Or: A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Premier League.
After the World Cup, I argued (persuasively, I might add) that soccer is never going to truly catch on in America.
Consider this my humble attempt to prove myself wrong.
Because I enjoyed the World Cup immensely, as always, and because I’m interested in testing my hypothesis, I’ve decided to attempt to follow the English Premier League this season.
To recap, the main reason I don’t think non-World-Cup soccer will catch on here is that Americans are too lazy and xenophobic to follow a foreign league, yet will also never buy into the MLS because of its inferior talent.
And since I used myself as I case in point, I figure I’m the perfect guinea pig to determine if I was right or not.
I’m probably a lot more likely to follow soccer than your typical American. I played soccer growing up, went to New York Cosmos games, and adore the World Cup. I’m not particularly patriotic, and have no problem in theory following a foreign league filled with foreign players. But I still only watch soccer once every four years. I make occasional passing attempts to learn more about the EPL, but never quite muster up the level of commitment it requires to completely learn a new league, new teams, new players, new rules, and everything else. Admittedly, I’m very lazy, but I’m willing to put some effort into my sports fandom, so if I’m unable and/or unwilling to make the leap, so are a lot of other people.
Well, I decided to put my laziness where my mouth is. Which led to this exchange:
The Dilemma: I think I’m going to try to follow the English Premier League this year.
Mrs. Dilemma: This is the worst day of my life.
Fair enough, but I must not let the haters and naysayers deter me. Nonetheless, diving into a professional sports league without any prior knowledge is a daunting task, and that’s before you factor in the England/U.S. culture gap and my limited understanding of soccer in general.
Going into this season, I knew almost nothing about how the EPL worked. I could name maybe 5 teams (the two Manchester teams, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal). I knew that Wayne Rooney was on Manchester United, could name maybe 10-20 other players in the league, but had no idea who played on which team. I knew that certain teams are relegated to the lower division each season, but not how many or any related details. I didn’t know if there was a playoff. I didn’t know what the fuck the FA Cup was, or the Champions League or any of the other myriad, confusing leagues or tournaments related to the EPL. Whatever knowledge I had picked up from reading “Fever Pitch” many years ago has long since been lost.
So, if I wasn’t starting from scratch, I was pretty damn close.
First things first — I had to pick a team to root for. I chose Liverpool, in part because I have an uncle from Liverpool, and vaguely recall rooting for Liverpool to do well when I was a kid, and in part to avoid a long, self-indulgent process. So Liverpool it is. Go, you reds! No? Is that not right?
Next, I tried to learn as much as I could about the league before the season started last month. I read newspapers and blogs. I watched terrible preview shows on the Fox Soccer Channel. I pestered my Canadian friend with questions. And I still felt woefully unprepared when the season began. My mind doesn’t work the same way it did when I was 7, when I could recite the batting average of any player in the American League. Now, short a few million brain cells, I still can’t even memorize the 20 teams in the EPL.
But the start of the season waits for no man, and I was forced to immerse myself in the EPL, like a dim-witted high school student wandering around Paris, trying to learn French from snippets of overheard conversations and shop banners.
Here, then, are my thoughts on a virgin’s experience following the English Premier League. I began the season with the goal of watching two games in full each week (Liverpool’s, plus whatever game ESPN2 was showing in HD), as well as a highlights show.
Please note: consider all incorrect soccer terminology sic’d, with my apologies.
Four matches into the season, most of my thoughts are centered on the process of choosing a team to root for somewhat arbitrarily, and then trying to develop an emotional connection to that team.
At the start of the season’s first game, my feelings toward Liverpool were no different than if I randomly chose a team to root for in an NBA game to maintain my interest. I couldn’t even conjure up the same emotion I feel when rooting for a team for fantasy purposes.
By the end of that 1-1 draw against Arsenal, though, I was at least partially invested. It’s a testament to the power of sport, and the suggestibility of the human brain, that an attachment can form that quickly. Now, I’m not saying I could ever develop the sort of tie to Liverpool that I have with teams I grew up loving, or even close, but I was reasonably disheartened when Liverpool’s José Manuel Reina allowed a very soft goal that let Arsenal come away with a point.
