Saturday, July 12, 2014
If there has been one thing I have been consistently asked over and over again to write during my summer "Cowboys Blogging Hiatus" (which ends in about 2 weeks already!), it has been to please write a helpful column for people who are looking to join in the year-round addiction that is sweeping the globe, and finally assist those who are trying to pick a team.
They have given the World Cup a chance and have enjoyed it. Now, they need to know how to join the EPL game, too.
I am happy to do this, but I will tell you it is complicated. And I will tell you that since you asked me, you are going to get my views and not the next guy's (or the guy in the next cubicle over). I am jaded and biased. So, let's go.
First, some over-riding thoughts on such an endeavor:
REMEMBER THESE 3 THINGS:
#1 - Having a team/club is absolutely the way to fully enjoy the experience. I am not saying you have to do so, but if you are planning to understand English or Spanish soccer on any level below "background noise", then it is vital you look beyond the game and learn the characters and the villains in the show. Because that is what sports is. We sometimes forget that when we follow any sport, we are following basically what amounts to soap operas for men. Oh, sure, we like the competition and the highlight goals, but if you follow the Cowboys, imagine if you didn't know why Jerry Jones and Tony Romo are not just extras in the movie. Imagine if you didn't feel strongly about playing the Giants or watching the Redskins suffer. The point is that because you know all of the likes and dislikes and heroes and villains and story lines and subplots, you can get caught up in the drama that is the NFL or the NBA. You aren't just watching football, you are watching Dallas Cowboys Football and all that this implies - which is decades and decades of stories and history and so forth. If you didn't have that, it would be like randomly turning on Oregon State versus Arizona late one night and not knowing any players, coaches, or history. It would be just a game.
#2 - FC Dallas is your home team, but don't consider it the same thing. I started following the Dallas Burn right when I got to town in 1998. I have attended their games ever since and I believe that aside from the all-soccer media, I like my chances with winning any MLS-Dallas quiz amongst my all-sports media colleagues around here. I follow them pretty closely. Colin Clarke, Steve Morrow, Mike Jeffries, and Dave Dir all have places in my heart. However, much like you consider your favorite HS football team, favorite college team, and favorite NFL team to be non conflicting as you follow football on 3 different levels, I would do the same thing in soccer. MLS is a growing enterprise and will only continue to grow, but the simple truth to any biased observer is that the coverage of the MLS compared to the English Premiership would be like comparing the press coverage of North Texas to the Cowboys. Yes, there are people that try very hard to present the sport in a big-time manner, but the trappings and the obsession is still at its early stages. Will there be a day when Major League Soccer is the biggest show in town? I have my doubts. But, over there, there is no NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL. It is pretty much all coverage of the sport they are obsessed with. And therefore, you can wake up any morning and read dozens of stories about your club and the lineup changes, and the transfer rumors, and the game previews, and so on. You won't believe how many people across the world are obsessing about that one club. Unfortunately, that likely will never be the case with our domestic league. That is ok, by the way, because nobody worldwide obsesses about Coppell High School football and still, it is fun to follow that, too. But, to gain an experience that will resemble the World Cup experience that has you interested in doing this, I believe you will need a team from one of the big leagues in Europe.
#3 - You should not choose your team. Your team should choose you. You have to trust me on this. In my 14 seasons of following the English game, I have seen so many friends and colleagues try to get on board. There is great excitement early and then some are hooked for life and some go do something else. I am convinced through this experience that the only people that really fall in love are those that end up falling in love with their club. For this reason, you should not rush in. You shouldn't pick a club because they have a cool name (90% of these people end up with Arsenal or Chelsea). or a cool logo (99% of these people end up with Arsenal), or they are the rival of your buddies favorite team, or you know the Beatles are from there (Liverpool or Everton) or that you know Oasis like them (Manchester City).
You have to have your own reasons. You have to feel it. If you don't, then within a few months, you will want to go to this other team that has caught your eye and divorce your first team. Then your friends will have a laugh. Don't do that. Consider it like it is dating. You don't propose on your first date with the first girl you meet. You carefully consider that this is a big decision and you want to make the right one. You want to know that you will still love that club when they lose 3-0 - because they will - as you do when they win 5-0. You want to commit through thick and thin, through sickness and health.
