Monday, June 30, 2008
I'll Never Call it Football, But...
I'm already starting to think about fantasy football. I think I have a disease.
That said, this is not a fantasy football post. Or even a football post. Or is it?
No, it's not. I already said that. Anyway, I have officially turned the corner in regards to that great unwatchable, anti-American, boring, poorly constructed sport called soccer. I now no longer find it unwatchable or boring, although there are still criticisms to be made (the shootout is a joke of a way to decide a game). I really, really got into Euro Cup 2008 over the past few weeks on ESPN. I picked Spain (without any real reason) from the beginning of the tournament and happily rooted for them on their way to beating Germany in the final 1-0. What I will now attempt is a rational look at soccer and what has changed that has caused the sudden surge in interest. I will address possible criticisms of logic as I go.
The only real soccer watching experience I have ever had was two years ago when the World Cup was in Southeast Asia. I watched several matches and they were interesting enough for me to keep tabs on who was doing what in the tournament, but I never set my watch by the start-time of a match as I would with UK basketball or the Red Sox. I was suitably jazzed up by my encounter in 2006 to look a little further into soccer as a sport. I did. And I wasn't happy with what I found (this is part where I voice my complaints).
First of all, aggregate scoring is stupid because the nature of the game causes whoever won that first match to play defense to the point of absurdity in the second. It's like if the Red Sox outscored the Rockies 8-1 in the first game of the World Series, and only played hard enough not to let the Rockies outscore them by 7 in game 2. Ridiculous. Aggregate scoring generally only applies to league play, but still, the English Premiership is supposed to be the best of the best, and I don't want to see the best playing for a tie.
Secondly, American sports are all about the payoff. The home run, the slam dunk, the 50 yard touchdown pass. Teams that don't hit a lot of homers are called boring, teams that grind it out in the half-court and hit open 16 foot jumpers are called boring, teams that run the ball 65% of the time and score only after 12:00 minute drives where they punch it in from the 2 yard line on their third try are called boring. And this is in the most popular American sports. Now imagine soccer through the eyes of the average American fan. The average games sees about 2.5 goals scored over a ninety minute span. While it's true that some of the goals are spectacular, they simply don't provide the average American viewer with the payoff they seek. This doesn't mean they're right, but it does go some distance toward explaining why soccer doesn't (and very likely never will) catch on in this country.
However, as I have already stated, it's caught on with me. I loved every minute of the games I watched. By way of explanation, I say the following things:
1. I watched almost every game with friends, many of whom were soccer fans. The next time you're in doubt about the impact this has, try watching a borderline sporting event by yourself. It gets boring really quickly. But, if you have someone to talk to about the game, someone who is somewhat invested, it's a different story. We made events out of getting together to watch, just like with college football or the NCAA tournament. This made a huge difference.
2. I had (kind of) a rooting interest. I was rooting for Spain solely because they were playing well in the World Cup in '06, but then ran into a rolling French team that beat them. It was a sympathy vote, but it also made a difference.
3. I changed my expectations. That, please note, is not to say that I lowered my expectations, but simply altered them. I slowly began to accept that soccer is not a thrill a minute, constant action sport like basketball, or even a thrill-every-few-minutes game like football or baseball. To quote an increasingly used phrase in our lexicon, it is what it is. There is a pace to the game that takes some understanding. The best way to understand it, unfortunately for the sport, is to either play the sport, or watch a lot of it. After doing the latter, I'm now interested throughout the entire game, watching each side's strategy develop and come to fruition. Granted, their is still a lot more non-action that action, but, for whatever reason, that just isn't as big a deal to me anymore. Whereas before, I couldn't see where all that kicking back and forth was going, now I do. It's like when Neo saw the Matrix in green code for the first time. When I began to enjoy the game for what it is, rather than trying to make it what it was never going to be, I saw the whole thing differently.
So there, I like soccer. Now, how to keep this going. I've reasoned that I can't simply wait two years for the next major international competition; I need a club team. Naturally, I can't abide the MLS for the same reasons I don't have a favorite AA baseball team. I'm going to the English Premier League to find a team to follow. Since I live in the U.S. and can therefore claim no geographic proximity to a team, I must find some other way of arriving at one I can root for. I'll end the suspense: I decided on Liverpool. I arrived at my choice thus:
1. They have two players from Spain's national team, Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso, who I have already become familiar with and can instantly begin rooting for in a club setting.
2. The Beatles are from Liverpool.
3. Carlsberg is their sponsor. I like to drink Carlsberg.
4. Their team crest and slogan ("You'll Never Walk Alone") are awesome.
OK, so those are pretty lame reasons to support a soccer team, but it made about as much sense as anything else I came up with. I do have a friend who is a huge Man. U fan, so I guess I could support them in the interest of his happiness, but everyone I know who knows anything about soccer is pro-Man. U (this was especially unbearable in the weeks following my friends' mission trip to Ireland, when all of a sudden everyone had a United jersey and were vowing to religiously begin follow the EPL), and I didn't want to follow suit. So, there it is. The unthinkable has happened. I am a soccer fan. Liverpool kicks the regular season off (no pun intended) on Aug. 16 against those yokels from Sunderland with their much less cool team crest (trash talking also helps build allegiance). I'll try to wrangle some channel that lets me watch most if not all of their games, and I'll enjoy every second of them.
P.S. - Just to insure you all that I have not lost my mind... ahem... I'm loving Maurice Jones-Drew, but in a split backfield with Fred Taylor, is worth a late first round pick, or should I use that on a QB and hope MJD is there on the comeback? Arrrggghhh!