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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Soccer: the REAL athlete's sport

OK, so today I'm tackling the big question that everyone has been asking me these days... what is all this (sudden) fascination you have with Soccer (a.k.a. European football)?

Well its not really sudden, since I've been a fan for some time, but its been nearly impossible until very recently to be able to watch it on cable television and take in the game at a professional level on a regular basis. With the advent of Fox Soccer Channel (FSC), fans like myself can catch both the English Premier League (EPL) - the number one professional soccer league in the world, U.S. MLS, Italian League, and other soccer leagues from around the world. And its daily coverage instead of what we used to get which was a splattering of sound bites at the end of the World Cup.

Thank God for FSC as ESPN hasn't really caught onto the "world most popular" sport. Here's what I see: ESPN shows a five second clip of a ball entering a goal with little reference to the actual game, and calls it "coverage". Although to be fair, ESPN does get high marks for - its probably one of the best sites out there for scores, news stories, trades, and analysis, etc. But ESPN TV, especially SportsCenter coverage -- stinks! They need to get a clue over there at ESPN studios - someone needs to remind them that ESPN Desportes shows are produced in spanish, and the channel isn't available to everyone state-side. And they could probably cut out some of the airtime they give to the world's biggest cheater - baseball's Barry Bonds. Maybe some of the spots that ESPN devotes to kissing Bond's rear could go to real athletes like Ronaldo and Keane.

Of course, soccer isn't an unknown here. Just about every kid in the USA grows up playing soccer as part of the gym curriculum; and teams are popular from Elementary School through High School level. But when I was young, most kids could probably name only one soccer player - the great Pelé. Although they probably couldn't tell you that he is a famed player from Brazil. Today, kids know Ronaldo, Rooney, Henry, Keane, Lampard, and on and on.

Today, my hometown of West Hartford boasts as having the largest number of soccer leagues, and boasts of being the town with the largest number of kids playing in all of the State of Connecticut: 1400 kids are registered to play soccer under the banner of the West Hartford Youth Soccer Association. And that is just the kids - that doesn't include high school teams, recreational teams, and adult leagues. If you move from Italy or the U.K. and want your son or daughter to grow up playing soccer - then West Hartford is where you want to be! Here is the WHYSA site in case you are interested.

My general interest in soccer was reignited back when the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994; FIFA was very reluctant to permit the U.S. to host the World Cup based on the incorrect perception that there weren't many soccer fans in the United States. FIFA also imposed that in order for the United States to host that they would have to create a professional league at some point in the near future - which they did in 1996 under the banner of Major League Soccer (MLS). Despite the initial perception of FIFA representatives and officials from competing nations, World Cup Soccer venues were well-attended in the States - up to 70,000 attendees per game. And with a good action plan in place, interest in U.S. Soccer is on the rise.

Anyone can recognize that Americans have almost too many choices for Pro Sports with long seasons that already tend to cross over each other. NFL Football, MLB Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, PGA Golf, NASCAR, Tennis, are but a few that receive regular programming time, then complicate the matter by throwing in NCAA College games and tournaments in most of those sports mentioned above. So why would anyone want to add Soccer to the list to compete with all of those previously mentioned. Well, one reason is that Soccer pound for pound, minute for minute is better than most of those listed above.

So why do I believe that soccer is better than most other American sports?

Well to start with, soccer is one of the few sports where the athletes, referees and officials have to actually be in reasonable shape in order to even show up on the field of play. Players and officials must run their tails off for 45 minutes straight - with few breaks, followed by a brief intermission, and then followed by another grueling 45 minutes of non-stop play. If that isn't enough, players endure kicks to nearly every part of their body, collisions, slide tackles, dives, and a host of other dangerous maneuvers during the game. Most soccer players are in incredible shape - and clearly, you can't fake the kind of physical fitness that's required of the game. No one stands around "waiting for a ball to come to them"; you either play hard for 45 minutes at a clip or you don't play. There is no time out, and if time is wasted, the ref adds more time on the end of the period to make up for it.

In contrast, if you look around Major League Baseball (and I am a die hard baseball fan, so no hate mail please), a great number of the guys on the field are just plain fat and out of shape. And I don't just mean those porkers in the Designated Hitter (DH) position, but pitchers, outfielders, first basemen, and particularly MLB umpires are all poster-children for weight loss programs. Quite a few (American) football linesmen are big, bulky and out of shape too. It's nearly pathetic to call some of these overpaid slobs - athletes. And I won't even start on the golfers. Oh man!

Soccer season tends to run from late August through end of May (continuing through the summer for athlete's chosen to represent their nation in World Cup qualification games), and often the teams participate in multiple Cup Championships during the regular season and in the middle of regular season league contention, and not after they are all rested up at the end of the season. How about that in contrast to Major League Baseball owners and players whining about pre-season activity by some players who participate in the World Baseball games. Gesh, give us a break, won't ya? Just don't overexert yourselves boys! It's a long summer sitting on the bench spitting out sunflower seeds and we wouldn't want you to become too tired to do that!
Soccer action is fast and furious, while baseball comes slowly, one pitch at a time. Soccer requires athletes to cover lots of space by spiriting back and forth a long 130 yard field, unlike pro basketball players who run around on the court and are able to rest during the plentiful "television timeouts" (Football is even more pathetic when it comes to TV timeouts). Soccer requires team effort all the time, passing the ball forward and backwards, and side to side, where as pro basketball is simply premaddonas making pretty baskets from 30 feet away.


I would also say that the excitement, stamina/physical fitness required, fan sense of extreme anticipation (based on the fact that soccer at the pro level is usually a low scoring game than can be decided at the last second by a quick goal which could mean a win, loss, or draw), atmosphere, unpredictability, and complexity of the game, the incredible technical skill required, and number of rules (actually referred to as Laws) that govern actual play - all of this - makes the sport more exciting than most.

Finally, I particularly have to give a special Kudos to the professional English soccer leagues for setting the bar across all sports for penalizing teams who don't make the grade, and rewarding teams that do. The English system is made up of six levels (listed lowest tier to highest tier): Conference North and Conference South (both level 6), Nationwide Conference, League Two, League One, League Championship, and the Premiership (a.k.a. English Premier League or EPL). If you finish in the bottom positions in either the Championship League or the EPL then you receive an automatic demotion the next lowest tier; this is referred to as "relegation". So losing can mean losing a sponsor, notoriety, embarrassment, playing in front of smaller crowds, and there are obvious salary and pay disadvantages. On the other hand, if you finish in the top three spots in either League One or the Championship League, you receive a promotion to the next highest tier. And promotion naturally comes with all the rewards of moving to an advanced league provides - money, fame, and fortune.

So what does this do? Well, it makes teams play hard all the way through the last game of the season since every game counts; teams control their own destinies, and of course, on the other side of the equation - no one wants to lose to a team about to be relegated. The competition is so fierce that it doesn't permit teams to settle for a loss here and there based on laziness, when it could mean getting bumped down to a lessor division after losing in consecutive quality games. In contrast to other sports, where teams face no "penalty" other than embarrassment and loss of revenue for being at the bottom of their division.

The best example of how relegation can affect your club is to look at the history of Leeds United. A team considered to be cream of the crop in the EPL, a team that won several cups in the 80s, now finds itself struggling to keep from being relegated to League One!! Obviously, the money teams are usually the Premier teams, and once you lose a foothold, it become harder to recruit the best players, and reclaim ascension and glory. After all, what all-star wants to play for a has-been, when there are 20 teams in the Premier League offering higher salaries, and more options?

Alas, if you wonder what the big deal is... then tune in. There's nothing like it in the world!

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