For the most part, mentioning that you are a Premier League fan in America will often garner some confused looks. Further clarification that you are a football fan will garner a brief flicker of camaraderie before they realize what you actually meant: soccer, i.e. football to the rest of the world. From there, they will begin to dismantle the sport with a string of tired criticisms. It’s boring. Not enough scoring. The rules are confusing. It’s not REAL football. The players are pansies who flop on the ground and fake injuries when a gentle breeze hits them. I then regurgitate some practiced rebuttals and the conversation ends in a stalemate.
What I have found particularly interesting is the willingness of American football fans to over-justify the sport and rip on everything else. I never feel the need to criticize American football, it’s just not my cup of tea. But every time I get into this conversation, it always devolves into a soccer slander rather than curious inquiry. And so, I thought it would be beneficial to other footie fans to outline why I prefer to watch The Beautiful Game as my sport of choice.
Full disclaimer before we begin: this is a fluff post meant as a playful ribbing. I am not a rabid fan out to chastise someone else’s opiate. I enjoy sports as a leisure activity, something I use to kill time between endeavors. I recognize that I am watching millionaires play each other with absolutely nothing of consequence on the line. Hell, most of the players aren’t even from the cities they represent. I get it. Professional sports are inherently dumb. But, I still enjoy a good game of footie, and those who don’t are terrible people. (rimshot)
This critique annoys me to no end. There are usually two main reasons why people say this: 1) they don’t understand the tactics, and 2) they watch the ball.
You have to think of soccer as full-contact chess. Attacking plays involve several calculated steps that often take several minutes to execute. There is also a three-act structure where teams feel each other out for the first 30 minutes, adjust to weaknesses during the next 30 minutes, then either attack or defend for the last 30 minutes, depending on how the previous 60 minutes played out. Once you understand what the hell is going on, you start to appreciate the sport as a giant head game playing out in real time.
Furthermore, if you’re watching the ball, you’re doing it wrong. Sure, the whole point is to get the round thing in the rectangular thing, but that’s not a simple task. It requires a great deal of situational awareness to pick the right play at the right time with the right players. If you’re just watching the ball, you have no idea what the hell is going on and it can seem like a bunch of grown men kicking a ball back and forth. But if you understand the tactics, you say things like “right back making a run” rather than “kick the ball.”
Not enough scoring.
If all you want to see are big point tallies, then I have to question why you watch sports. Large point spreads usually indicate that luck plays a factor. Take basketball for instance. How many times have you watched a player score with a random toss while falling? It happens, a lot. In my opinion, lucky plays devalue the points. Soccer is much different in that the points are almost always earned through tactical play. Ironically, the highest scoring matches in soccer are often the most boring. It’s just not fun to watch a juggernaut team destroy a lesser team. There are no exciting maneuvers when one team is grossly outmatched. The best games are when two evenly-matched teams try to pick each other apart, often for a hard-fought 1-0 victory. Furthermore, a great save in soccer is just as exciting as a great score. Some of the most exciting games I have ever watched were 0-0 draws where the goalkeepers put on world-class performances.
As a great example, consider the 2014 World Cup. During a semi-final match, Germany destroyed Brazil 7-1. The first few goals were exciting, but the game quickly devolved into a boring rout. Germany totally outclassed Brazil and the crowd went silent. But in the final, Germany and Argentina went head to head as equally matched teams. Germany won 1-0 when Mario Gotze scored a brilliant volley in overtime. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better game of soccer. It was completely engrossing from the first minute to the last.
The rules are confusing.
Then learn them. I have no idea why people say this, but every sport has rules. Hell, cricket rules read like a Death Star operations manual, but the sport has millions of fans worldwide. The most confusing rule in soccer is offsides, so let me help you out. An attacking player is in an offside position if they have no defender between them and the goal. A violation is called if they were offside when the ball was passed. There, you’re welcome.
It’s not REAL football.
When someone drops this ‘Merica jewel, I don’t even fight it. I just respond with a simple stat. The Super Bowl, the single biggest sporting event in America, draws about 100 million viewers on average. In contrast, a regular league match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will draw 400 million viewers. That’s right, just a middle-of-the-season match with nothing on the line but league points will bring in four times the viewership of the biggest event in American sports. Based on popularity alone, I can safely assert that it is I who watches real football. (And not to point out the obvious, but my football is actually played with the foot.)
