Two years ago I was a virgin. A soccer virgin. Then I went to the Real Madrid-Union match at Lincoln Financial Field and decided to become a full-time fan. I haven’t looked back.
Reader Mike requested that, with the dawn of the new EPL season, I should write a casual fan’s guide to the league. Which is what I will do. In the Greenwich meantime, here is my post from two years ago, when I wrote about my first time.
I didn’t know what to expect.
It was my first time and all I knew was that most in the world are obsessed with it. The unadulterated passion that evokes far-ranging emotions and actions, the primal instincts it brings to the surface — they’re all present.
It was warm. A little too warm, in fact. Not knowing what I was getting into was the toughest part. Would I be left for the better after having experienced it? Or will it send me into a crazed, pseudo-obsessed frenzy, one whose roots extended well beyond my professional life and deep into my personal existence?
I’ve never really come close to giving it a chance. Sure, all my life, in my 28 years, I’ve danced around it, and I have, on occasion, flirted with it. You can’t help but wonder: if it’s so good for so many people, what am I waiting for?
I plowed ahead.
There would be no turning back now. My heart began to race a little. Flutter, even. Beat beat. Beat beat. It was a nervous excitement that could only be likened to the feeling of giving a keynote speech in front of a room full of admired peers. So much could go right… far more could go wrong.
I kept going.
Breathing heavier and heavier, I felt a bead of sweat drip down my brow. I wondered if I would even last. I was already melting and this certainly was an activity that applauds stamina.
I had read so much about it. Knew the basics, but understood very little. It’s like drinking alcohol for the first time, really. Everyone knows what sort of experience he or she wants to have, but not until you do it a few times — for several years — do you really get the hang of it and come to know what you can and can’t get away with. When you first start drinking, everything seems like fair game: Frangelico and Coke? Sure, why not? Vodka and apple juice? You bet.
Quickly you learn those concoctions lead to a date with the sad side of a toilet seat and everything you thought you knew about becoming a pro, an adult drinker, was incorrect.
That’s sort of how I felt as I was on the precipice of succumbing to my desires. I thought I would be able to make a killer Tom Collins right off the bat, but somewhere deep down inside, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not tonight.
As I pressed forward and saw the menacing facade of Lincoln Financial Field surrounded by throngs of Hispanic Real Madrid fans wearing clothes and hairdos I did not know, I knew this experience was going to change my sports fandom. For better or worse.
I pushed forward.
I didn’t play much soccer growing up.
Like most, I played baseball (through my junior year in high school). I also played basketball (through eighth grade) and hockey (through high school). I only played soccer for a few years. My career ended at the conclusion of second grade, mostly because they were splitting the boys and the girls up, and my crush, Janine Deluzio (sorry, I may have just weirded somebody out big-time), would no longer be on my team. Like a room full of hairy and muscular legs to a neutered dog, soccer was of no use to me.
And therein lies the problem: It’s hard to truly understand and appreciate a sport if you didn’t play it — or weren’t at least surrounded by it growing up.
That’s what happened with football. I’m 27-years-old, 6’0” and 165 pounds… you can imagine what my body was like at age 10. The gridiron was out of the question. Thankfully, growing up just outside of this wonderful city, the sport was never far off. It became easy to learn the game, its formations, and its players, mostly because of the Eagles. The release of Madden, around the same time, only made it easier to understand the game’s intricacies. Video games get shit on a lot in our society, but — especially when it comes to sports — they are tremendous learning tools. Just play MLB: The Show for one game– you’ll quickly come to understand the strategy that goes into making a double-switch. Hell, Charlie Manuel didn’t even know that until 2007.
But there would be no such experience for soccer. Sure I played some FIFA. However, those of you who grew up with a Sega Genesis know that the strategy in that game’s forming years consisted of two things: shoot and slide tackle. A and C.
A and C.
That’s hardly a way to learn such a refined sport.
Before 900 cable channels and 16 ESPNs, it was hard to even find fútbol on the telly. There was no local option, either. The Kixx don’t count. My only real tangible experience with the sport was following the exploits of Pat Burrell (later A.J. Feely) and Heather Mitts. I can’t imagine that’s the right way to gain an understanding for the game — though Mitts’ pitch is a landscape on which I wouldn’t have minded fussing around.
