Soccer: Stop Kicking It To The Curb…
Soccer. Futbol. Football. The World’s Game. The sport that your high school football team’s kicker played during the off season. The sport that thinks it’s acceptable to tie when, in reality, drawing is like “kissin’ yer sister!” It is the sport and frenzy you don’t understand. The sport that causes people from ages 0 to 90 and from all walks of life to stumble into a bar at 6:30AM on a Saturday to watch Watford take on Huddersfield Town with a dozen people who for just two hours on a weekend feel like lifelong friends and people who understand your plight and frustrations. You may think that you would never be this person. You may say that you don’t think soccer is for you, but I was once in your shoes. Now I find myself in the crowd of 6:30AM sleepy-eyed, pint sipping futbol faithful. I deck myself out in my team’s gear and proceed to be captivated by a game being played thousands of miles away from the bustling streets of Houston, Texas. In this article, I won’t bore you with every rule of the game, I will simply tell you my thoughts on it and perhaps how to go about trying to get into it. And with the (USA-less) World Cup approaching, there is no better time to get on the tidal wave that is the game of draws, the game of hairstyles, the game of mega contracts, and the game of glory.
Bright(on) and Early
My morning viewing attire usually goes as follows:
- The scarf – It’s one of the first things you will notice about soccer fans. The scarf is one of the most common ways fans represent the club they support.
- The socks, hat, & Nike sweat pants – While these don’t always make an appearance at the same time (for sake of me looking too over the top), it’s always nice to add some comfort for my viewing.
- The beer – Okay, I would be lying if I told you that having a pint or stein of a unique beer at 7:00AM wasn’t surprisingly relaxing. From Denmark, America, Ireland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and many others, there is always a good pint to be shared with your new best friends. Drink responsibly though as soccer games tend to last a little less than two hours and no one wants to start their day a complete mess… well, depending on the final score…
- The jersey – This was what held me accountable to really getting into the game and challenging myself to learn more about it. I spent ~$100 on a Tottenham Hotspur jersey and felt that at the least, I was on the hook to go watch a few games. I am normally against grown adults wearing jerseys with grown adults on their back, so I went with a jersey that had no name on the back. Wear it with pride!
- To start you on this we need to establish some rules:
- To make this exercise worthwhile, you have to commit 100%. Not partial. Not almost. You must 100% yourself to this.
- Keep an open mind.
- Keep an open mind.
- Do your research. Learn about some of the clubs and players.
- Don’t be afraid to cheer like you have won the lottery and be disappointed as if you’ve been forced to never eat Whataburger again.
- In reference to number five, if you do numbers 1-4 you will find that number 5 comes natural.
- For the sake of this article, I will refer to American Football as “football” and World Football as “soccer” … Practice with me… Houston Texans: Football. Houston Dynamo: Soccer.
- What is the World Cup? That’s like the *insert major sporting event*, right?Wrong. It’s bigger than any championship deciding event in all sports. Don’t believe me? Go look at the amount of money and viewership associated with a World Cup. The World Cup is an event that is held every 4 years for various segments of representation for a country’s national team. There are World Cups for men and women from a very young age all the way through being on the “senior” team. The senior team is the team that consists of all the mega stars that you will see on your television this summer in Russia and next year for the women in France. Quick note: While the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) is about as disappointing as the series finale of The Sopranos, the US Women’s National Team are taking no prisoners in their pursuit of what is hopefully their second consecutive World Cup win and fourth in history. The World Cup is more than just soccer. There are political, cultural, religious, and sporting differences that make each game so much more interesting. The World Cup will feature teams that have players who hate each other during their club season, but must now find a way to compete together on the world’s biggest sporting stage. The opposite occurs in which players who mesh so well for their clubs must now face off against each other knowing that four years of bragging rights are up for grabs. I could write a separate post about the implications of the USMNT wetting the bed in their pursuit of a World Cup berth, but I will focus on what I think is the most important about their colossal failing: national unity. When a nation has a team in a World Cup they no longer care that one player plays for a team they hate, those fans aren’t the same faith as one another, or the people at that table support a politician the other table despises… No, those people are cheering for the ________ National Team and for the next ~90 minutes, so is everyone The World Cup is a chance to get sucked into the drama, the emotion, the passion, and (my personal favorite) the gut-wrenching stakes with each penalty, tackle, goal, save, and shot on goal.
