London

Global football mecca and host of showcase finals

Teams, tales and tips – the local game in full

Selected to host eight games including both semi-finals and final of Euro 2020, home of six Premier League clubs and a national stadium, London is a soccer mecca second-to-none.

The stadium in question, Wembley, has been the stage for one World Cup, seven Champions League finals, one Euro and then another. Now it’s bidding for a third, in 2028, after disgraceful crowd scenes sullied the last and scuppered hopes of bringing football’s greatest showcase here in 2030, a full 64 years after the halcyon summer of ’66.

Thousands come from Scandinavia, Russia and beyond to catch the world’s top stars in action at North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, and at 2021 Champions League winners Chelsea. While Chelsea have shelved their stadium rebuilding plans, Tottenham moved into their new one in 2019 after nearly two whole seasons at Wembley.

West London also contains Championship teams Fulham and QPR, and newly promoted Brentford, whose Community Stadium opened in September 2020. Across the city in Stratford, West Ham are based at the London Stadium that staged the Olympic Games in 2012.

South of the river you’ll find Crystal Palace, plus local rivals Charlton and Millwall. Joining the Football League in 2016, AFC Wimbledon are the club formed by loyal local fans after Wimbledon FC, FA Cup winners in 1988, moved to Milton Keynes in 2004 to become the MK Dons. The revitalised Wombles moved back to their beloved Plough Lane ground in November 2020.

The capital is also the seat of the Football Association, the stuffy body who ran the game from its foundation at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Great Queen Street in 1863 to the inaugural Football League in 1888. Drafting the rules of the game, the FA then introduced a challenge cup, first won in 1872 by Wanderers, a team of Old Harrovians originally based in Snaresbrook, near Epping Forest.

Ever since, London teams traditionally performed well in the glamorous cup competitions but poorly in the long, gruelling league championship. All this changed with the arrival of Arsène Wenger as coach of Arsenal and Roman Abramovich as owner of Chelsea.

Eight titles have come to the capital since 1998. During that time, Wembley, opened in 1923, was completely rebuilt and reopened, making it the showcase once again for the national game.

Another side who emerged from the non-league pyramid, Barnet, regained promotion to the Football League in 2015 only to fall out of it again in 2018. Dropping out in 2016 were Dagenham & Redbridge, who can link their ancestry back to leading amateur clubs from around East London and outskirts. A 3-2 defeat by fellow East Londoners Leyton Orient sent the Daggers into the fifth flight. Orient followed them a year later but climbed back up after winning the National League in 2019.

The latest club to make the climb into the Football League, 2021 National League champions Sutton United, also enjoyed a memorable cup run in 2016-17. Currently resurgent Bromley are based at Hayes Lane, aka Westminster Waste, which sports a new stand added before the 2019-20 campaign. The ground lies a 15-minute walk from Bromley South station, 15 minutes by frequent train from Victoria.

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Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Five main airports serve London. Heathrow is 27km (17 miles) west of town, connected by Tube (Piccadilly line, 45mins, £6 single, £3.10-£5.10 with an Oyster Card, £5, or contactless) and Heathrow Express fast train to Paddington (15mins, £22-£25 single, £37 return, £5 supplement on board, cheapest advance single £5.50). Gatwick is 47km (30 miles) south of town, connected by Gatwick Express fast train to Victoria Station (30mins, £19.90 single, £17.80 online). Regular trains to Victoria are cheaper and just as quick.

Luton is 56km (35 miles) north of town, connected by rail to St Pancras (45mins, £16.40 single), which includes the shuttle bus (otherwise £2.10/£3.40 return) to Luton Airport Parkway station. Buses such as Green Line to Victoria are cheaper but slower. Stansted Airport is 48km (30 miles) north-east of town, connected by Stansted Express to Liverpool Street (45mins, £16.60 single, £28 return). A black cab from any of these airports to town should cost £60-£100, cheaper with a minicab.

Welcome to London/Matt Walker

Alongside Docklands, London City Airport is the closest to town, 11km (seven miles) from the capital’s financial centre. It now serves cities as far as Rome, Prague and Berlin. It has its own stop on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) line, 17min from Stratford International and the London Stadium.

The hub for Eurostar services from Paris and Brussels is at St Pancras. The city’s main international bus station is Victoria, a 10min walk from the main train station of the same name.

London Transport consists of the Tube, buses, local and light rail, the network divided into zones. A zones 1-4 day pass (Travelcard) is £13.90, capped at £10.60 for Oyster users. There are no more cash fares on buses, only payment by Oyster or contactless. Heathrow, Gatwick and London City airports are within the Oyster zone, Luton and Stansted outside.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Literally hundreds of pubs show TV football – and scores around Soho and the West End. Right on Leicester Square, surrounded by gambling action, the Kings Sports Bar occupies a huge basement area of the Casino at the Empire, with large screens and US Bud beer on offer to non-players too.

