The Soccer Project: The Kickoff

The first step in the long journey of an American attempting to become a soccer fan. And he needs your help.

This is the first article in a series of articles in which I will be chronicling my attempts to become a soccer fan. Last month, my colleague and fellow New Jerseyan Michael Collins wrote a little about why Americans should get into soccer, and I agree with him. In fact, I’ve shared the same sentiment for a few years now. The problem is that every attempt I’ve made to get into the sport has been a failure. But I’m determined to make this time different. The season is just getting underway and I’m ready to go; but this isn’t just about me, it’s about you too.

What you’re reading right now is The Kickoff, a/k/a the introduction. Don’t worry, each segment will be cleverly named; but for now, The Kickoff will lay the foundation for The Soccer Project. This article will be broken down into four segments:

The Appeal: Why soccer appeals to me and, consequently, why The Soccer Project exists.
The Method: What’s the best way to become a soccer fan?
The Structure: The various stages of The Soccer Project.
My Background: My history with the sport.

Here’s where you, Reader, come in. I want you to join me. If you’re not already a soccer fan and want to become one, then you can follow me along the way. By the end, we’ll all be best friends or bitter rivals. It’ll be great! Now, if you already are a soccer fan, I need your help even more. I need you to guide me, push me, or pull me along the way – more on this later. But first, let me address why soccer is so appealing to me.

The Appeal

Other than the fact that I am trying to become a more “stylish American” and that it is the most popular sport on the planet, I’m interested in soccer because of its mysterious allure. For instance, I understand the rules of the game, but not necessarily how the gears turn. Up close, the game is very frenetic – there are collisions and impacts. But from a distance, it’s very fluid. Waiting for a goal in a soccer match is like watching the tide roll in and out on the beach. Everything looks the same for twenty minutes and then a huge wave materializes out of nowhere and your sand castle’s ruined. It’s exciting and the rhythm of the game can be hypnotic.

This effect is magnified by the artistry in which the matches are broadcast. I can’t recall a camera ever being suspended from wires and swinging about the stadium during a televised match. The camera tends to remain stationary. The broadcasters are also seemingly unable to resist showing close-up slow motion replays of players’ devastated faces after they miss an easy scoring opportunity. The agony! It’s fantastic!

However, I think my two favorite things about soccer are its volume and timing. Considering vuvuzelas are not usually a factor in the soccer matches I watch, soccer is a relatively quiet sport as far as television broadcasts go. Even when the fans get into it, they’re not chanting like some drunken hooligans, they’re singing songs (which help disguise the fact that they sometimes actually are a drunken hooligans). And all this is peppered with the oft-poetic commentary of Andy Gray and his contemporaries. It’s brilliant! as they say. Silence is underrated. Remember that line from Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, “constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.” Charlie Kaufman gets it. Soccer commentators get it. I cannot think of one American commentator who does.

But that’s not surprising; American television is unceasingly loud. In fact, silence on American television usually means: “something is wrong.” It could just be a particularly dramatic scene in Breaking Bad, but maybe it’s technical difficulties at the network, or a memorial service for a fallen police officer; either way, something is usually “wrong” in some sense of the word. Volume is the noisy standard. They play hip-hop over the PA system during NBA games now (does anyone know when that began?). From Around The Horn to The Real Housewives of Outdoorvoicestown, people are screaming at you through your television. And that’s not to mention the commercials. (Note: According to the CALM Act, advertisers have until December 15 of this year, at the latest, to quit ratcheting up the volume on these ads.) Soccer clears the air.

The viewer of a soccer match is inundated with visual stimuli as opposed the auditory. Advertisements surround the field and are stamped all over the players’ uniforms. Marketing budgets have been vomited all over the stadium; but when you really think about it, it’s an amazing thing. It keeps the game going. There are no commercial breaks. Brilliant!

This is where the timing of soccer comes in. They play two forty-five minute halves, plus “stoppage time” added on to the end of each one. That’s how the game is broadcast. The clock does not stop, which means there are no commercials during the game. Not only does this eliminate the loud ads, but if you sit down to watch a soccer match, you can make a relatively accurate guess as to when the game is going to end. Essentially, an average soccer match is going to last anywhere from 107 to 127 minutes (90 minutes of regulation time, 15 minutes for halftime, 2 to 12 minutes of stoppage time) and then you’re done. You can plan your day around it.