- The World Cup consists of 32 teams from various soccer federations around the world. At a draw held months before, they are divided into 8 groups of 4 and play each other over 3 games to find the top 2 teams in each group. There are many levels of tiebreakers should the group need a determining rule, but that will overwhelm even a knowledgeable fan. Once the 16 teams are found they advance through the World Cup tournament in traditional bracket elimination style with an additional game for 3rd place at stake. The World Cup will start on June 14, 2018 and run through July 15, 2018.
- Now before you exit out of this blog (if you haven’t already), just hang tight. Your cat videos, Facebook stalking, and passive aggressive sub-tweet bewilderment can wait for you to be enlightened. I want to explain a little bit of how a guy who loathed soccer growing up grew to love it as well as talking some sense into the common gripes by Americans about soccer.
- Me (In relation to soccer)I didn’t grow up a fan. I never played soccer as a kid. I was/am the pudgy kiddo, so running around chasing a little checkered ball in the hopes of maybe scoring 1 goal was what I was convinced was hell on earth. I grew up in the steroid (ALLEGEDLY) era of baseball where big plays and large score tallies where the norm. I grew up a Rockets fan so I was accustomed to a fast-paced scoring frequency. I grew up in Big 12 territory so whether it was Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, or Baylor it was common to see a team score 7 or 8 times in a game. I am an alumnus of the University of Houston which has often had prolific offenses that set records with an arm tied behind their back and Case Keenum steering the ship like a man who couldn’t care less about the other team’s feelings. I used to cheer for the Texans… okay, not a lot to ramble on about in terms of visually appealing performance… moving on. The point is that I, like you, probably didn’t grow up giving two hoots about the Merseyside Derby or the political undertones of Real Madrid v Barcelona. In fact, less than a year ago I was quoted as saying “soccer is the dumbest sport ever” and my loving fiancé never lets me forget it. I had many grievances with the game and the soccer community, but alas, I folded and have never been happier. I won’t bore you with the details, but last year I just felt like I didn’t connect or care about the NFL game. This had nothing to do with the protesting or the hot button topics that surrounded the NFL, I just found that my caring about the team I supported was so artificial and hollow that I was tired of investing money and emotion into the game. This happened before the nation was captivated and enraged at seemingly anything and everything occurring before, during, and after the game that had nothing to do with football. I felt disconnected. In addition, I had a great Rockets team to cheer for, season tickets to the University of Houston football team, and a future World Champion Houston Astros team all within 15 minutes of my apartment… but I wanted more. I decided to do something that 8-year-old, 17-year-old, and 5 minutes ago old me thought was completely insane: I was going to become a Premier League fan. While I had no true attachment to a team or even region of England, I decided to try something different. I studied up on the clubs, tried to understand their style of play, the impact they had on their neighborhoods, and even the chants they sing after a few pints. I will write another article about that another time, but suffice to say… I am very glad I made the decision to fully invest in becoming a soccer/Tottenham Hotspur fan.
- The reason I decided to tell you a lot about my sporting background is to let you know that even someone with the most unlikely of backgrounds can become a psychotic, early rising, rumor mill trolling, song parody chanting, mild-mannered hooligan.
Here you see me with Steve Nash, future Hall of Fame NBA point guard cheering for our beloved Tottenham Hotspur Football Club a few months back in Houston. The game is huge and wide reaching… you never know who you will run into!
