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.
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.
On first impression, the collection appeared vast and all-encompassing, even to my well-trained eyes, covering subjects from women’s soccer to the art of sports commentary. Controversial modern topics, such as the issue of stadium safety, which blighted the game during my youth, weren’t brushed under the carpet; a poignant illustrated commentary cataloguing the Bradford stadium fire of 1985 and the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, when 96 fans were crushed to death at a match, brought back chilling memories.
As a self-confessed soccer nerd, I found the history section particularly fascinating. Opening with a 1594 quote from Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” (“Am I so round with you as you with me, that like a football you do spurn me thus?”) that’s designed perhaps to refute claims that the game originated somewhere other than Britain, it traveled through an impressive array of well-preserved exhibits: a book of soccer’s first written rules, dating from 1863; details of the world’s first international match (England vs. Scotland in 1872); an FA Cup trophy from 1896; shirts worn by Stanley Matthews, Bobby Moore and Diego Maradona; and — most poignant for a Brit like me — the ball used in England’s 1966 World Cup victory.
Tearing myself away from grainy photos of Old Etonians in Victorian hats, I was impressed by the way the museum branched into broader areas, tackling the image of soccer’s first trend-setting superstar, George Best; the mathematics of team tactics; and the role of those forgotten heroes, the referees. A screen replaying various fouls and infringements during a game invited me to be the referee before evaluating my rulings. After scoring two out of five, I resolved never to loudly question an official’s judgment again.
Going to a soccer game is no longer the cheap day out it was when I was a boy (tickets for Premier League matches start at $75), so it was refreshing to find admission to the National Football Museum free of charge. The optional interactive activities — the quirkiest of which allowed me to commentate off an autocue to a recorded game — are extra; visitors buy credits stored on a computerized ticket that are then swiped through a sensor in the various activity zones. The activities were a big hit with my young son, who ran himself ragged on the energetic “pass master” station. Fortunately, I was able to revive him in a ground-level cafe.
Any technical, directional or soccer trivia questions we had were dealt with by a well-briefed team of roaming aides, all of whom helped to ram home the museum’s abiding message: its underlying inclusiveness. This isn’t just a dull list of statistics for fact-collecting geeks, as my soccer-neophyte wife will happily testify. Instead, by capturing the passion, style and drama of the game, the National Football Museum reveals soccer for what it really is: a rallying national obsession, as British as William Shakespeare or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
National Football Museum
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Free.
Sainsbury is a freelance writer based in British Columbia. He has written more than two dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet.