A Race the Whole World Is Watching

Taiwo Aina for The New York Times

The race to decide this year’s English soccer champion has captivated fans. But it’s not just an English story.

The Premier League is the world’s most global league, with a reach that carries its games, its teams and its stars to almost every country.

That means a sizable portion of the world’s population is deeply invested in its best title race in a decade.

And for lifelong fans in far-flung places, every moment matters.

A Race the Whole World Is Watching

By Muktita Suhartono, Elian Peltier, Shawna Richer and Rory Smith

Elian Peltier tracked Arsenal in West Africa, Muktita Suhartono watched Liverpool in Bangkok and Shawna Richer was with Manchester City fans in Toronto.

The teams might bear the names of English towns, the stadiums might sit on English soil and the stands might still be primarily filled with English fans, but the Premier League slipped its borders long ago. The world’s most popular sports league has, for some time, been a global soccer competition that just happens to be staged in England.

This season has crystallized that perfectly.

For the first time in a decade, three teams — Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City — remained in contention to win the championship as the season entered its final weeks. The fates of those teams have not simply had an impact on anxious, ardent fans in London, Liverpool or Manchester. Their results have been followed just as avidly in North America, Africa, Asia and countless other places, where fans rise early, stay up late and seek out any screen they can to follow their teams.

Last weekend, with the three contenders playing across two days, The New York Times asked reporters and photographers to track fans watching in Bangkok; Lagos, Nigeria; and Toronto. They delivered a snapshot of the true reach of a product that may be modern Britain’s greatest cultural export.

Bangkok: A Date With Fate

For fans in Thailand, the time difference with England often turns day games into a late night out.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Arthit Thepbanchornchai and Thanaporn Saneluksana were introduced to Premier League fandom by family members.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times
Broadcast deals and social media have nurtured devotion to the Premier League in nearly every corner of the globe.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

In the corner of the bar, Arthit Thepbanchornchai and Thanaporn Saneluksana had their eyes glued to the screen. Ordinarily, they would be surrounded by like-minded Liverpool fans — some Thai, some foreign — but tonight they were almost alone. Everyone else, it would seem, had given up hope.

Last week, a waiter explained, the place was packed. But two defeats in three games have all but ended Liverpool’s dreams of catching Arsenal and Manchester City. That the fans had not returned for Liverpool’s trip to West Ham indicated that the quest had been deemed, by common consensus, a lost cause.

Instead, it was just Mr. Arthit and Ms. Thanaporn, and a bottle of red wine on ice. The couple were so absorbed by the game that they barely touched the salad they had ordered. They declined to be interviewed until the match was over. “I have to concentrate,” Mr. Arthit said.

They had decided to watch the game here, they said later, not because their expectations were high but because it provided a convenient excuse for a date night.

“I am a Liverpool fan, and my girlfriend is a Liverpool fan,” Mr. Arthit, 40, said. Having a partner who supports the same team as him, he said, is an “extra bonus.” (Ms. Thanaporn, 27, made clear that “soccer dates” happen only when Liverpool is playing.)

Despite their distance from their club’s home, both said that they came to support Liverpool in exactly the same way that fans on Merseyside might: Their families left them no choice. A brother inculcated Mr. Arthit; Ms. Thanaporn’s passion was passed down by her father. The connection they feel to the club, too, is deep. Mr. Arthit has twice visited Anfield, the club’s stadium, to “see it with my own eyes.”

“Watching on television is different,” he said. “Being at Anfield, you feel it as a community. It is like a family gathered together. You don’t know each other, but you join together in supporting your team. It is more than a soccer game.”

Lagos: Close Quarters

Mayowa Adeshina, a barber in Lagos, Nigeria, wearing the colors of his team, Arsenal.Credit…Taiwo Aina for The New York Times
Inside a packed viewing center, the fans’ chatter and jokes filled the gaps in play when Arsenal visited Tottenham.Credit…Taiwo Aina for The New York Times
The tent’s dark covering shielded fans from the sun’s heat and, more important, kept its glare off the screens.Credit…Taiwo Aina for The New York Times

Mayowa Adeshina should, really, be at work. It is the middle of Sunday afternoon, and he has not yet finished his shift at the barbershop. He is here, clad in a red-and-white Arsenal jersey, only by the good grace of his boss. Well, grace is one word. Resignation is another. “I took a break for the love of the game,” Mr. Adeshina said. “The manager knows this. He’s not new to the routine.”

Many West Africans live to the rhythm of European soccer, with mostly male crowds massing outside bars, hair salons, street restaurants — any establishment, ultimately, with a screen — to watch idols playing thousands of miles away. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris St.-Germain all have considerable followings in the region, but in Nigeria, nothing matches the appeal of the Premier League.

