Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The Experiment is Over
Last year at this time, the men's World Cup had just finished. I wasn't impressed. The soccer was generally boring to me. Perhaps it was the constant sound of the vuvuzelas coming from the South African crowds, perhaps it was the great lack of scoring opportunities during each game, or perhaps it was that I knew almost none of the players. Whatever the reason(s), I mentioned on the show how the World Cup generally put me to sleep, and that opinion was met with great anger from the soccer community. So, I decided to give the world's number one sport one more chance.
Most of the emails I received from soccer fans actually agreed with me. They said that the World Cup was not the best soccer to watch--that most of the teams played very defensively and they weren't as familiar with their WC teammates as they were with their normal professional club teammates. Many suggested that I watch European pro soccer--the English Premier League, La Liga (Spain), or Serie A (Italy). I decided that the best the league to follow would be the EPL, since everything would be in my language--the broadcasts, the articles, etc. I also decided to pick one team and follow them for the entire season, that way I would get very familiar with the players while seeing every other team in the EPL as they popped up on the schedule.
But which team? At The Ticket, Bob Sturm adopted Liverpool, so I couldn't pick them. Man U are the Yankees of the EPL, so I couldn't pick them. Chelsea is a close second to Man U, so I didn't want to pick them, either. I didn't want to go too far down the EPL table, because I needed a team that would be popular enough to have all or most of their games televised. Arsenal stood out. They are very good, but not the best. They have a colorful history. They have a cool name. And, everyone told me that they played a very wide-open, Euro-style of football that would be exciting to watch. So, a year ago today, I officially adopted the Gunners. The announcement was carried around the world. My one year experiment was underway.
I pledged that I would watch all of the Arsenal games that I could, read as much about them and the sport as I could, and, at the end of the year, I would decide whether the sport was worth my time or not. How did I do? Of the 38 regular season games, I saw 32 of them. I missed a couple due to vacation, and I missed the last three at the end of the season when I lost interest and while the NBA playoffs were heating up. I checked my various soccer websites almost daily. Bob loaned me his copy of Fever Pitch, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I bought an issue of Four-Four-Two magazine and digested it. I gave the experiment all that I had. I left everything out there. It was a remarkable effort.
My conclusion? I really enjoyed the journey, and I now really enjoy the sport. I had a blast. Arsenal was, at times, very frustrating, but they were always interesting and entertaining. Some of my favorite things from my year with the EPL:
The Four Competitions: It's a long season, and with the schedule constantly broken up by the four different trophies that clubs chase, I thought it would be too much. It actually turned out to be one of the most interesting things about the season. The EPL title, the Champions League title, the FA Cup and the Carling Cup all being contested during the same season keeps things lively. Arsenal had a shot to win all four (they didn't win any). Just as you might start getting bored with the EPL regular season, here comes a Champions League game against Barcelona, or the Carling Cup Final, or a game against Man U in the FA Cup. Can't imagine that kind of a season working for an American pro sports league. Maybe that's why I liked it so much-it was different.
The Color and Pageantry: I can't wait to go to an Arsenal game in person. I will do it this season. It's a spectacle on television, so it must be 10 times better in person. I love Euro sports anyway--the signage, the announcers, the uniforms. Again, it's different to what I'm used to watching in this country, so it's stimulating. The fans, the chants, the stadiums--it all captured me.
The Game: I now understand why they call it 'the beautiful game.' It's not always beautiful when watching the World Cup or the MLS, but when you see the best players in the world playing in the best leagues in the world, it's beautiful. The EPL teams, for the most part, play to win. Arsenal's style is great--their passing is precise, they like to get up and down the pitch, and they get a lot of scoring opportunities (although they tend to want to walk the ball into the net sometime, which made me sorry I missed the halcyon days of Thierry Henry). Bottom line: I don't need a lot of goals to make me happy, but I do need a lot of scoring chances, and I got a lot in the average EPL match. I also like the fact that it's a tidy presentation: two, 45 minute, running clock halves. Two hours for a match--never more, never less. The only time you see a commercial during a game is pregame, halftime, or postgame.
The EPL Table: 20 teams. You play each team twice--once at home, once on the road. That's perfect. No divisions. No playoff. Simple. Top team wins the title (the best always wins--no chance of some Wild Card team getting hot and stealing a championship), top four teams qualify for the Champions League (the best of Europe), and the bottom three teams each season--get this--are demoted! The crappy teams get sent down to the minor leagues and the three best from the minors get called up to the show--great concept!
I learned that there is a lot to like about soccer, and I'm just scratching the surface. One problem: I've already become a soccer snob. Just like an NFL fan trying to watch the CFL or the XFL, I can't just sit down and watch any college, low pro-level or women's soccer match. But at least my one year experiment has given me a base of knowledge to work with when discussing the sport.
Soccer didn't become my favorite sport (I would still rather watch a bike race, any NBA game, any NFL game, or any college football game over soccer), but it's now on par with baseball and golf for me, and ahead of hockey and tennis and anything else. It's something that I'll always watch and follow. I'll always be an Arsenal fan.
I also discovered that you are never too old to start following a new sport. It can be invigorating. There is so much great action and drama out there, it's a pity that some people get football or baseball tunnel vision. In fact, I'm thinking about adopting a new sport to watch this fall--maybe curling? Or badminton? Or camel racing?
I was wrong last year when I said that soccer sucks. I should have said cricket sucks.