“Well, you see, soccer is cool except the fact that…”
- “They flop around and fake injuries! Man, there’s this video on YouTube where this guy didn’t even get touched…” – Sure, that is annoying. In fact, it is probably one of the biggest turnoffs for the average American fan trying to get into soccer. Any behavior that is seemingly unnecessary that detracts from play and could potentially have consequences are never fun. But if you look at the major sports in America you will find similar behavior.
- Football – Special Teams players flailing on the ground in hopes of getting a personal foul. QBs milking being hurt in the hopes of getting a roughing the passer call. Wide receivers claiming pass interference when they know it wasn’t even close as well as defensive backs doing the same.
- Baseball – The sport known for unwritten rules and senseless whining over actions as small as flipping a bat or looking the wrong way at a pitcher. Nothing like watching a grown man with an Oakleys tan named Randy fight a beer bellied late 30’s pitcher named Brett because of a mean look. These actions lead to suspensions and injuries as well look silly.
- Basketball – Flopping. Watch any given NBA game. The end.
So, yes, it is annoying, but momentum shifts, play restarts, and the potential of riling up a player to force them to truly misbehave are all strategic advantages that are a part of the game. If that bothers you, then surely you would love to watch your favorite NBA players make court angels on the floor after being looked at the wrong way and dropping to the ground.
- “THEY TIE?! HOW CAN YOU BE OKAY WITH A TIE?! THIS IS AMERICA AND WE LIKE TO WIN!” – Okay, okay, okay… I get it. Sports and anything that has a winner should be played with the intention of crushing the soul of your opponent and all the things related to it. BUT, in soccer you don’t always need to crush the soul out of your opponent to get a favorable outcome. This is because soccer standings don’t simply go off wins and losses. Before you say, “THIS IS AMERICA AND WE LIKE TO WIN!”, keep in mind that the most American sport of all, college football, has an unofficially similar viewpoint on this topic. If Alabama only beats a small school by 3 points, it is far less impressive than it is impressive for them to win by 49. Points matter. Luckily, in soccer, points have a quantitative and set impact. Points for an away team count more, you are awarded points by winning on the road, and if your league ends in a tie then goal differential can be used. Sometimes when a team ties it helps to preserve their spot or simply weather out a poor showing by the team above them. Every score has a strategic meaning, therefore every chance and score matter. All the US Men’s National Team needed to do was draw to Trinidad & Tobago to qualify for the World Cup, but instead they lost and were knocked out of qualification. The games are so dramatic that watching a 90-minute draw is still entertaining.
- “They are such Divas! They have their hair done and look like they’re on a date rather than playing a game!” – Okay, if you really think about it how is this any different than athletes who make sure to the perfect jewelry, pair of cleats, or the abundance of sweatbands for a game? Any different than athletes putting statements on their eye tape or medical wraps? How is this different than NBA stars being looked at as athletes and fashion icons (Russell Westbrook…)? There is a multibillion dollar business dedicated to marketing and promoting the opportunity to look like athletes on the field of play… Soccer is no different. Just because a player has their hair done or a headband, this is no different than any other sport’s athlete making sure they look “good” on the field. Also, regarding players being overly dramatic… Wide Receivers. And as athletes will often say, “If you look good, you play good…”
- “It is SO European… THIS IS AMERICA!” – If you are saying this (about anything), you are far more European than you want to believe. I have heard this said in bars and by people who would be horrified to see that European influence is prevalent in nearly every aspect of American society.