I hope to eventually care enough about Liverpool that I’ll look forward to their games, and that I’ll care about their results enough that the feeling, good or bad, stays with me for more than 20 minutes. Now, three games later, I’m not really any closer to that point. Yes, I get involved in Liverpool’s games, and I want them to win. But when I watch random matches, I get almost that involved by the end of the match, rooting for a particular team or player.
Moreover, I tried a similar experiment with the NBA some years back, and it failed miserably. I disavowed my childhood team, the New York Knicks (see here for why), and rather than give up on the NBA entirely, I decided to follow Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy to the Houston Rockets and start supporting them. The Rockets also had one of my favorite players, Dikembe Mutombo, on the roster, and with Van Gundy and Mutombo they seemed as good a choice as any.
My Rockets fandom lasted all of a quarter season before lack of access and lack of passion doomed it irrevocably. I haven’t been an NBA fan since. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned that my Liverpool experiment will end the same way. I want to become closer to Liverpool and the EPL, but at this point my fandom is still 98% theoretical, and it’s hard to force subjectivity. It’s like trying to talk yourself into falling in love with someone you only appreciate.
It’s also an odd feeling being so late to a bandwagon. Most Americans who became legitimate EPL fans did so long ago. I feel like a Johnny-come-lately who starts loving an alternative band only after they sell one of their songs to the soundtrack of an Ethan Hawke movie (yes, I came of age in the ’90s — stay with me, here, people. Insert Zach Braff for Ethan Hawke if it pleases you.). Meanwhile, that band’s true fans, the one’s who’ve been around since they played shitty clubs for 20 people, and the ones who love B-sides from the first album that most people have never heard of — those fans hate guys like me. And I don’t blame them. I was one of them.
Like Stringer Bell, I’m a man without a country. Hardcore soccer fans, and big Liverpool fans, likely have no interest in me piggybacking on their passion. And the people like me, other newbies with dumb questions who don’t fully understand what constitutes a foul on a slide tackle, well, they’re no help either. So much of the experience of sports fandom is about community (including what I love most about the World Cup — being in a bar at 6 a.m. with a bunch of drunk soccer fans), that it’s a troubling omen that I feel so solitary in my pursuit at this point.
Mind you, that solitude is solely about my perception. Liverpool fans could be the friendliest, most welcoming people in the world, but I have no access point or entryway.
So, over the course of a season, we’ll find out whether or not I can force myself to fall in love. Meanwhile, here are some other early thoughts about the EPL from a newcomer’s perspective.
The timing. I love waking up early on weekend mornings and having decent games to watch on TV. Those of us who don’t live on the West Coast are used to having to kill a lot of time before any kind of decent televised sports get rolling. The time difference works to my advantage, because if I were forced to choose between the EPL and either baseball or the NFL, the EPL would lose. This way, I have a wonderful excuse to avoid the gym on weekends.
Less flopping. Maybe it’s small sample size, but there seems to be a lot less flopping, fake limping and whining in the EPL than in the World Cup. Maybe it’s because the stakes are lower, so players are a touch more honest?
The weather. A high percentage of matches thus far have been played at least partially in the rain, which is fun to watch.
The managers. Premier League managers just seem cooler than coaches in other sports. They seem to combine the outsized personalities of American football coaches, while dressing much more stylishly.
