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Friday, October 22, 2010

The Other Football

a piece I wrote for publication in the EEUU

Think of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey rolled into one sport and you’re approaching the importance that soccer has in most European countries.  You may need to throw in golf while you’re at it…and tennis...and perhaps NASCAR and professional wrestling.  And bowling. The epic seasons of around 40 matches begin sometime at the end of August and end in May—and that’s just the regular season. There are a host of competitions besides the national leagues both during the year and at the end.  Every two years there is either the Eurocopa or the World Cup which means another six weeks of play during the summer.  As saturated with the sport as they are in Europe, most fans are despondent during the few fallow weeks in late July and August. The football-less boredom drives some to go as far as actually talking with spouses and children, working, and generally making an attempt to be a part of society.

Games are on Sunday, unless they play on Saturday…or almost any other day of the week depending on the circumstances. In Spain many games begin as late as ten at night, even on week nights—a very Spanish thing where restaurants are empty until 11 o’clock in the evening and the streets of Madrid are awash in people at 2 am. Fewer and fewer games are on regular television so more and more people are forced out to their favorite bars to watch the matches on pay TV—as if Europeans need another reason to go to a bar.

The best thing about the European football year is that the playoffs begin at the very beginning of the season. The Champions League is the European club championship held every year and featuring the best teams from the previous season.  The tournament begins with round-robin group play in the fall and the elimination process continues until late spring of following year. The final match is the most watched annual sporting event worldwide with over 100 million television viewers, more than last year’s Super Bowl. The Champions League combines the drama of a sports final with the tension of an international war.  Imagine the Pittsburg Steelers in the Super Bowl against the Beijing Rams (I am just making a point here and as far as I know China has no plans to purchase the Rams—but the world is changing).

In addition to the Champions League there is the Europa League which is the playoff competition for the lesser clubs across the continent. If you are still looking for more playoff competition, all of the national leagues have their own inter-club championships which are separate from the regular season. 

The bottom line is that Europeans have a serious soccer addiction. If you happen to be an American living in Europe and you have a bit of a sports addiction you will probably catch the soccer bug very quickly. Even if you are just passing through for a visit it doesn’t hurt to be a bit fluent in football lingo.  Most major clubs have at least one daily newspaper devoted to news of the team and these rags litter the tops of damn near every bar on the continent.  Discussing sports is sort of like the international language, the Esperanto of wannabe jock morons like me all around the world. Even though I don’t speak the language I can rattle off the names of a few local soccer stars and I’m instantly one of the boys in Munich, Milan, Amsterdam, or Manchester (they speak some other kind of English in Manchester so stick with football news unless you have an interpreter).

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