- “THE DAMN OFFSIDES RULE IS SO STUPID! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT ABOUT?!” – This damn rule. I completely understand the outrage. This rule has joined the ranks of taxes, Florida-Georgia Line, Galleria traffic, and humidity as something I can’t control, but I loathe with the power of one million Owen Wilson “Wow”s. I can describe this to you like I am a rulebook or I can describe it in the way that it will make you irate so that you will hopefully be emotionally prepped to deal with it. Let’s set the stage… you are all in on World Cup and decide that you are going to cheer for a team. You go to your favorite place to watch this team and the mood is, as the kids would say, LIT. Your team is deadlocked 1-1 in a must win game to advance to the round of 16 and time is winding down. Your team’s opponent is already through to the next round so for them this game is a necessary evil on the road to the knockouts. Your team is in extra time and are almost to the Final Time whistle. Suddenly, a challenge for the ball occurs at midfield and your team emerges with possession. The bar you are at begins a slow roar as if it is mimicking a harrier jet about to propel into the skies. Time is running out. The midfielder pulls his leg back and launches a pass so tactical you would think NASA had planned its launch and trajectory. The bar is screaming and beer is already starting to erupt out of pint glasses. The striker is past the defender and fires a shot so hard the net has a hole burned in it. Your team did it. The bar is so loud and all you can think is how soccer is the next big thing in America, you witnessed a great sports moment, and your soccer pool at work is going to be so mad because you picked a 2-1 victory for your new-found love. But then… you hear groans, shouts of rage, sailor language, grown man tears, sadness… The striker was offsides and the goal is void. As if it never happened… like Brad and Jenn, only to be discussed with sadness and the thought of what could have been. Your team draws and is no longer advancing on the path of glory. But why? Well, that’s because of the offsides rule. It simply is in place to prevent goal tending. Football has it so that an offensive player can’t get an unfair advancement towards a score. Baseball has a similar belief by making players tag up before running. Basketball limits the time you can spend in the paint. The problem with soccer is that because the scores are so few and far between there is a great deal of frustration when a ruling that comes down to inches and is done purely by human eye is made it can affect so much.
The World Cup
As mentioned before, this tournament is truly amazing simply because for at least 90 minutes entire nations can put differences, religion, status, politics, and even preference of Van Halen front-men aside to cheer for one common outcome: winning. So, who are the teams in this tournament that separates the best from the rest? I’ll break them into the groups they will play in and compete against for advancement into the knockout rounds.
- Group A
- Russia (Host country automatically qualifies)
- Saudi Arabia
- Group B
- Group C
- Group D
- Group E
- Costa Rica
- Group F
- South Korea
- Group G
- Group H
Let’s smoothly ignore the glaring omission of soccer powerhouses Italy and the Netherlands. Let’s also pretend that the United States was already booked for a tournament and couldn’t make it this year… This is set to be an incredibly exciting World Cup.
“You know, I really think I am going to cheer for *insert nation not named USA* this year!”
GREAT! I am glad you have decided to dedicate a few hours to drinking happy hour priced drinks with all the local soccer vets and newbies in your town. You arrive in some shorts, a Comfort Colors frocket from that formal you got kicked out of 5 years ago, and your Astros cap. You are ready to sports. This is it. This is the moment you get to pretend as if this game determines your life outcome, as if you will remember this moment forever, and finally you can become one with the groups of longtime of soccer fans that suspiciously consist of a lot of folks who were high school libertarians before that was cool. But wait… who are you going to cheer for? As mentioned previously, the USMNT is far too busy being lackluster to attend this tournament so who will you cheer for? Russia? That could get you put in front of a special review board these days! England? Uhm, okay, taxation without representation. Senegal? Where is that? Iceland? They have a soccer team? Germany? You might end up at a German bar and gain 37 pounds worth of beer and bratwursts after one game… and do you have to wear lederhosen? There are so many choices! But, this is where I can lead you to whis- water… but, I can’t make you drink. Because the USMNT failed to qualify this year you are left as a free agent. One of the few times it isn’t shameful to openly support another nation and not be viewed as Benedict Arnold. While there are many, here are some methods you can employ to find your team to support:
- Where do most of your ancestors come from? For me it’s Great Britain and Norway. Norway didn’t qualify this year so that left me to lean towards England. My favorite team is based out of North London and I know about the players on England’s team. It was a natural choice with the USMNT on a soul/goal searching quest that will have them watching from their couch.
