When it comes to sports in London, and more broadly in the UK, football is without question the dominant spectator sport. In this post you’ll find a guide to soccer for families visiting London. The season starts in mid-to-late August, and continues through the end of the season in May. Unfortunately for tourists the offseason, as short as it is, coincides with the peak summer tourist season of June, July and August. Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is traditionally a big day for football (like Thanksgiving in the US), as is New Year’s Day. So if you’re in London for Christmas, it’s a great time to see a match! There are other sports – such as cricket in the summer, and rugby (the rugby season overlaps mostly with soccer), and these certainly do have their pockets of supporters and enthusiasts – but unlike in the US where we have three widely popular major sports (football, basketball and baseball) – and four if you count hockey – in the UK, football (soccer) is the unquestionable king of the sports hill. If you want to strike up a conversation with a local in pub or a taxi driver, the easiest way is to ask which football team they support! What follows is a guide on football in London (and England in general)!
Guide to Soccer for Families visiting London
For serious soccer fans, England and the English Premier League is the mecca of the sport. The EPL is the richest league in the world, and a fan of world football will recognize many of the names on the jerseys. Football allegiances play a major role in the culture of London, and throughout England. The season runs from August through early May – so summer tourists will likely be out of luck. But if you’re there during the season then you might be able to see a match.
- Football = soccer
- Match = game
- Pitch = field
- Ground = stadium
- Fixture list = schedule
- Derby (pronounced like “darby”) = a match between two teams in the same city. Some of the most heated Derbys are Arsenal / Tottenham in London, Liverpool / Everton, or Manchester City vs Manchester United. In Manchester, people will often refer to themselves as a “Blue” (Man City supporter) or a “Red” (Man U supporter)
- Tackle = to take the ball away from an opposing player
- Shirts = jerseys
- Table = standings
Should / Can you bring your kids to a match?
Until fairly recently, the stands at a football match would be filled almost entirely by men. Occasionally a man might bring his son – once they were older than 10 or so. That’s starting to change – as you’ll see many women at matches, as well as families – but I’d estimate that the crowd at most matches is still probably 75% men. Soccer for families visiting London is now much more accessible. Most teams are actively trying to attract more families though – as violence is no longer a risk at most grounds, and many teams now have a specific family section where no alcohol is served. For some teams (like Queens Park Rangers!), you can get discounted or even free tickets for kids accompanying an adult! This is a great deal – although usually the family sections are in some of the least desirable seats – either behind the goal, or in the corner – which aren’t great for kids since it can be hard to follow the match from these angles. And at QPR the family section happens to be the only seats in the house that are not covered – which makes for some cranky wet kids in the (not uncommon) event of rain! We attended several QPR matches with the kids. They loved it, and we had a great time. But we decided that it was better to pay more for seats that were closer to midfield so that the kids could enjoy the match, rather than sit behind the goal.
But isn’t soccer boring?
To American fans, soccer can sometimes seem like a dull sport to watch. On average, any given game is likely to see between 2 and 3 goals (total for both teams) – but many games finish 1-0, 1-1, or even 0-0. If you’re not into soccer, you most likely will decide that there are better things to do in London. But my advice if you’re looking to maximize interest in soccer for families visiting London, is to make sure that you’re aware of the competitive dynamic on the match. The team that’s lower in the table (standings), is oftentimes happy with a tie (the league standings work by points – with a winning team getting three points, and a both teams earning 1 point for a draw). If you’re aware of where the teams stand, it makes it more interesting to watch how the strategy develops in the match, and you’ll also be able to make more sense of the crowd reactions. If a team from the middle/bottom of the table earns a draw against a top-ranked team, then the crowd will usually react as if it was a win. By contrast, if you attend an Arsenal match and they draw with Newcastle, they’ll likely treat it as a loss. Lastly, if you’re there at the end of the season, you need to know whether the match that you’re watching as any bearing on relegation (the bottom three teams in the league get bumped down to the lower league), the Top Four (the top four teams in the Premier League qualify for the EUFA Champions League), or of course the League Championship (there’s no playoffs in the English Premier League – the team with the most points at the end of the season wins – which often means that the champion is actually crowned before the last week).
League Matches and Tournaments
League matches and tournaments are one of the interesting ways in which British/European football differs from American sports. It took me a long time to wrap my head around this element, since there’s really no parallel in the US. In addition to the normal Premier League (and lower league) schedule, there are various other tournaments that occur throughout the season. The two most notable are the EUFA Champions League, and the FA Cup.
