Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Learning To Like A New Sport


I've been a fan of Arsenal and the English Premier League for five months now. The quick backstory: after being unimpressed by anything I saw in the World Cup, soccer fans encouraged me to follow the EPL. They promised a much more exciting and higher quality brand of soccer than that of the WC--so I promised to pick a team to follow for an entire year and really try to get into the sport.

I chose Arsenal because they were good, but not the best. They would be on TV every weekend. There was a great book written about their history--Fever Pitch--which I read and which really helped me learn about what it meant to follow not just Arsenal, but any EPL side. I also chose the Gunners because they had a reputation for playing a style of soccer that was pleasing to the eye--lots of nifty passing by highly skilled international athletes. And, they just seemed cool--a cool name, cool uniforms, cool history. So far, my choice has been a great one.

I'M A GOONER

I'm keeping my promise. I've seen every league game this season, plus a couple of the other trophy contests. Just last week, Arsenal sat atop the standings (or table, as it's called). Even though I've only been a fan for five months, it still made me swell with pride to see them in first place this deep into the season. But, they lost 1-0 to hated Manchester United, which again brought up the subject that haunts Arsenal: they can't win the big one. In their last 12 against Chelsea or Man U, they are 0-11-1. So, that is the mountain they must climb.

To my eye, Arsenal needs three things (other than health). They need a bit more offensive firepower (I don't understand why Walcott doesn't play more--they say he's he fastest player in the EPL and a good goal scorer). They need a bit more toughness on defense. And, they need a really good goal keeper. They seem to be very close to having all of that, but it's just not quite happening for them.

I've really enjoyed the personalities on the team, from the smooth Cesc who is a passing savant, to the cocky Nasri, who can be a brilliant goal scorer. Their coach, the Frenchman Arsene Wenger, spiced things up this season by having an affair with a French female rap star 35 years his junior. Good stuff!

It's only been five months, but I can't imagine rooting for another team. I chose wisely. My next objective is to see a game at the Emirates Stadium. One day.

LIKES AND DISLIKES

Above all, I'm really enjoying the color and pageantry of the league. The history, the stadiums, the uniforms, the international flavor, and of course the raucous crowds. I'm also digging the athleticism of the players--I've always known they had tremendous stamina, but they are also gifted athletes who have to be much tougher than you might think.

The television coverage of the EPL, and soccer in general, is tremendous. I never realized just how much soccer you can watch if you want to--if you have the right channels. Between certain Fox and ESPN channels, you can watch practically every EPL game each weekend. Amazing. And the coverage is top-notch. The graphics, camera angles, replays and announcers are all terrific. Ian Darke is the best play by play man I've heard, although the guy who sounds like Michael Palin is great, too.

I also like that you have no commercial breaks during each half--it's a tidy, less than two hour investment to make for every match.

The game itself I rate as good to very good. It's not football or basketball in terms of how it sucks me in. However, the EPL was a good tip--it's light years more entertaining than the World Cup. There are plenty of scoring chances in each game. There are usually enough goals. There are organized possessions and constant attacking, which is great. The passing and dribbling can be mesmerizing. I would rather watch Adrian Peterson rip off an 80 yarder, or Kobe make some crazy under-the-backboard-spin-around dunk--but I have to admit that the two goals that Nasri scored against Fulham this month had me jumping off the sofa.

To be honest, I've come around on most of the things I used to dislike about the sport. I don't really like draws--I would prefer a shootout--but I understand they have a place. I used to hate the flopping, but I'm used to it now. I also used to not understand, at all, offside--but I think I get it now. Soccer is like any sport--the rules are the rules, but the interpretation can vary from official to official.

THE SOCCER BONUS

I love my job. I love that I have to watch the Cowboys and Rangers for work. But, I'm also finding that I love watching Arsenal because I don't have to talk about their games on the radio. It's a bit of a release for me, in the same way that pro cycling is. They are escape sports--they are contested in lands far, far away, and I like that. I like that the average guy walking down the street has no idea that Arsenal finished second in their Champions League group, or that Philippe Gilbert won the Tour of Lombardy this fall. It's one of the reasons that, when I was a kid, I was so drawn to the Spurs--because they played in the ABA, and nobody at school new that league existed.

Five months. Not a long time, but I'm happy to report that I'm hooked. In five more months, five more years--even twenty five more years--I think I'll still be hooked. I just hope by then the Gunners have given me at least one trophy to cheer.