In the heart of Soho, calcio-centric Bar Italia is a perennial classic while the Queens Head behind Piccadilly dates back to 1736 and shows games. Another classic Soho spot is De Hems, steeped in Dutch history, with Benelux beers and an orange glow when major tournaments are on. 

Between Soho and the media hub of Noho, tucked down an alley off Newman Street, the Scando-themed Nordic Bar is another sports haunt that goes full Danish for major tournaments. Over in Covent Garden, convivial traditional pub the Freemasons Arms may not be the exact place where the FA convened in 1863 but displays documentation to that effect. Almost next door, Philomena’s Irish Bar places GAA and rugby over God’s own game but fills for big finals.

Near Victoria station, Greenwood puts televised sport first, as does the nearby branch of the Londonwide chain of the Sports Bar & Grill. The one by Marylebone station displays Pelé’s signed shirt from Escape to Victory, with other branches located at Canary Wharf, Clapham Junction, Farringdon and Old Street.

A Panenka kick above mainstream chains, table-football bars the Café Kick in Exmouth Market and Bar Kick in Shoreditch, are both outstanding, with retro, continental designer touches, decent food and a party atmosphere.

Elsewhere, diagonally opposite Madame Tussauds, the TV-equipped Globe is a convivial choice before the trek to Wembley. For dozens of screens to watch at any one time, head over to the Famous 3 Kings by West Kensington Tube.

Where to stay

The best hotels for Wembley and the city centre

Visit London and information desks at major stations can help with booking. Staying cheaply in London is close to impossible, though there are affordable guesthouses of varying standards around Victoria, Euston and King’s Cross Stations.

If you’re arriving or departing by Eurostar, the Great Northern Hotel is now a luxury boutique option, having served St Pancras Station in the great steam era. For something more wallet-friendly, a row of cheap(ish) lodgings between Euston Station and the British Museum lines Gower Street, including the Arosfa and the Gower House Hotels.

For a little football history, then the Great Cumberland Place by Marble Arch is where the Magic Magyar team stayed in 1953, though this contemporary lodging looked far different then.

Around Baker Street, convenient for Wembley, the Holmes Hotel offers stylish rooms in a restored Georgian property. Similarly classy with a spa to boot, The Landmark stands slap opposite Marylebone Station, directly linked to Wembley. A minute away, affordable accommodation can be found at the Travelodge. Also close, the elegant Dorset Square Hotel comprises 38 individually designed rooms and the Potting Shed Bar & Restaurant, overlooking a private garden square where Thomas Lord first sited his cricket ground in the late 1700s.

Right alongside Stamford Bridge, the Millennium & Copthorne Hotels at Chelsea Football Club, two adjoining four-stars offering match-day packages, plus dining and drinking at the 55 Restaurant and Frankie’s Sports Bar. The business-friendly DoubleTree by Hilton Chelsea is also convenient for Stamford Bridge, steps away from Imperial Wharf station.

Walking distance from the Emirates, the Travelodge Finsbury Park features a restaurant and comfortable mid-range rooms, ideal for a straightforward stay after an Arsenal game. Also close to Finsbury Park Tube, the Best Western Highbury is equally unpretentious and handy. 

Plenty of options surround Wembley and convenient access points. Right on Wembley Way, stands the gym-equipped, four-star Novotel. Even closer, the Hilton has a pool, sauna and the panoramic Sky Bar 9 backdropped by the stadium itself. Just behind, rising up alongside each other, are an ibis and a Holiday Inn

Right by Wembley Park Tube station, you can’t miss the large, gleaming Premier Inn, a handy budget choice. Also close are the Wembley International Hotel, with 165 value-conscious rooms and a sports bar, and, over the road, the business-friendly St George. Near Wembley Stadium rail, The Arch is a 14-room hotel with a sports bar and Indian restaurant.

Where to shop

Finding football treasure in town

Shopping mecca London doesn’t lack for soccer boutiques. Traditional Lillywhites, in a prime location right on Piccadilly, has scores of kits on the second floor. On Carnaby Street there’s a large outlet for PUMA. The main branches for adidas are on nearby Foubert’s Place and at 425 Oxford Street, along which you’ll find a number of generic sportswear shops and stalls selling replica shirts.

Don’t miss Classic Football Shirts, a trove of archive treasure in the old Truman Brewery near Shoreditch High Street Tube. SEGA-sponsored Arsenal tops, Inter ones as customised during the Ronaldo era and, perhaps for the visiting Scotland fan, that number 6 England shirt in Gareth Southgate grey, await a loving torso.