The Method

So, if soccer is so great, why can’t I just jump into the game and become a fan? The problem is that I have no connection to the sport. There’s nothing motivating me to go watch it. This isn’t a problem during the World Cup or Olympics because I have a connection through my nationality – I’m pulling for the USA. It’s the time in between these tournaments where I have nothing. So, in order to make soccer part of life, I need to find something to hold on to. The way I figure it, there are two methods of doing so.

Method 1: Find a favorite player and follow that player.

The big upside of this method is that if I only tie my allegiance to a single player, I’ll never get heartbroken when he leaves one club for another. And from my understanding, this happens frequently. In fact, I’m experiencing it first hand as an Arsenal fan/fellow HH writer copes with the departure of Robin van Persie. That being said, if I do get into soccer, I will undoubtedly start hating some club for some reason. And if my favorite player transferred there, I’d be forced to cut all ties. Also, I’m not sure I have enough experience with the game to appreciate the nuance of an individual player’s talent. I mean, it’s clearly visible to me how amazing Lionel Messi is, but he’s the best player in the world, right? What’s the fun in picking the best?

Method 2: Find a favorite team and follow that team.

This seems like the better method to me for a few reasons. By picking a favorite team to follow, there are more players available to get attached to, as well as years of culture and history (and WAGs) to learn about. Also, if I’m bound to a club, there will be other fans of that club to watch/discuss the games with. On top of all that, I can get financially invested by purchasing a generic team jersey as opposed to one of a specific player. This way there’s no fear of the player switching clubs on me. Plus, my frugality will force me to get my money’s worth out of it – I’ll have to watch every game.

What factors should I consider when picking a team?

League

Choosing a team from Major League Soccer (MLS) would defeat the point of The Soccer Project. It would be like trying to pick a favorite baseball team and then picking INSERT NAME OF MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL TEAM HERE. At the end of the day, this is about entertainment. I want to watch the best of the best. That’s not to say that I won’t adopt an MLS squad as a secondary team, but that’s another discussion.

That narrows the field down to everywhere outside the United States. Since I know of no soccer leagues in South America, Asia, or Africa, that leaves me with Europe. I know there is a Spanish league (La Liga), an Italian league (Serie A), and an English league (Premier League). I know there are world-class teams and players in each of those leagues. (I also know about the UEFA Champions League.) But the fact of the matter is that the Premier League is the only one of those leagues that ever gets broadcast through my cable provider. Since choosing a team that I would never get to watch would defeat the purpose of this, I will be choosing a team from the English Premier League.

Geography

Fanhood is usually borne from geographic ties – if you grow up in Chicago, you’re probably a Bears fan. It doesn’t have to work like that, but when trying to pick a new team to follow out of the blue, it seems like geographic location would be the most important factor. If you pick the “home team,” there is probably a high concentration of like-minded fans around you, it will be easier to actually go see a game in person, there will be better news coverage of the team, etc. Unfortunately, I do not live in England, have never been to England, and have no relatives from England. Aside from picking my secondary MLS team (good news for the New York Red Bulls), it seems like the geography of the team is a irrelevant.

Dressing

The idea of dressing includes such subfactors as team name, colors, uniform, emblem, mascot, songs, etc. For the most part, I imagine this having little impact on my decision, unless any of these subfactors are abnormally amazing or horrible. I do have a sneaking suspicion that a particularly great song might be able to sway me one way or the other.

Reputation

This one should be the most important factor in the decision. The concept of “reputation” includes fan behavior, team management and ownership, the culture of the club, etc. Does the club throw obscene amounts of money at superstar players or do they grow their talent from within? Do the fans jeer at the team’s first misstep or are they supportive? Has there been any scandal in the team’s present or past? Is the club’s owner a sleaze-bag? You get the idea. Like I said, as for me, this should be one of the most important factors in the decision, but I’m afraid that I’m too far removed from the history of these teams to get a good grasp on it.

Intangibles

There’s also a very good chance that a decision like this could be made based on some intangible quality of a team or player. I’m not ruling out the possibility of choosing a team and then not being able to articulate why.

The Structure

Allow me to explain how exactly The Soccer Project is going to work. I figured the best way to go about this is with some structure. The following will outline the various stages of The Soccer Project.

