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.

7 comments:

  1. Amen, from one gunners fan to another.

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  2. With the return of Vermaelen and hopefully a healthy Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal should look like a different team.

    And you're right, Club soccer, especially in the EPL and Bundesliga is very fast paced and more entertaining than international, primarily b/c in WC teams are trying not to lose. That being said, America is on the verge of doing something great, maybe not in Brazil, or Russia, but Qatar stage to display our athletes.

    Goon on, Gooner.

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  3. As a new soccer fan myself I really hope the US never truly becomes a soccer nation. We have a way of "Americanizing" things, (video replay) that I feel like destroys a sport more than it helps it. There's something about the international flair of a sport that just grabs me. I'm a huge F1 fan as well, racing as God intended. I cross my fingers that it never catches on here either.

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  4. I'm heading to London on Boxing Day and hope to watch Arsenal/Chelsea. I am sure I will spend a mint but it will be worth it. Good on you for picking up what the game is about. It's a bit of agony since I've been following Arsenal almost 10 years and we've been so close. The shining moments have to be the Champions League Final against Barca and the undefeateds in '03-'04. You might have picked up there is a bit of hostility towards Arsenal by the English pundits, mainly because so much of the side is French and many of them can't deal with that. England is very xenophobic about it's football. I do appreciate that where someone is from doesn't influence, or seem to influence people who are fans of the NBA. In fact they seem to be embrace the international flavor of the NBA right now.

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  5. If arsenal win the carling cup then I think the players will clear a mental hurdle with the whole trophy drought. With the added confidence I hope that with the return to form of van persie, fabregas, diaby, and most of all vermalen we can win the premier league. Too bad we got barca in champs lg. Keep the futbol talk coming.

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  6. I find it ironic the way you guys promote Uverse each morning, yet uverse doesn't have FSC in HD, so you talk about Directv in your radio piece.

    Not a bad report and I like the way you approached this experiment. I like the observation of the teams being in the league one match, the champions league the next and so on.

    Here are a few things to help complete your knowledge.

    - Only English teams in the FA Cup? No, unfortunately(!) the Welsh also partake and one year Gretna Green from Scotland sneaked into the draw. Also this competition starts in July each year with hundreds of amateur English teams taking part. The lower league teams enter in the "first round proper" and the EPL teams join in round three.

    - Carling Cup (ie League Cup). Open to all 92 English professional teams. I wonder how much longer it will be around. Most EPL sides do not take it seriously anymore even though the winners do qualify for the Europa League (not the Champions league)

    - It's the "beautiful game", not the "beautiful sport". Well it is for most teams, not mine. It's pretty effing awful.

    - Not all European countries get to send 4 teams to the champions league. See the UEFA site for more info.

    Okay, so you have a basic degree of understanding. Now for your masters: can you get your head round promotion and relegation? Unfortunately Arsenal are at the wrong end of the table, so you may have to keep an eye on another team - like West Ham.

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  7. Craig, welcome fellow Gooner. I heard your piece on the radio yesterday on my way to work. I have been an Arsenal fan since the early 1970's. Fans who complain about the the lack of silverware since 2005 should recall the spells between 1971 and 1979 and again to 1988. Those were lean years with bad teams.

    I am fortunate enough to have seen the Arse at Highbury, the old Wembley, and in a few weeks I will make the trip from Big D to the Emirates to see the mighty Barcelona in the Champions League.

    The current Arsenal team can be frustrating to follow because (a) often they are too intent on passing the ball into the net and (b) they give up incredibly sloppy goals (c) Wenger can be very stubborn when it comes to solving glaring deficiencies.

    In the past his teams were renowned for solid defense and quick direct football. In the late 1990's when we had the defensive power of Adams, Keown etc, Vieira/Petite were bossing midfield and Overmars / Bergkamp / Anelka were en fuego.

    When you look at the Invincibles team with Henry, Silva, Edu, Lungberg, Pires, Reyes, Cole, Lauren, Campbell, Kanu, etc. it is hard to believe how they did not win the Champions League... The current team is good but that 2003 team was freaking awesome.

    Get your hands on those season review DVDs if you can.

    Maybe now that Szchezny (sp?) is in the team, GK is solved. Djourou has been great but we still need CD help. Who knows if Vermaelen will be back?

    TexasGreg is correct, the relegation battle for the final month or so can be compelling stuff. I think he might be a Hammers fan. I spent a memorable evening in a pub in Barking with Hammers fans watching their team beat Birmingham. When they belted out "Bubbles" the place was crazy. Good times.

    Anyway, keep rooting for the Gunners. I recommend the following blogs: Arseblog, A Cultured Left Foot, East Lower. Stay away from Arsenal News Review, he is a broken record. The Guardian has a good football section... Best regards.

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