College football fever brings Los Angeles to a grinding halt

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The Independent US

The rest of the US may have its thoughts focused on Christmas shopping this weekend, but Los Angeles will be gripped by an entirely different seasonal fever. Today sees the annual showdown between the City of Angels' two leading college-level American football teams, USC and UCLA, and it is turning into the most intensely anticipated local sporting event in years.

One might think this a relatively parochial matter, especially to those who do not happen to have an affiliation with either the University of Southern California (the city's premier private university) or UCLA, the biggest campus in the state-run University of California.

But that would be to misunderstand the extraordinary pull of college-level sports in the US. Los Angeles might get more excited by a Beatles reunion concert, or a confirmed UFO landing in the Hollywood Hills, but not a whole lot else.

The 92,000 seats at the Coliseum, USC's home stadium, have been sold out for weeks. (That's more seats than at Old Trafford, more even than at the new Wembley.) An orgy of selling and reselling of tickets on the internet pushed prices from the $65 (£37) face value to as high as $4,600 by last night.

Desperate fans have offered all sorts of inducements to would-be online sellers - a dentist offering free teeth-whitening, a musician offering free piano lessons - and made last-ditch emotional pleas on behalf of elderly parents, soldiers on leave from Iraq, the sick, the disabled and the bereaved.

Traffic ground to a halt for hours on end across west Los Angeles for the pre-game parade thrown for the UCLA team, the Bruins, on Thursday afternoon and ground to a halt all over again at a giant bonfire and pep rally laid on that night for the USC Trojans, 16 miles to the south. Clusters of face-painted fans - blue and gold for UCLA, red and yellow for USC - have packed the malls and shopping streets. Some people have repainted their cars. Yesterday, even elementary school students in parts of the city were encouraged to show up wearing the colours of their preferred teams.

The excitement has something to do with the fact that both teams have unusually strong line-ups. The Trojans are undefeated in 33 games and enter the near-gladiatorial contest as the hot favourites. But the Bruins are also having a banner year, with just one loss so far. Smashing their crosstown gridiron rivals would not only be a sweet symbolic victory. It would also propel UCLA into the top tier of college teams for the first time in years.

It seems extraordinary that a non-professional game could attract this kind of excitement. But college sports - especially football and basketball - are the bedrock of American sporting culture, with a far greater degree of fan identification with the local team than in the professional leagues.

When Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, visited the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in her home state of Alabama recently, she had no hesitation in taking him to the Alabama-Tennessee college football game - played to a sell-out 80,000 crowd.