I jumped in two years ago and haven’t looked back.
Soccer can be an extraordinarily confusing sport to follow. Forgetting for a second about learning the game, there are countless teams in countless leagues in countless countries with countless titles and cups and championships. It’s like the first time you played Mario Kart and tried to figure out the difference between the Star and Gold cups, and then you had to select for 50, 100 or 150 cc. The fack?! For a new fan of the sport, it can be an extremely daunting task to jump right in. That’s why the English Premier League – also referred to as the EPL (by lifers), Barclays Premier League (by people who want to acknowledge a large multinational bank every time they talk about their favorite league), Premier League (by everyone else) - is for you. It’s the most watched and probably the best sports league in the world. All the teams are in England or Britain or Great Britain (the differences have been explained to me three times and I still don’t get it, nor do I care) and there’s one winner at the end of the season, with no playoffs, no tournaments, no divisions, no conferences, no bullshit. Just soccer. Three points for a win. One point for a tie. None for a loss.
Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the more popular teams: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Newcastle.
This isn’t a column on what team you should choose to root for (Bill Simmons already wrote that)– it’s a post on why you should choose the league.
High-level European soccer teams play in a variety of leagues, tournaments and cups. Each team has its national league (English Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, Serie A in Italy), often a secondary regional league (Champions League, Europa League), friendly matches, and random national and international cup tournaments. It’s a dizzying array of matches that can be difficult to keep track of, especially from across the Atlantic. That’s why you should start with one league, the Premier League. Or the Barclays Premier League, if you’re an asshole.
The season is long (August-May). Games are played almost every week (soccer has breaks for international competition and local cups, and it will piss you off when you turn on the TV one Saturday morning only to find archival footage of things with weird names like the London Derby). It’s easy to keep track of. And many of the world’s best and most recognizable players are in the league (the two best, however – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – play in Spain).
There are 20 teams in the league. No playoffs. The team with the most points at the end of the season wins. It sounds anti-climactic, and it can be, but take, for example, the 2011-2012 season, when Manchester City beat out Manchester United (bitter rivals) on the last day – no, the last minute – of the season.
Manchester City needed a win over lowly Queens Park Rangers to win the league. A tie would give it to Man U, who, while the City game was drawing to an end, had just beaten Sunderland, 1-0.
City was down 2-1 in extra time. They needed two goals in four minutes, which is unheard of in soccer.
They got it, much to the shock of Sir Alex Ferguson and Man U, who learned of their misfortune while still on the pitch.
That was how the season ended. Two games, in two different places, drawing to an end at the same time. It may be the greatest finish to a sports season ever.
Now, not every season will conclude that way. 2012-2013 didn’t. Man U ran away with it, because they’re the Yankees and you should hate them accordingly. If you’re finding any of the information in this post to be new information (as in, you’re not already a soccer fan) and you decide to root for Man U, I hate you, and so does every other soccer fan. You’re the guy who likes the Yankees, Cowboys and Lakers. You’re a sick fuck. And a frontrunner.
But there are other things to consider besides first place:
1) The top four teams in the league gain entry into the following season’s Champions League– the best teams, from all around Europe, competing in a season-long tournament. Depending on your viewpoint, this may be the most prestigious league in the world. Problem is, games are played on weekdays at, like, 2:30. Eastern. It’s harder to follow and there are many games with obscure teams from obscure cities in obscure venues with fans that look like terrorists. It sometimes freaks me out. The final 16-team tournament, though, which takes place in the spring, contains some of the best soccer you’ll see. But it takes a while to get there. Watch the EPL through the winter and you’ll naturally want to see what happens in the Champions League. Ditto for the other, smaller cups and tournaments. Let the Premier League serve as a foundation for your fanhood. You’ll gradually start caring about the other stuff.
Finishing in the top four and getting into the Champions League is a goal for most teams in the EPL.*
*Chelsea didn’t finish in the top four in the EPL in 2011-2012, but they won the Champions League that year. As such, they received an automatic bid for the Champions League the following year, knocking out fourth place finisher, and my chosen squad, the Tottenham Hotspur.
2) The bottom three finishers get relegated to a lower league. Imagine if the Phillies lost their division and got sent to AAA the following season. It’s kind of like that. So, even the worst teams in the Premier League have something to play for, and the best teams, during off years, have something to be very afraid of besides just the prospect of another year of Ruben Amaro.
To recap: No playoffs, lots of other stuff going on. Excitement!
Like football, most Premier League games take place on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Thanks to the time difference, games start anywhere from 7:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. On Monday, there’s one game at 3 p.m.