The Pitch

Reader, are you listening? This is where you come in. The Pitch is the next step of The Soccer Project and in order for it to happen, I need some feedback. You are going to try and sell me on a team. Or you can argue that for me to not choose a certain team. Whatever you want. Aside from what is listed at the bottom of this page under the My Background section, assume that I know nothing. Please, either leave your argument in the comments section on this page or email it to me at jpetro@halftimehennessy.com. Once I’ve received your pitches and arguments, I will publish them, along with my personal research and write up my reaction. I’ll let you know if I’ve been persuaded in one way or another. The goal of The Pitch is to find a couple of teams that I can take on a “test run.”

The Match

After The Pitch, I will spend some time following the teams you’ve recommended. The Premier League has already began, so I will start watching matches for the teams you’ve most convincingly argued for. During this installment, I will write about my experiences so far with all the teams. We’ll see if any of the remaining clubs are shaping up to be a match.

The Keeper

In the final installation of this entire venture, I will lay it all out and tell you which club I’ve decided is a keeper. The Keeper will be the team whose colors I will bleed, whose jersey I will wear, and whose songs I will sing. The Keeper will be my team.

My Background

Before people start recommending teams to me in The Pitch, I think it’s important that give everyone some background on where I stand, not only with soccer, but sports in general

Sports

I’m from New Jersey, but my three favorite sports teams are the New York Giants, Philadelphia Flyers, and Chicago Cubs. These have been my teams since I was four-years-old. It will do you no good to ask why. In my sporting life, there have been some high points and a few low ones, too. I do not like frontrunners, I do like underdogs. I do not like prima donnas, I do like players with grit and integrity.

I very much dislike the New York Yankees and the Duke Blue Devils. Remember that factor of Reputation I was talking about? These are the types I’d like to avoid. If you’re a Yankees or Duke fan, please do not try and persuade me otherwise or make some “clever” joke about them having a “reputation for winning.” I’ve heard it all before. If you share my opinion in regard to those two teams, you know exactly what I want to avoid.

Soccer

About three years ago, I started this same process, except I figured that over time, some team would choose me as part of their little club. That never happened, so I’m going to try and be more proactive now.

At one point, I tried getting into Liverpool for two reasons: The Beatles were from Liverpool (I’m a huge Beatles fan), and their sponsor was Carlsberg (I’m a huge Carlsberg fan). It seemed like the perfect match; but it never clicked. That’s not to say I’m ruling Liverpool out.

From what I understand, Manchester United has that same “championship-buying” reputation as the Yankees. For that reason, I am extremely averse to becoming a Manchester United fan. That’s not to say that I’ve completely ruled them out, but it’s going to take a well-crafted argument to convince me otherwise.

I have also considered Arsenal because I have the most familiarity with them. I enjoy reading Steve Rushin, who is an Arsenal fan. So is my uncle. And I’ve also spent the last two years living with an Arsenal fan. I currently know the most about Arsenal and Arsenal’s history than any other soccer club in the world. If I’m being honest, they are probably the unofficial frontrunner at the moment.

What else do I know about soccer?

  • The sport is called “football”
  • The field is called a “pitch”
  • The goalie is called a “keeper”
  • The uniform is called a “kit”
  • The team is called the “club”
  • A game is called “match”
  • A “rubber match” is not a novelty prank you give to a person that you anticipate is trying to prank you with trick candles on your birthday cake.
  • Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo are the two best players in the world right now.
  • I do not like Ronaldo.
  • I really like Messi.
  • Wayne Rooney got bad hair plugs.
  • Thierry Henry is one of the greatest to ever play the game.
  • I really like the fact that the worst teams in the Premier League get bumped each year and new teams come in. More professional sports need this.
  • The premiere league has a “Big Four” that includes Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal; yet Manchester City won the Premiere League in 2011.

Here’s where you come in…

Now that you know my soccer intelligence, you should be fully equipped to make a strong argument as to which team I should adopt as my own. There’s a lot of room to work with. So, this is what I’d like to know:

  • What should I be doing to gain a greater appreciation of the sport?
  • What considerations should I be making that I have not so far?
  • What players are exciting to watch?
  • Which teams should I be considering and why?
  • Which teams should I be ignoring and why?
  • Also, as this goes on I will start to use the English lingo instead of the terms we use here in the States (see, it’s already starting). For instance, I’d say “I’d like a banger in the mouth” rather than “I’d like a sausage in the mouth.” So, is there any other great English football vocabulary I need to brush up on?

Once again, you can answer any of these questions or make me a formal pitch in either the comments section of this post, or through email at jpetro@halftimehennessy.com. I’ll be doing my own research this whole time, too.

