By: Andrew Reichart
There is an unmistakable shift in the atmosphere around this type of year for sports fans like myself—and I’m not talking about the weather. September brings college and NFL football and an end to the desolate wasteland created by typically baseball-heavy months July and August, and finally a country starved for its most popular sport will feast again. But while ESPN, CBS, Fox, NFL Network and the rest who make up the overwhelming amount of coverage of the college and pro game will give Americans all they could ask for and more, there are more Americans shifting their gaze (or at least flipping over during commercials) to another continent and a different game this time of year.
For as popular as American Football (as it’s known to literally every other person on Earth outside the US) has grown through unprecedented media access to teams, players, and coaches, sophisticated fantasy leagues, and even internationally, it will always play second-fiddle to soccer across the rest of the globe. Now, thanks to recent success for the US men and women’s national teams, Americans are starting to give soccer more of their short attention spans. While the MLS continues to swell in popularity, build new stadiums and continue developing plans to expand in the near future, the exciting play of the English, Spanish, and even Italian and German leagues abroad seem to most effectively stoke the new flames of passion for this sport.
European club teams from the aforementioned countries are being covered here in the United States like never before, and if you have found yourself enamored by the World Cup or recent Euro 2012 tournament you have an unprecedented opportunity to experience the teams that captivate the rest of the world and understand the excitement and world class athleticism that define these multi-billion Euro/Pound leagues. Here are some tips for Americans about enjoying European club soccer
-European club soccer is not what you’re used to seeing from MLS or even World Cup soccer
European leagues have about 20 teams in them, and each one plays the other twice (home-and-home) each season, so the play is often very different from what most Americans see in the World Cup. Often, World Cup soccer is played very conservatively, with teams changing strategies to preserve an early goal or two, rather than continue to attack and play with more exciting pace. Because of the long September-to-May grind of club seasons, teams play aggressively for every point and there is more tempo and cooperation by more familiar teammates.
Aside from that, the talent just dwarfs that of the MLS. Consider the NBA’s international makeup. The best players generally come from one area, North America, but there are players from every continent with different styles of play and physical shape. Now imagine if there were three or four NBA-quality leagues throughout neighboring countries, each with its own Kobe and LeBron-level stars, and the international popularity and talent development infrastructure to continuously provide new 18-year-old Kobes and Lebrons each year to the highest bidders? Now you have a little idea of the talent gap in the Spanish La Liga or English Premier League and the MLS.
Now on top of that, imagine if the top 3-4 teams from each of the elite leagues got together annually to decide on a champion of all of them (UEFA Champions League); all of those superstars from dozens of countries playing in a true tournament. And that won’t even be the only other extra chance for your team to win another trophy that year. The English teams play for the Premier League (a regular season points-based title), the FA Cup (the oldest club soccer competition in the world with an all-English field of Premier League teams and squads from one and two leagues below that you might compare to AAA/AA baseball or BCS/Mid-Major college football), and Carling Cup (another English tournament). Each English team plays for those cups and the top four play for the aforementioned UEFA Champions League or EUROPA League tournaments for fifth place. Oh, and one final thing: If you’re one of the bottom three teams in your league at the end of the season, your team is DEMOTED to one of the lower leagues! This is the format around the world and throughout Europe.
All of this infrastructure of actively involved soccer-playing countries, talent, established tournaments, and trophies just help to contain the demand the scale of this sport has. And this only speaks of the very top leagues.
–It will take a little time and some commitment to appreciate
If you’re not willing to try and learn new things, then this article isn’t for you anyway, but luckily for those who are game it’ll be a pleasant experience. The best way to learn is with someone who has played the game at a high level or your average English-speaking European fan. The Dutch are particularly apt in my experience.
Obviously the first hang-up Americans typically have with soccer is that it’s boring, low-scoring, and just a bunch of pointless passing back and forth without even going anywhere. And sometimes, most if not all of those can be true. But when you get a chance to watch players on Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, or Juventus, players on each of which all likely national team starters and as athletic as anyone on the planet, passing back and forth can be a thing of beauty. Though not as immediately satisfying as a touchdown pass or home run, the ball skills and footwork of the upper-echelon players on these teams can make even a 0-0 draw one of the most exciting games you’ve ever seen. Give the games your full attention and watch the players’ feet closely if nothing else and you’ll begin to understand why it’s called “the beautiful game.” And give it several games and maybe watch a few highlights to keep up a sense of continuity with what’s going on. Here’s how.
–Find a way to tune in
If you’ve been a regular ESPN viewer over the last few years, you’ve noticed a decent increase in their coverage of soccer, even without the EURO 2012 tournament in June. You can often find an BPL (English) game on early mornings on ESPN2 or even the flagship if it’s big enough (see last year’s de-facto “championship game” between Manchester United and Manchester City, something which doesn’t often happen because there is no post-season per se). If you want to go a step further, a $6-7 bump on your cable or satellite bill can get you Fox Soccer and/or Fox Soccer Plus, which will basically give you all of the English league, most of the Italian top-flight, Serie A, and some of the Spanish La Liga.
-If you can do all these, find a team of your own
When I committed to learning more about English soccer, I thought I would objectively observe games and after a season or two decide, completely unbiased and fully informed, on the team I would wholeheartedly support. As with a lot of life’s fine-laid plans, that didn’t work out and after a few months found myself gravitating toward one team so much so that I decided it wasn’t worth denying myself. I now happily and confidently say I’ll be a fan for life.
However you decide to choose a team to follow, it’s worth knowing that it doesn’t have to be a complicated process. It’s often a simple honest assessment of clubs you’ll be able to watch on a regular basis in the U.S. who are likely to win something in your lifetime. Try and watch a few games and see if they are entertaining or if they just don’t seem like they do it for you. This may seem like front-running, but it’s actually just logical. Unlike every other sports team you’ve encountered in your life, you’re not born into this. Would you really have chosen the Cleveland Browns or Charlotte Bobcats if you hadn’t been raised there? No, so don’t make this a “lovable loser” issue. Make it easy on yourself. Pick an (occasional) winner.