If you want to fully understand a country, you have to understand its sporting rituals. And in the United Kingdom, that means deciphering soccer (or “football,” as it’s known to 62 million Brits). Refined, popularized and given rules in leisure-conscious Victorian Britain, the so-called “beautiful game” enjoys quasi-sacred status in the country of its conception, a worshipful feeling best summed up by the late, great Liverpool coach Bill Shankly. A no-nonsense Scot, he once famously declared: “Football isn’t a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that.”
And there’s no better place to see Britain’s soccer passion than in the city of Manchester, a onetime powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution where the country’s National Football Museum opened this summer.
(Brendan Sainsbury/For The Washington Post) - A young fan looks at a montage featuring legendary coach Bill Shankly at the National Football Museum.
I’m an expat Brit now living in Vancouver, but soccer is in my genes and the thing I miss most about my native country. So news of the museum’s opening had me frantically readjusting my annual family vacation plans. After several years of paying lip service to hockey and baseball, I concluded that my Canadian wife and 6-year-old son were ripe for a bit of soccer indoctrination in the game’s spiritual home.
The museum’s location is no accident. Manchester plays host to two of the world’s most iconic soccer clubs: the trophy-hoarding Red Devils of Manchester United and their traditionally inferior sky-blue rivals, Manchester City. The balance between Manchester’s red and blue halves shifted in May 2012 when, after a captivating nine-month-long duel, Manchester City pipped reigning champions Manchester United to win soccer’s revered Premier League title with — quite literally — the last kick of the season. It was City’s first title win in 44 years, a moment of sporting drama akin to Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” that won baseball’s National League pennant for the New York Giants in 1951.
Feeding off the frenzy, my family and I arrived in Manchester soon after the museum’s July inauguration. Unveiled a couple of weeks before Mancunian Danny Boyle’s dazzling London Olympics opening ceremony, the bold collection of more than 2,500 exhibits (chosen from an archive of approximately 140,000) served to remind visiting fans like me that Britain can still deliver top-class entertainment outside the Olympics-hosting capital.
Modeled on an earlier soccer museum bivouacked from 2001 to 2010 in the Lancashire town of Preston, the expanded new collection is housed in the futuristic Urbis building, which was built in 2002 as part of Manchester city center’s regeneration after a devastating IRA bomb blast in 1996. The exhibits are spread over four floors, with the higher levels (three and four) hosting temporary exhibitions, while levels one and two are dedicated to permanent displays about soccer history, the media, fans, stadiums and the global game. Fortunately for my son, we found them interspersed with half a dozen kid-friendly interactive activities, including a virtual penalty shootout and a ball-passing accuracy test.