The top four teams from the prior season qualify for the Champions League – along with the top four teams from the other major football leagues (such as the Spanish, German and French leagues, as well as many lesser-known leagues, some of whom might only get their champion into the tournament) . This is a very prestigious tournament that is played mostly on weekdays, interspersed with the regular Premier League matches. So it’s possible that you may be in London and find that Tottenham is playing Barcelona! As far as getting tickets, top EUFA matches will be difficult tickets to get – similar to top Premier League matches. But for lesser matches, you’ll often find that it’s easier to attend these.
The FA Cup is a British Football tournament that is most comparable to the NCAA basketball championship (March Madness). Just as it’s theoretically possible for a 16 seed to shock the world and with the NCAA championship, so to is it possible for a team from League Three to topple the Premier League giants, in a single elimination format, and bring home the FA Cup. Similarly, a team that is in the middle or even bottom ranks of the Premier League table can find itself in the midst of an FA Cup run which can turn an otherwise forgettable season into quite a memorable one! As with March Madness, this leads to underdogs making deep runs in the tournament, and players on lesser-known teams making a name for themselves with a strong showing against the top clubs. Early FA cup rounds can sometimes be sparsely attended, and as such tickets might be easier to come by. However you may find that these matches lack the passionate spirit of league matches that you’re probably hoping to experience.
You can usually get tickets to EUFA or FA Cup matches through the home team’s website – although you may need to pay a one-time fee to join the club in order to purchase tickets. FA Cup matches are sometimes known to be rowdier – as lower league clubs with strong traveling fanbases can sometimes try to flood a home team’s ground. To manage this, the home team will sometimes restrict tickets not only to members but to members who have previously purchased tickets, in order to prevent visiting fans from buying tickets outside of the visitor’s stand. In this case, you’ll usually need to get after-market tickets on a site like ViaGoGo.
In many stadiums (grounds), it is clearly stated that fans may not wear visiting colors/jerseys/scarves unless they are in the visitors section! This is to avoid conflicts between fans, which is unfortunately somewhat common for some teams – although this type of violence (sometimes referred to as “hooliganism”) has decreased markedly in recent years. For the teams around London at least, it is very unlikely that you’ll witness any organized brawls or street fights. That said, for many fans, drinking and football go hand in hand, and the pub is a typical place to meet before, during and after the match – so always be careful, as tensions can sometimes be on edge on match day! In the stadium, beer is sold at the concessions, but you can’t drink beer at your seat, which helps to limit consumption and overall rowdiness.
Supporters and clubs:
In the UK, they usually refer to fans as “supporters” – though they do sometimes use “fan”. If you want to find out which team is someone’s favorite, ask them which team (or club) they support. In many cases this means that they are actually a member of their favorite football club – which means that they pay a small annual fee, so in that sense they do literally “support” the team. For most matches, you must be a member of the club to buy tickets through the official box office (although you can buy aftermarket tickets – more on that below). For visiting fans, they can buy tickets to away matches through their own club, and they are only allowed to sit in a designated section.
London Football Teams:
There are five local Premier League teams, at the time of this writing (teams can move up or down between divisions based on their performance – a process known as promotion and relegation). Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and Crystal Palace. Each club has their own home grounds, with its own unique culture. Keep in mind that if you ask a Londoner, you’ll likely hear a description of the each team that is colored by their own allegiances – so bear that in mind. I’ll admit that I may suffer from some of the same 😉
- Chelsea won the league in 2015, but fell from grace in 2015/2016 – culminating with the firing of coach Jose Mourinho. They play at Stamford Bridge, in the Chelsea section of West-Central London – near the Fulham Broadway station on the District Line. Tickets are typically tough to get, and relatively expensive. Largely due to this, the crowd has a reputation for being fairly tame and relatively low-energy.
- Arsenal, whose club is also known as the Gunners (and the fans call themselves “Gooners”), plays in Emirates Stadium in North London – accessible from the Piccadilly Line. Emirates is the most similar to an American football stadium. With over 60,000 seats, it is by far the largest grounds of the clubs in London. With so many seats, you can get a ticket to many home matches, but they still tend to be fairly expensive (£75+). This is a popular club among tourists and foreigners.