- Who do you think will win? Let’s say you want to be a front-runner and ensure that you can be vested in watching all the way through the end. I mean, you did buy that $100 jersey so you might as well wear it as often as possible. Maybe you just really have a newfound passion for Brazil?! Good luck not sounding like an idiot saying things in Portuguese to impress the patrons.
- Who has the best uniforms? I don’t really think is the move, but to each their own.
- You want to seem globally savvy? I am clearly not taking this route as supporting England is like having a 200-tap bar and ordering a Coors, BUT what if you perhaps wanted to seem very cultured and hip? Maybe throw some love towards Iceland (they have a great World Cup story) or Serbia? You will automatically gain the respect of the neighborhood hooligans as they assume you can locate Serbia on a map.
- How can I maximize my Cristiano Ronaldo viewing? Just support Portugal. I believe there are contractual minimums for how many times they must show his abs. But in all seriousness, perhaps there’s a player you have heard a ton about and you would like to see what all the hype is. The World Cup is star studded so whether its Messi, Ronaldo, Kane, Salah, Neymar, De Bruyne, or Pogba… there is never a better time to watch true greatness compete against each other.
Let’s face it, there are plenty of ways to get involved! But if you are new to all of this as I was, allow me to give you some resources to help make this new hobby much more rewarding.
- Men In Blazers podcast – This is my favorite podcast. Hosted by Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, The pod focuses on the previous week in the English Premier League, MLS, and big global soccer stories. The show uses obscure references, early on-set balding, humor, a love of meat pies, and (in the case of Roger) self-loathing and shame that is linked directly to Everton’s performance on the pitch. It will take some episodes to fully grasp all of it, but I highly encourage you to give a try. And to answer a question for those of you that listen in… GFOP stands for Great Friend of the Pod.
- The Total Soccer Showpodcast – Hosted by Daryl Grove and Taylor Rockwell, this show is home to a ton of user submitted questions about the nuances and aspects of the game that some people don’t know. These two experts have great chemistry and if you have a soccer question, the odds are that they have answered it.
- FIFA – Get the game. It will consume your life, but it is so worth it. It is one of the best game series of all time. People who don’t like soccer still love FIFA. This will help you see the teams, understand some of the business, see the rules in action, and mindlessly play until you grind your thumbs down to stumps. Also, for the record, my fiancé does not endorse this suggestion.
- Houston Dynamo – Look, it is cheaper than sin to go see an MLS game compared to most professional sporting events. Just go see the environment for yourself!
- Breakfast/Brunch – I get it. It’s early and you are still half asleep, but find the local establishment that shows soccer games early in the AM and go check one out. In Houston, there are plenty of great ones (see my top choice below), but find a place that has a decent breakfast and a nice mimosa pitcher and watch the games with people who are screaming and cheering like maniacs. And look… if you hate it… at least you have started your day drinking incredibly early and hopefully had some eggs and bacon to establish a base.
- The FIFA website – A great source for news and updates for the ongoing events throughout the soccer world. It can definitely help people new to the game get a better insight to the sheer magnitude of the game as well as how it all flows from a business, structure, and rules of play standpoint.
“ARE YOU DONE YET?!”
Almost… If you are in the Houston area I highly encourage you to visit The Phoenix on Westheimer (1915 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77098). The food is great, the atmosphere is excellent, the staff is wonderful, and the owner truly cares about his employees. This is my favorite bar in Houston simply because it feels like my neighborhood pub. The owner is great about accommodating any fan’s desire to watch his/her team play. Whether it’s a packed house at 9PM or a quiet 7AM game, this local eatery treats its patrons like all food service businesses should. You will find me here for almost every Tottenham game and this is where I will be for the World Cup. Not paid to say it, but I feel very strongly about this place and think you will love it… assuming you enjoy smiling and fun.
That’s that… if you have any questions at all, please feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @kirbinw! See you at the Phoenix and hope to see you for World Cup! If you wanna just meet up for a drink to watch a game, let me know! I’m down for anything except Arsenal!