by standing in line on match day. Marylebone Cricket Club, Lord's Cricket Ground, St. John's Wood Rd., St. John's Wood, London, NW8 8QN. 020/7432–1000. www.lords.org. Tube: St. John's Wood.
Derby Day. Derby Day, a flat horse race usually held in early June on Epsom Downs in Surrey, is the second-biggest social event of the flat racing calendar. Drawing crowds of 130,000—from the Queen to ruffian gypsy travellers—it's also one of the world's greatest horse races, first run in 1780. Tickets are between £20 and £110. The Grandstand, Epsom Downs, Surrey, KT18 5LQ. 0844/579–3003. www.epsomderby.co.uk.
Royal Ascot. The Queen attends Royal Ascot in mid-June, driving from Windsor in an open carriage for a procession before the assembled plebs. Grandstand tickets, which go on sale in November, cost £55–£75, although some tickets can usually be bought on the day of the race (generally on Tuesday or Wednesday) for around £20. The real spectacle is the glamorous and be-hatted crowd itself, and those who arrive dressed inappropriately (jeans, shorts, sneakers) will be turned away from their grandstand seats. Ascot Race Course, Ascot, Berkshire, SL5 7JX. 0844/346–3000. www.ascot.co.uk.
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships. The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships are famous for the green grass of Centre Court, Andy Murray never quite winning the Men's Final, and an old-school insistence on players wearing white.
Rain, a perennial hazard even in the last-week-of-June-first-week-of-July timing, has been banished on Centre Court by the addition of a retractable roof.
Whether you can get Centre Court tickets is literally down to the luck of the draw, because there's a ballot system (lottery) for advance purchase. For more information, see their Web site.
You can also buy entry to roam matches on the outside courts, where even the top-seeded players compete early on.
Get to Southfields or Wimbledon Tube station as early as possible and get into line.
Five hundred show court tickets are also sold daily, but these usually go to those prepared to stand in line all night. The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Church Rd., London, SW19 5AE. 020/8944-1066. www.wimbledon.com.
Virgin London Marathon. The Virgin London Marathon starts at 9:30 am on a Sunday in April, with more than 35,000 athletes running from Blackheath or Greenwich to The Mall. 020/7620–4117. www.london-marathon.co.uk.
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