For that reason, don't be afraid to tell everyone to slow down. You want to do this right. You want to think it over and make the decision that you will be happy with. So, honestly, I think you should wait and watch, read, and feel a little bit before you go pledging your allegiance to any team. I know you want this to get done before the games start, but this is your first season. Relax and plan to enjoy over the long haul. There is no reason you should be as sick as I am this quickly. Like it says on the headline of this point, you don't choose your team. It will choose you. And you will know when it does, because it will be love (or hate, which in sports is a form of love).
Ok, with those 3 simple premises established, let's dive a little deeper. You want to follow soccer on the highest level and you do want a club. You want to find enjoyment in it, which on the surface means you want a team that is going to be winning constantly. We all have that built inside of us, because most of the teams we follow us already are able to bum us out on their own merits. They don't need help from a losing soccer club overseas.
I think you should also strongly consider someone from England. The reasons are endless.
1) you likely speak English and read English for 99% of your life (if not higher). If you follow a German or Spanish or Italian (or even Mexican) team, you better be pretty fluent in other languages if you want to consume the media coverage - which I think is vital. Therefore, as enjoyable as following Bayern Munich or Barcelona likely are, I am not able to consider either club on a regular basis simply because the broadcasts and the newspapers are not always available in English. Big problem.
2) At least for now, every match from England is on TV and free TV, too. NBC Sports has made a strong commitment to the EPL (in HD!) that the other leagues don't have. I pay for Bein Sport and Fox Sports 2 because I am sick. But, for newbies, you don't want to pay hundreds of dollars a year to see your team play when you can do it for free. England does this now, but at the present, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain do not.
3) I would argue that the English league has the best competitive balance of the big leagues in Europe. Yes, the same teams generally finish in the some places, but I don't believe it is near as exaggerated as it is in other countries. For instance, in La Liga (Spain), in the last decade, only Real Madrid and Barcelona have finished 1st or 2nd in every single year but once. Last year, Atletico Madrid finished 1st - which was one of the greatest upsets ever, and in 2008 Villareal finished 2nd. That's it. Otherwise, 1st place has always been Real or Barca, with the other finishing 2nd. EVERY YEAR. The Bundesliga isn't as pronounced, but it still has the same few teams at the same position. But, in England, the race for the Top 4 in 2014-15 is going to be insane. The incumbents, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool still believe they will maintain, but here comes Manchester United back up with Tottenham and Everton thinking they can break through. It is insanely competitive at the top, and the bottom is no slouch. We all assume that Chelsea and City will finish in the Top 3, but beyond that, it is very wide open.
4) If you enjoy the communal experience, know that in America, most of your fellow soccer men will be following the EPL every week and the Champions League. You can go off on your own, but it won't be as enjoyable I believe.
Ok. There are a few ways we can do this. And from here on out I think I need to disclose my leanings. This is Bob's Blog, therefore everything from here on out is undeniably how I see the world.
I love Liverpool. In fact, I think I am as obsessed about them as any team in my life below the Packers. I read about Liverpool and every rumor and every news item 365 days a year. It has really taken over my remaining hard drive space. I can still see straight as I am wired to not be a cheerleader, but I do think that you should know how I feel. I really want Liverpool to do well. And my relationship with them found great confusion years back when Tom Hicks bought them (only to torture me) and attempt to bleed every dollar out of them in one of his "Flip This House" routines and without remorse drove them down from 3rd or 4th each year to 7th. Now, the rebuild is going well, and Hicks is long been replaced by John Henry (who may not be a great owner, but he is certainly better than Hicks). I could try to sell you on joining my club, but since they haven't won the title since 1990, you may find more joy elsewhere. However, I do believe the current leadership are serious about winning and they have many, many young and talented players who make us believe they are in for good times ahead.
Beyond that, I have always admired Arsenal. In fact, I have seen Arsenal play in person more times than any other club. My favorite player of all time is likely Thierry Henry as he introduced me to how special a special player can truly be. He blew my mind from 2000-2005 at Highbury, and I think he will always hold that rank as the best. Their fan base is easily the most proactive here in DFW and sensitive, but that doesn't mean that I don't always enjoy watching them play under Wenger. I have no issues with the Arsenal and think that they represent an attractive case for any prospective fan.