The players are pansies who flop on the ground and fake injuries when a gentle breeze hits them.
We actually share your frustration with this one. It’s annoying as hell to watch players fake injuries and flop around as if they’ve been shot. But, you have to put this activity into context. Soccer has no time-outs or instant replay. At the top level, players jockey for the slimmest of advantages. One of these tactics involves hamming up tackles in order to get favorable calls by the refs. Remember the whole head game thing? That’s what’s going on. The fans know they’re not injured. The players know they’re not injured. Hell, even the refs know they’re not injured (most of the time). But, they may get a more severe penalty enforced on the offending player if they make a tackle seem like more than it was. If you can turn a yellow card into a red card, that changes the entire dynamic of the game. Plus, the worst divers and floppers inhabit the love-to-hate role, which fans gobble up. (cough cough, Neymar)
With all that said, let’s switch gears and discuss some of the aspects that I really appreciate.
The play is continuous.
The single biggest gripe I have with American football is the deluge of commercials. It often feels like you get ten minutes of advertising for every one minute of action. In fact, “the NFL requires twenty commercial breaks per game, with ten in each half.” That’s an insane amount of play-breaking promos. In addition, the ads themselves always cater to the lowest common denominator, i.e. using hot babes, flashing lights, and crude humor to sell beer, cars, and fast food. Um, no thanks. In contrast, soccer matches are broken into 45-minute halves of nonstop play. That’s 90 commercial-free minutes of sporting action. They also relegate sponsor logos to the jerseys, which is a much less invasive way to retain advertising dollars.
Pro soccer players are some of the fittest athletes on the planet.
For many of us, respect for a sport is often tied to the athletic acumen of the players. Nothing against other sports, but I just can’t take a game seriously if an overweight beer-guzzler can play at the professional level. (I’m looking at you, bowling.) Pro sports athletes are the modern day equivalent of gladiators. One of the reasons I watch sports is to admire the prowess of the athletes, and pro soccer players are at the very top. It reminds me of a great line from the movie Dogma: “Mass genocide is the most exhausting activity one can engage in, next to soccer.” To play at the level of a Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo takes a near super-human level of fitness. Even the worst pro soccer players are in better shape than most other athletes due to the fitness level required to compete. Therefore, when I see a tubby linebacker with a belly hanging over his belt, I have to question the athletic merit of American football. I mean, I get it, the dude needs to be a wall of meat, but c’mon.
The relegation battle.
The lack of relegation in American sports has always irritated me. If an NFL team finishes the season in last place without a single win, they get to stay in the NFL. Not so in the soccer world. If a team sucks out loud, then they get relegated to a lower division. In addition, the best teams in the lower division get promoted to the top-flight. This practice guarantees competitive games because every team is fighting to retain their place in the league. Participation in the top-flight earns them big paydays with broadcast rights and such, so there are huge financial penalties to sucking. As a result, the relegation battle at the end of the season (the fight not to be one of the bottom three teams) is often more exciting than the title race. Millions of revenue dollars are on the line.
The team with the most points at the end of the season wins. Period. It’s fair and logical. I never understood the American need for playoffs, where the best team throughout the season can still lose it all. In lieu of playoffs, soccer has something even better: the Champions League. This is an annual tournament of giants that showcases the best teams from every UEFA top-flight. It’s where you get to see powerhouse clubs like Manchester United and Bayern Munich battle for glory. It’s also why the Champions League final is the single biggest event in world sports (read: the Super Bowl to the rest of the world). Similar to the relegation battle, the fight for Champions League spots (typically the top four teams) is often ruthless.
As a closing note, I must point out that Major League Soccer has exploded over the last decade, due in large part to the points I outlined. More and more Americans are increasingly frustrated with invasive ads, broken play, and mounting controversies. Granted, the MLS still suffers from a few American crutches like playoffs and lack of relegation. But, the fan bases are just as rabid as their international counterparts. I challenge any naysayer to watch a match between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers. You will see a level of excitement and fandom that you never knew existed in your own backyard.