Now here I am. I want to learn.
Last year, for the second time in a row, I truly enjoyed the World Cup. Perhaps it was because ESPN jammed it down our throats the way Eddie Valiant jammed a hard-boiled egg into Angelo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But I enjoyed it nonetheless.
The sport is just made for HDTV. Soccer pitches are immense and a large part of them are in play at all times. Unlike football and baseball, where you can generally predict the play or quickly focus on the area to which it’s moving, soccer can see its focus area quickly shift 50 yards in an instant. Basketball and hockey are much the same way, but the playing surfaces are significantly smaller. Soccer needs HD.
It wasn’t just Landon Donovan’s goal that got me on the bandwagon, either. I truly enjoyed the game. Perhaps too much.
Once the World Cup ended, I tried to watch a Union tilt on CSN. I lasted about three minutes.
You see, imagine going from watching the Four Aces pitch on consecutive days to watching the Lakewood Blue Claws on public access television. The sport is played under the same name, but it’s different. It’s way different. The drop-off was too steep for me. I gave up.
Last month, I had no interest in watching the Women’s World Cup. None. If I didn’t like MLS, I surely would have no interest in watching women (have you seen the WNBA?). I didn’t see one second of their amazing comeback win against Brazil. Not one. But being the frontrunner I am, I certainly wasn’t going to miss the next game.
Five minutes in, boom: Alex Morgan. Hooked.
Like most of you, I stuck around for the final against Japan, which was perhaps the best PR the sport has received in America since Brandi Chastain took her top off: well played, exciting and a joy to watch. Perhaps now I would give the MLS and the rest of the sport a fighter’s chance. My rationale was simple: Since I didn’t just watch the best, fastest and strongest players on the planet (the men), it might be an easier transition to the rest of the sport, which included both the elite and the mortals.
As I entered Lincoln Financial Field, I was equal parts excited and frightened of what stood in front of me. One of the last things you would expect to see inside the gates of Philadelphia’s football stadium is a group of Spanish fans wearing capes and mohawks singing songs about Nacho Libre, or something like that. This was certainly going to be a different experience. For the first time in my life, I felt like a clueless hipster walking through CBP commenting to folks about how fast “Shane Victoria, the Flying Samoan,” looks. Would these fans throw batteries at me, or would dickish bloggers just write about me in some melodramatic prose about coming to discover a new game?
I quickly realized that my last-minute seat purchase worked out for the better. Sitting up high, five rows from the supposed eagles talons atop The Linc, I could see everything. And for this sport, that’s the only way to do it.
One of the first things I, along with my girlfriend and her two brothers, noticed was the seemingly distraction-less environment. No jumbotron urging me to stand and put my left foot in then out and shake it all about. No sound system that instructed me to clap in a rhythmic, yet increasingly impossible pace. No mascot. Just sports. Just soccer.
Once kickoff happened (I feel like soccer folks would call it a serve, but they can’t even bring themselves to be that austere), we watched Real Madrid advance the ball with a precision that almost wasn’t real. I often wonder how outsiders view basketball, the way players seemingly have the ball on a string. We take it for granted, but to outsiders it must appear to be magic. That’s kind of how I felt watching Real Madrid move the ball. So you’re telling me it’s not connected to their feet?
There are several ways to describe the experience of learning an entirely new sport. You can wax poetic about it and describe the game in all its glory — that’s the preferred method for the so-called soccer snobs. You can lambaste it for what it isn’t, ignoring everything it is — that’s the American way. Or, you can look at it through the lens of someone who straddles that fence between insufferable and, well, insufferable. As such, consider the friendly end of the fence implanted in the not-so-friendly spot between my left and right leg.
That was supposed to be the first in a three-part series on soccer. But I never followed up. My mistake. However, I’m now two seasons deep into soccer. I even went to a match in London last year. If you want to climb on board – and you should – then check back tomorrow for a casual fan’s guide to the English Premier League.