As our car from Heathrow Airport approached the busy Wembley district of north-west London, my 16-year-old son Adrian and I watched the impressive 133-metre archway of Wembley Stadium come into view. I felt a tingle of anticipation for the historic football match we had come all the way from Toronto to see— Manchester City versus Manchester United, two teams that have dominated English football for the past 30 years, in the highly anticipated final game of the 2023 Football Association (FA) Challenge Cup.
This father-and-son trip was a promise I had made to Adrian during one of our many weekend mornings spent together watching English football (it’s rarely called soccer in our household). His older brother, Julian—a passionate fan who’s now pursuing a sports media career in university—and I had previously enjoyed a similar footie-focused trip to England, so it felt like a rite of passage for Adrian to experience a game at one of the meccas of international football. I’m sure we were not the only Canadian family making the trip.
Catching a football match has long been a popular activity for visitors to England, and attendance was already on the upswing pre-pandemic. The number of tourists who attended a match increased from 900,000 in 2011 to 1.5 million in 2019, according to a VisitBritain report. The popularity of soccer is increasing in North America, likely fuelled by hit shows Ted Lasso and Welcome to Wrexham and Inter Miami’s acquisition of all-time great Lionel Messi. And fan numbers are bound to grow in the lead-up to the 2026 World Cup to be co-hosted by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. We were lucky to have scored tickets to this sold-out game, the first time in the FA Cup’s 151-year history that rivals City and Man U were facing off in the final. It’s also Wembley’s 100th anniversary year—the massive 90,000-seat stadium was built in 1923 to support England’s intense passion for football.
The day before the game, Adrian and I checked out some of London’s many other famous soccer sights, eschewing more customary attractions such as Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus. Emirates Stadium in central London was our first stop—home of the Arsenal football club—where we toured the field, dressing rooms, Directors Box, home dugout and the museum and trophy room. Next, we headed to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in north London, the city’s newest Premier League stadium where visitors can don a harness to walk across a transparent platform at the top of the stadium, overlooking London and the pitch below. Adventurous fans can also opt to be lowered 42 metres to the pitch. Stamford Bridge was our last stop.
Home to Chelsea FC, one of London’s biggest teams, this historical club offers one of the most popular stadium tours in Europe where fans can tour the museum and take pictures next to the pitch. On game day, we set out early as advised. Local transport officials recommended separate routes for City and United fans travelling from Manchester to London—not just to reduce road congestion but to prevent flare-ups between rival fans at rest stops along the way. Team loyalties burn deep and span generations in England.
Although Manchester United once dominated the English Premier League, their last win was in 2013. Revered Man U coach Sir Alex Ferguson called City their annoying “noisy neighbours,” when City started winning regularly, and the moniker stuck as they continued to rack up titles in England— including Europe’s coveted Champions League title in 2023. Excitement—and tensions—were clearly high for this match as we were about to find out. “We can’t let you in dressed like that,” said the security guard, gesturing at my son’s bright red Manchester United scarf and matching jester cap.
It stood out beside the blue of my Manchester City jersey—and the blue gear worn by almost everyone else on that side of Wembley. At home in Canada, a father-and-son duo dressed to support rival soccer teams can usually sit together with nothing more than a few disapproving glances. But in England, “Red Devils” and “Sky Blues” are separated by vacant stadium sections and teams of security guards. Luckily, Wembley Stadium has a whole outdoor shopping mall. With my son kitted out in a brand-new grey sweatshirt, we were successfully admitted on try number two.
Once we reached our section, the deafening chants and drums of the Man City fans rang in our ears. Blue-and white flags waved around us. Thankfully, we reached our seats well before kickoff because City scored their first goal within 12 seconds of the opening whistle, as fans in our section leapt out of their seats. Later, when Man U scored their one and only goal, Adrian resisted cheering and opted for a subtle leg-squeeze instead.
But it made the experience no less fun for him. The mood was exuberant, especially when Man City scored the winning goal. After the game, I asked a security guard if my son could have a United flag. A manager retrieved one from the opposite end of the field but advised us to hide it under our City flags. “Next time, we have to make it to Manchester,” said Adrian as we exited Wembley Stadium. “But we’re going to Old Trafford—and sitting in the red section.” I don’t know how long this kind of quality time will continue with my younger son. But if the memories created by this trip extend our game time together, that’s a real win for both of us.
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