Remember, if you’re like me and have also been trying to get into soccer, now is your chance. Here is the American broadcast schedule for Premier League matches for the weekend. Note, those times are in the morning, not at night. The matches air early on weekends. Set your DVR if necessary.

Join me on this journey. What’s the worst that could happen? If all else fails, we can just do what Michael suggested in the first place: “Pick a teambuy a sweet jersey, head to the bar and join the party.”

Photo via flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

, , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “The Soccer Project: The Kickoff”

  1. Sid
    August 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    Hmm well I told you about my support for Man U…but if you want to pick a decent team with some interesting players I suggest Tottenham Hotspur. They are a London club who are always competing for that top spot in the Premier League. They fly under the radar but have the ability to beat any team in Europe….They also have some high profile players from all over the world including Rafael Van der Vaart from the Netherlands, Emmanuel Adebayor from Togo, Benoit Assou-Ekotto from Cameroon and Garreth Bale from Whales. Check em out

    Something to note, Tottenham have not qualified for the UEFA Champions League…tournament that goes on throughout the year to see who the best team in Europe is. I believe the top 4 teams (from previous year) from each major league qualitfy and then they have some smaller teams as well. They do a huge yearlong tournament that culminates with the Champions League final…last year Chelsea beat Bayern Munich on penalties. Always great football to watch even if you dont have a horse in the race. There are other tournaments and stuff during the year as well, but i can explain those later

  2. Brian Roberts
    August 28, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    I like your idea. I am a huge soccer fan, have played since I was 5, and a good friend of your Van Persie-depressed friend Marty Lebel. The first thing I would recommend is that you read the book “Bloody Confused” by Chuck Culpepper. It follows an American sports writer as he moves to England and becomes initiated in the world hooligans, rivalries, and tradition that is English football.

    I would love to spend the remaining time convincing you to support Valencia in La Liga. They are my team, adopted while I spent 5 months there studying abroad. They are the consistent underdog team you’re looking for while always remaining competitive. In fact, rooting for any team in Spain except Barca and Madrid is a case is masochism. And the rarity of being able to watch Los Che (Valencia’s nickname) makes each event incredibly special. About once a month I will find a game on TV or available on ESPN3. Occasionally I can watch games on atdhenet as well.

    But if you’ve definitely settled on the Prem for its availability, I understand. Just please don’t become one of those fans that assumes all teams and players from England must be awesome because you’ve heard of them, while all those players and teams from other leagues that you HAVEN’T heard of must suck, because if they were any good, you would know who they are. That is my biggest complaint of novice soccer fans.

    Rooting for Liverpool might make sense as they are a tradition-laden team attempting to make a comeback from a few years of poor results. And you get the added bonus of getting a behind the scenes look from the new documentary series starting on Fox Soccer Channel next month.

    I’ve had a soft spot for Fulham for a while. I suppose it started with Clint Dempsey playing there (although he now appears to be on his way out), but you also have to love their stadium, Craven Cottage. If you love stadiums with character like Wrigley, then you’ll love the Cottagers. I also just watched their narrow defeat to ManU over the weekend and their new Belgian player Mousa Dembele is really exciting to watch. They are a consistently solid team, rarely flirting with relegation, but never a threat to win the league. They may qualify for Europa Cup (the second tier European championship), but they will likely never qualify for Champions League, and instead you’ll find yourself watching other people’s teams in the midweek matches.

    I would actually urge you to NOT pick Arsenal, because to me they’ve become the trendy pick. The team that pushes for “beautiful football” as opposed to titles, and so the people that pick them are really just trying to prove to the rest of us that they are knowledgeable and appreciative of the sport.

    The only teams I would be disgusted if you picked them would be Man City and Chelsea. Winners of the EPL and Champions League last season. Both were bought by billionaires a few years back and have since bought up as many players as can fit on their rosters. Both are filled with unlikeable players, although I will always love City’s David Silva for his attitude, brilliance on the ball, and years of service to Valencia.

    The surprise team of the first couple weeks has been Swansea. I have no idea who they have on their roster, but maximum points and an aggregate 8-0 scoreline in 2 games suggest they could be exciting to watch.

    I could keep going team by team, but this has dragged on long enough. If you want any more opinions let me know.

  3. Brian Roberts
    August 29, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    take back what i said about Dembele, he just got sold to Tottenham

Leave a Reply

Leave your opinion here. Please be nice. Your Email address will be kept private.