On game days, fans of all stripes flock to viewing centers — street venues equipped with a few screens, a jigsaw puzzle of wooden benches, a thicket of wires and a canopy to block out the sun and reduce the glare — like the one Mr. Adeshina and his friends descended on to take in his beloved Arsenal’s meeting with Tottenham Hotspur.

Mr. Adeshina became an Arsenal fan in the late 1990s, when Nigerian cable channels first began broadcasting the Premier League. His older brother instructed him on which team he should support, at a time when Nwankwo Kanu, one of Nigeria’s greatest stars, was a fixture in the team’s lineup.

If anything, though, Mr. Adeshina says his connection to the team is even deeper now. Arsenal’s academy is stacked with English prospects of Nigerian ancestry. One of the club’s brightest stars, Bukayo Saka, grew up in a Nigerian family in London. “He’s Yoruba, I’m Yoruba,” Mr. Adeshina said, in a tone rather softer than that with which he celebrated his idol’s first-half goal against Spurs.

The thrill of that moment did not last. Sitting in the front row with dozens of fans watching behind him, Mr. Adeshina spent the last few minutes of the game in agony as Spurs desperately chased a tying goal — one that would have driven a stake into Arsenal’s title hopes.

Arsenal narrowly held on. It remains at the top of the table. For now, at least. But Mr. Adeshina did not have too much time to celebrate. He quickly stood up, and rushed back to the barbershop. “If you can succeed in the Premier League, you can succeed in every league,” he said. “It’s the best soccer out there, no matter where you’re watching from.”

Toronto: Come Early, Squeeze In

Filing in to Opera Bob’s, home of the Manchester City Toronto Supporters Club, for yet another morning kickoff. Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times
Inside, regulars settle into seats and spots selected, often, by superstition.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times
Ross Simnor, a founder of the club, in his usual place behind the bar.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

During the Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff run — a springtime tradition based on the scarcity principle — every saloon with a television becomes a Leafs Bar. But not Opera Bob’s Public House. As the home of the Manchester City Toronto Supporters Club, its regulars have only one concern this spring: manifesting a history-making fourth straight Premier League title.

So last Sunday morning, around 60 fans — men, women and a few children — settled into the small pub in the hour or so before their team took the field against Nottingham Forest. For the past 15 years, Opera Bob’s has opened for every City match, even when they start at 6 a.m. Eastern. Ritual is the order of every match day.

“Everyone knows where they go,” said Ross Simnor, who founded the club with a handful of other City obsessives in 2009, “because we have to win the game, and we’re superstitious. And if you are new, you’ll fit in somewhere.”

Membership is capped at 120 (bar capacity) and there is a wait list of sorts. They all remember a few years ago when the musician Noel Gallagher, of Oasis fame, came in for a match, and the day Mike Joyce, the former drummer of the Smiths, dropped by. A few former City players have wandered in over the years, and the Premier League trophy itself has graced the bar during one of its world tours.

Mr. Simnor grew up in Campbell River, British Columbia, before moving to Toronto to attend college. But his father is from Manchester, so he was “born into” his fandom. “I never had a choice in who I was going to support,” he said.

Through much of the 1980s and ’90s, he and other City supporters were accustomed to watching the team lose — a lot — while living in the long shadow of their fierce rival, and global glamour club, Manchester United.

City’s Toronto Supporters Club started with the bar and a couple of sky blue scarves and a few committed fans who somehow found each other. “We’d get two people, then four, then eight,” Mr. Simnor said. “Now it’s like a big family. It’s hugs all around. That’s why we really look at the membership.”

The vetting is more like a vibe check, to filter anyone wanting in for the wrong reasons, primarily that the supporters’ club has access to tickets through the team.

“The first 25 years of my life were miserable,” said Jason Nebelung, who grew up in Toronto, another City fan by blood. “Everyone at school was United, Arsenal or Liverpool, because anyone with no ties gravitates toward teams that are successful. There weren’t a lot of people that celebrated the things that I celebrated. I felt very alone until I stumbled upon this club.”

On Sunday, an anxious first half ended with City ahead, thanks to a goal from the defender Josko Gvardiol. Mr. Simnor duly erupted. The bar burst into song. Soon Erling Haaland, City’s Norwegian superstar, settled everyone’s nerves with a second goal.

City is a point behind Arsenal entering this week’s games but has an extra game to play. The title, for another weekend — and with the whole world watching — remains in its hands.

Taiwo Aina contributed reporting from Lagos, Nigeria.

Back to top button