The uniforms. Or kits, or whatever the fuck we’re supposed to call them. There are some awesome ones. Like this:
And this, which Sonny Crockett would kill for:
Being at the mercy of the announcers. Any American sports fan above the age of 15, and with an IQ higher than 75, understands that our sports announcers are largely imbecilic blowhards. They contribute nothing to our collective knowledge of the sport; they rely on clichés; they attempt to fit a game’s events into a neat narrative; and their analysis (if they even attempt analysis) is simple and flawed. Are most EPL announcers similarly awful? Unfortunately, I don’t know nearly enough about soccer or the league to even guess at an answer. And so, I’m forced to rely on the announcers to help me understand what’s going on — whether or not a team is sticking to its game plan, whether or not a certain midfielder is having a terrible game, even whether or not a certain play is a difficult save or shot. I’m completely at their mercy. If the announcers I’m listening to are as bad as, say, Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, Troy Aikman or Chris Berman, then I’m fucked. My understanding of soccer is going backwards. In professional wrestling, there are two kinds of fans: “marks” and “smarts.” Marks think that wrestling is real and unscripted, and believe everything said over the course of a telecast. Smarts realize that wrestlers are characters, match outcomes are predetermined, etc. When it comes to the EPL, I’m essentially a mark at this point. To mix my sports/sports entertainment metaphors, if the British equivalent of Joe Morgan told me the soccer equivalent of “getting on base doesn’t matter; you just clog up the basepaths,” I would have no choice but to believe him. It’s not a good feeling.
The blowouts. It’s not fun watching Chelsea destroy some lower-tier team 6-0. And although it’s early in the season, it certainly seems like that’s going to happen a lot. For all of the complaints about disparity in baseball payrolls, and lack of competitive balance in MLB, the Premier League seems to be in a far worse situation. There are a handful of teams, maybe only two or three, that seem like they can compete for the league title, and no more than 7 or 8 who seem like they can finish in the top four, hence earning a spot in the Champions League (which is apparently a big deal). And that restrictive list of competitors is determined largely by money: which teams have it, and which owners are willing to spend it. I’m not opposed in theory to a large range of payrolls in a given league, but in the Premier League the haves and have-nots seem to be separated by a very wide, very deep gulf. In and of itself, that might not bother me. (I’m not advocating for revenue sharing or a salary cap.) But when it leads to matches that aren’t remotely entertaining, it does. On any given day, the Kansas City Royals can beat the Yankees. The Cleveland Browns can beat the Colts. But does West Brom have a legitimate chance against Chelsea? I’m sure there are massive upsets on occasion, made all the more special by their rarity, but having to wade through a morass of dull blowouts to get there doesn’t seem worth it. College football holds no interest for me, in part because I have no interest in watching Alabama beat some Division II school 63-7. Also troubling, many analysts are predicting Chelsea will win the league by a wide margin this year, which, to me, would render the season’s final weeks uninteresting. The lack of a playoff seems like a huge mistake. I’m just not sure I can care enough about who qualifies for the Europa League to overlook the fact that the league’s champion is all but a foregone conclusion.
The uniforms redux. The prime location of sponsor logos, front and center on nearly every team’s shirt, is a travesty. It makes the players look like a minor league baseball team’s outfield wall. Don’t worry, though, I’m not about to turn this into Uni Watch.
The goal. In the U.S., we’re conditioned to believe that there’s only one worthwhile result to a professional sports season — a championship. I’m having trouble adjusting to a league where some teams are fighting for a title, some teams are fighting for a spot in a different league (Champions, Europa), some times are fighting not to be relegated, and some teams have even more abstract goals (finishing in the top half, improving on last year, etc.). And for those teams in the Champions and Euro leagues, what’s more important — a good showing there, or a strong season in the Premier League? I have no clue.
The rules. Seriously, what constitutes a foul? A yellow card? A red card? It all seems quite arbitrary, and dependent on the referee’s judgment.
The substitutions. Based on what I’ve read and heard so far, a lot of teams aren’t necessarily starting their best 11 players. I can’t tell whether it’s all strategy (i.e. putting a team out there with the best chemistry), or whether it’s dues to the fitness levels of players, or internal politics.
Those are my early impressions. I’ll check in throughout the year and update the Great Premier League Experiment of 2010.
In the meantime, here are a handful of blogs and Web sites I’ve relied on so far to help piece together my limited knowledge. If you’d like to join my little experiment/challenge, these sites are a good place to start:
Premier League Sites
If there are any other blogs I should be reading, let me know, either in the comments or here.