SOCCER'S A KICK: AMERICANS SHOULD GIVE IT A SHOT.
For the millions of Americans who rail against soccer as irrelevant and boring, who say it can never have a mainstream following in the United States, I present proof to the contrary.
I became a soccer fan long before David Beckham decided to join the Los Angeles Galaxy.
I grew up in the shadows of New York watching basketball, football, baseball and hockey while thumbing my nose at soccer. No one in my family played soccer or watched it, and my parents and grandparents did not arrive from a foreign land where the sport is burned into the soul and passed on to the children.
Yet, now I love it, and for weeks I have looked forward to today, my Super Bowl day, when Liverpool and AC Milan play to become champions of Europe. The game is on ESPN2, but thankfully ESPN is yet to overbroadcast soccer in a pop-cultural way so it will not ruin the game with over-dramatization or analysis.
I am by most standards a typical American, except I learned to appreciate the beautiful game of soccer when I tired of the homogenized style of big-time American professional sports.
Liverpool, one of the top teams in England, plays AC Milan, one of Italy's best sides, today in Athens, Greece, in the Champions League title game. (For the soccer illiterate, it is the championship of Europe). This match speaks of the wondrous reasons I adore soccer.
Imagine the Dodgers, in midseason, traveling to Costa Rica to play a local professional baseball team in a tournament. Or the Lakers, in December, playing a team from Cuba as part of an in-season, months-long tournament. Try to get some union or spoiled superstar to agree to that in this country.
Yet Liverpool and AC Milan, and all the best clubs in the world, take part in these tournaments annually despite playing in different leagues, and despite the possibility of international humiliation.
Liverpool, which plays in England's Premier League, survived a qualifying round and a four-team, six-game group stage. The Reds then won three more two-game, total-goals knockout series to reach Athens. In the process, Liverpool played 14 extra games and defeated European giants Barcelona and Chelsea. AC Milan, which plays in Italy's Serie A, traveled a similar path.
And Liverpool and AC Milan navigated the course during their 38-game regular-season domestic schedule. And today's winner advances to a club world cup, which pits the winners from each region to decide a global champion.
Since there are no postseason playoffs to determine the league champions in Europe, the Champions League gives supporters (we don't call them fans) reason to remain interested despite neither club being in contention for the league title.
Other in-season cup tournaments exist, creating interest for many of the teams not at the top of their tables (we don't call them standings). In Spain's La Liga, Getafe is in eighth place but plays FC Sevilla next month in the league's in-season Copa del Rey championship. Yes, it is reason for the Getafe supporters to remain interested.
There is also relegation and promotion, two of the most interesting facets of foreign-land soccer. In short, clubs finishing at the bottom of the table get dropped down to the league beneath them the next season. The clubs finishing at the top of the lower-tier leagues each move up. In England, dropping from the Premiership to the Coca-Cola League Championship (the second tier) is estimated to cost a club $60million to $100million.
Relegation creates late-season excitement for even the worst clubs, and it gives everyone a reason to continue watching.
Think Major League Baseball attendance would increase in Kansas City and Tampa Bay if finishing last meant demotion to Class AAA? How about Las Vegas or Salt Lake City vying for promotions to the majors?
MLS fills the void
My infatuation with soccer (yes, I call it football at home) extends here, to Major League Soccer. I need something to fill the summer void, and the United States is one of the few places not to play a fall-through-spring schedule.
So my weekends are spent watching MLS, and Monday mornings are reserved for reworking my fantasy teams for the upcoming week. I even check my computer for updates (and sometimes listen to the games) when the Galaxy are not on television.
Today, I will excitedly hope for a Liverpool win, but also for much more. Soccer, I've learned, thrives in front of sophisticated crowds that applaud the thought behind a play, even if the end result isn't the glory of a goal.
There will be no-look passes with the back of the heel, players heading the ball 20 yards onto a dime (or lira or pound) and booting an outlet pass 70yards onto another player's boot (we don't call them cleats), and the use of deception with several step-overs of the ball before making a move.
If watching an Eric Gagne curveball dance in the strike zone is a marvel, so too is watching a player bend shots around human walls or dip shots over them.
So much to love
Among the many other things I love about the game:
The singing: Go to most supporters' group Web sites, and the words to the songs belted out before and during the games are there to learn. There is no piped-in, ear-splitting rock music designed to overload the senses, but rather pure atmosphere.
The lingo: A nutmeg is when the ball is passed through a defender's legs; a skipper is the captain; and cheeky means showing off a bit.
The transfer period: In short, it is global free agency, and just because a player is under contract doesn't mean he won't be sold to another club, often in another country. Indeed, anything goes.
The loans: England's Manchester United loaned goalkeeper Tim Howard to Everton, which plays in the same league, because Man U. already had world-class goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.
This allowed Howard to develop and play at a high level while remaining property of Man U. That is, until ManU. gave its approval for Howard to sign a five-year deal with Everton in February.
How about the San Francisco Giants sending a budding left fielder to Pittsburgh for a year, so the player could develop at the major league level before returning to the Bay?
The candor: Coaches will rip other coaches and sides (another word for teams) and flatly state their own side does not have enough talent to win. They also openly comment on players during the transfer period, and they rarely hide behind diplomacy, so supporters know exactly where their clubs stand.
Raw emotion: If a player believes his opponent took a dive, he will call him out, using a wave of the finger, a few choice words or some other gesture. Opponents also argue and push one another after a perceived wrong, yet it rarely escalates into anything violent.
Preseason trips: This summer, England's Chelsea will be in Los Angeles, Spain's Barcelona is going to Asia and Scotland's Celtic will be in Colorado. It's a chance for teams to grow support for their clubs on other continents.
And tonight, after finishing second in the Scottish Premier League, Rangers FC plays an exhibition against the Galaxy at The Home Depot Center. The same Rangers with 51 league titles and, according to Wikipedia, more trophies than any club in the world.
Imagine telling Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens they had to spend two weeks of spring training in China.
I rarely watched soccer until a few years ago, but my displeasure for the antiseptic feel of most professional sports here sent me searching for a sports alternative. Thanks to the Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV, soccer quickly filled the void.
I now understand why it is called the Beautiful Game, and I am proof positive soccer can become mainstream in the United States.
Real Madrid's David Beckham is joining the Los Angeles Galaxy. But Americans are capable of appreciating soccer for more than Beckham's star power, if they give the sport a shot.
Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images