Chelsea is a team that I have mixed feelings about. Partially because most new fans of the Premiership (08 and later) invariably were brought in by the Jose-Roman tractor beam of winning. I don't blame you, of course, but I have had a few experiences with Chelsea fans (the most notable one being stuck on a train that was stalled in 2010 for about an hour with hundreds of drunk Chelsea fans who were looking for trouble) that has permanently scarred my ability to want to see Chelsea fans happy. Since this is my blog, I hope you don't mind me actually being honest with you. But, when it comes to some of my favorite strikers ever, Jimmy Floyd and Didier are both geniuses in their own way. Also, they sold Liverpool Daniel Sturridge after paying 50 million for Fernando Torres' corpse, so that will always be appreciated. They are an awesome club and have more money than almost anyone, so as insufferable their fan base truly is, that wouldn't be the worst pick either.
Manchester United is without question Liverpool's greatest enemy. I have nothing good to say about them - aside from admiring some of their best footballers - as their management has always vowed to vanquish Liverpool and their fans and Liverpool's fans have a disgusting no-holds barred barrage of insults that never cease and that would make you sick (from both directions). I wish them the worst and hope they lose every match. In any match where they are playing, I will root for the other team without fail - and usually walk away disappointed. They just endured the worst season they have had in ages, but don't think that means anything in the big picture except that they hired who Sir Alex wanted and that turned into an absurd disaster. That has been cleaned up and they will go right back into the mix. Since I have followed the EPL, they have finished 1, 1, 3, 1, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 7. So, trust me, if you want everyone to lose respect for your pick because you like the Yankees and Heat, here you go.
Manchester City is a club that has been purchased by the richest men in the world and they win quite a bit since that happened. They have finished 1, 2, 1 since they have invested every dollar in the world in their side, but have a remarkably anonymous past before this windfall of middle eastern oil money. Honestly, you almost never meet a Manchester City fan (imagine if the Timberwolves were bought by the richest man in the world and started dominating the NBA) and even now, nobody hates them because nobody knows what to make of them. They are a club that is filled with players even their fans don't really know (because they have all been there about 15 minutes) and their stadium often has marginal crowds despite this incredible performance. It is actually quite odd.
The other 3 you should consider are Newcastle, Tottenham, and Everton. They all have a lot of people from here following them and all have fantastic stadiums, competitive clubs, and fervent fan bases you will enjoy. However, I would be lying to you if I argued they have any real threats to dethrone the powers at the very top (for now, it seems), but also are not going to stop fielding entertaining teams. Everton in the last decade is always no higher than 5th and no lower than 10th. And, Tottenham is pretty much a mirror image. Newcastle used to be up there, but times have been tough recently even with a relegation. They are often ridiculed for only wishing to finish higher than their next-door neighbors, Everton with Liverpool 500 yards away and Tottenham has Arsenal right up the street, but that is an insult. I always think they are proper clubs that have their charm. If you loathe front-running and want to build for that one miracle year, perhaps these are your choices.
The rest of the field in England is a crapshoot of teams that all have something to offer, but also flirt with relegation from time to time. If you don't know what that is, you will soon enough. But, trust me, if your club is relegated, all I said about access and media coverage may dissipate quite a bit. There are several smaller clubs that I admire, but since they don't always have funds for players, it can be frustrating to give your heart to them. If you do, here are my favorites. Queenspark Rangers, Crystal Palace, Portsmouth (not currently in the top level), and West Ham are all on my list, partly because I have been to matches at all of their places and actually enjoyed those experiences more than the big clubs. However, I will tell you that most fans of those clubs start the year hoping they stay up in the Premiership and usually have their hands full to do so.
Other than the clubs mentioned above, you are on your own. If you want to go off the page and cheer for Aston Villa or Bolton, have fun. They all have stories to tell. I just wouldn't advise it any more than I would advise someone new to the USA to take up Jacksonville Jaguar football.
In closing, I hope this helps. I know it will just lead to more questions or offended fans of Liverpool rivals who have their feelings all hurt that I don't love their club as much as they do. That is usually followed by a Luis Suarez joke and reminding me that my club sucks and they have a great one.
In many ways, it is just another way to follow sports and be insufferable to your friends.
Have fun, but don't rush in to pledging allegiance to a club you have just now discovered. Because nothing is worse than meeting a guy who is a "die hard" Portsmouth fan who then became a "die hard" Chelsea fan because he moved too quickly and realized he liked winning too much to like Pompey.
Don't be that guy.