- Tottenham Hotspur plays at White Hart Lane, where their fans suffer from what seems like a perpetual affliction of “close but not quite.” They are consistently good, and sometimes in the top 4 – but haven’t won the league since the 1960’s. The stadium has a great energy – with the chanting and singing that many tourists would want to experience – but it’s not easy to get to – about an hour’s trip from Central London on the Overground. They’re like the pre-2003 Boston Redsox of EPL. Not surprisingly, Bill Simmons (former ESPN blogger known as “The Sports Guy”) picks Tottenham as his team of choice, in this humorous-if-dated guide to picking an EPL team from 2006.
- West Ham seems to be the forgotten step-child of the London football scene, and their supporters have the chip on their shoulder to show for it. Located in East London, with more of a blue-collar fan base, a West Ham match is known to retain some of the rough element of hooliganism that was at one time common across the league. The Hammers play at Boleyn Ground, which you can get to from the District or Hammersmith & City lines. If you’re looking for a spirited crowd, and you want to witness some hearty taunting between the home and visiting supporters, then this might be the destination of choice (just check first to make sure that you don’t accidentally wear the visiting team’s colors). Probably not the best team to bring the kids to see.
- Crystal Palace, usually referred to by Londoners simply as “Palace”, is the last London team. Located 8 km south of London, Palace is often left out of conversations about London teams – but it’s certainly an option to consider if you’re set on attending a Premier League match. You can get to to Selhurst Park via rail (not the underground) from Victoria or London Bridge stations in about 30 minutes. And while Crystal Palace football isn’t typically of the highest caliber, they do have a unique distinction: they are the only British football club that has cheerleaders!
Lower divisions – If you really want to see a match, and especially if you want to bring kids, I’d suggest you go to a lower league game. Tickets will be cheaper and easier to come by. Some clubs even offer free, or heavily discounted tickets for kids. The stadiums are smaller – which means that you’re closer to the pitch. And the supporters at the games are often more passionate (because the true fans aren’t priced out of tickets). There are three teams in London that are currently in the Champions League (second division): Queens Park Rangers, Brentford and Fulham.
- Queens Park Rangers, known as QPR, were promoted to Premier League in 2014 after a dramatic (some might say “unbelievable!”) victory in their last game sent them up. But it didn’t last long, as they were relegated after just one season in the top league, and have settled into the middle of the pack in the Championship (which is the league below the Premier League). When we lived in London, we chose to support QPR because they were the closest team to our home in Ealing. Their stadium is known as Loftus Road, which is very easily accessible from the Central Line at White City. There is a family section at one end – but I’d recommend sitting on the sidelines instead, as the family section rows are some of the only rows that aren’t under cover.
- Fulham was also recently relegated from the Premier League to the Championship. They play at the adorably-named Craven Cottage – also very centrally located, off of the District Line. It’s a beautifully quaint stadium that’s right on the Thames. Some Americans will recognize Fulham as the club that employed American striker Clint Dempsey from 2007 to 2012 (where he remains the team’s all-time top goal scorer).
- Brentford has played at Griffin Park in West London for over 100 years. It’s grounds claim to fame is that it is the only British football pitch with a pub on all four corners! They have played in the Championship (Second Level) since 2014. The draw an enthusiastic crowd – but not an unfriendly one. It’s a good option if you’d like to take kids to the game.
So in summary, if you want to take kids to a game, I’d suggest either QPR or Brentford – with QPR being the easiest to get to. They’re not Premier League, but you’ll get to experience the passionate fanbase and the high-energy atmosphere (complete with singing, chanting and taunting of visiting fans) that you’re likely looking for. But take that with a grain of salt, coming from a QPR supporter with a small grudge against the other London Premier League clubs 😉
After you check the fixture list (schedule) and identify a game, you’ll find that getting tickets isn’t always straightforward. At many clubs, you need to be a member to buy tickets directly from the website. The good news is that you can usually join for a small fee. If no tickets are available, you can usually find some on ViaGoGo (similar to Stubhub). Just be aware that they may need to mail you printed tickets – so try to give yourself 2-3 weeks of lead time, if not more, if possible. You may also need an address in the UK to mail the tickets to – if so, you could possibly ask your AirBnB host if they don’t mind receiving a parcel for you.
Football is integral to the culture of London and the UK – and while people are divided in their loyalties, their love for the game is something that binds the culture together. If you can manage to catch a match while you’re visiting it’s highly recommended.
I hope that this guide to Soccer for families visiting London has been helpful!