It’s the perfect thing to watch on weekend mornings, especially now that NBC is making it possible to watch every. single. game. Two uninterrupted 45-minute halves and a 15-20-minute halftime mean that matches are played in under two hours– the perfect amount of time to catch one, or two, at a local pub.
There are many places if you live in the city – Fado, Tir Na Nog, The Dark Horse and others – but fewer options in the suburbs. Easily the best place is the Iron Abbey in Horsham. They have a ridiculous beer selection, gastro pub style breakfasts, and every game is shown on one their many TVs. It’s… kind of a Liverpool bar, which can be off-putting to some when the Reds are playing (think Pittsburgh fans with shitty accents), but it’s usually all in good fun. And you can almost always get a seat. In other words: happening, but not too crowded. You’ll find me there quite a few times this year.
Warning: Be careful if you get caught up in this sort of thing. You’ll be going down a dark path that will leave you feeling hungover every Saturday by about 2 p.m. and, even worse (or better, depending on your perspective), you’ll develop an uncontrollable urge to drink beer every time you smell fried pig, which, if left unsatisfied, may lead to your harming of coworkers or small family pets and or assorted children. And if you have a girlfriend, fiancee, wife, house, golfing addiction or anything else that might demand your attention on the weekends, you’ll want to limit yourself to two 8.2% ABV breakfast stouts with your bowl of eggs, cheese and meat. Trust me on this. Shopping for mulch is even less palatable when your head is bursting and your intestines are producing a steamy mess that, quite honestly, would be a whole lot more potent and cost effective than said mulch. You may or may not end up testing out that last sentence.
The Premier League is really competitive. Teams have storied pasts and rivalries are deep-seeded. Hell, there’s like five teams just in London. And the entire country is about the size of Alabama. Imagine if the entire NFL was located in the Northeast– it’s that. Teams and fan bases hate each other, possibly because of their close proximity, or possibly because they all call their friends “mates.” There is a drop-off from the top of the league to the bottom, but most games are close and hard-fought. Other soccer leagues, like La Liga, have huge deltas between the best teams and even the mediocre ones. Also, pitch (use that word) sizes vary in soccer, and Premier League pitches are somewhat smaller than in other leagues. The matches are more… intimate. Think of Eastern Conference hockey compared to Western Conference hockey. It’s that style of play. But there’s a focus on offense more-so than in other countries and leagues. Also, there’s not as much diving in the EPL. It still happens, but the more egregious offenders are the Spaniards, Italians and Latin Americans. Draw your own conclusions from that.
I won’t try to help you pick a team (because I probably don’t know enough), but here are a few things you should know about the most popular teams:
Man U: The Yankees. Don’t do that.
Man City: They became the trendy pick after their season in 2011-2012. They have long been in Man U’s shadow (Yankees, meet Mets, Mets, meet Yankees). They, too, have money and will spend it. Acceptable to root for. Cool kits:
Chelsea: From a very rich part of London. Lots of history, won the Champions League a few years ago (with a new manager and then fired him six months later!). Bit of a front-runner squad. My bro-in-law-to-be chose them and then moved to London in time to be there when they won the Champions League. So now I hate them. Their new manager is Jose Mourinho, who had managed Real Madrid the last few seasons. He’s ridiculously good-looking and also ridiculous:
Liverpool: Do you smell? If yes, root for Liverpool. Very blue collar. The team has been a laughing stock the past couple seasons and they’re owned by Red Sox owner John Henry. I probably don’t need to say more.
Arsenal: Also from London. Rootable, if only so you can live and die with Piers Morgan’s crazy Tweets about his favorite team.
Tottenham: The Spurs. My squad. Also in London. Very Phillies-like. Play in a blue collar part of the city, storied past, often good, never seem to win anything. They’re just a notch below the other teams. They currently have Gareth Bale, who is all the rage, but he’s likely going to be bought by Real Madrid for 100 million pounds(!). They, too, are trendy right now. Really cool stadium though. Here’s me there:
Everton: Their goalie is Team USA goalie Tim Howard, and I think he’s a dick. He yells at his teammates after every play. But they’re an acceptable pick if you’d prefer not to go for one of the big-name teams.
Stoke City: This thanks to my buddy Larry: Stoke City is gonna be fun for Americans– they basically bought every American player in the past year. Cameron, Edu, Agudelo, and one other guy I forget off the top of my head.
Newcastle: And there’s Marla Hooch. What a hitter!
That’s your Premier League in a nutshell. It starts Saturday and I think you’ll be surprised just how many of your friends watch it. NBC now has the rights and they will show every game on TV or online. You can see details about that here. My squad is Tottenham. Come on you Spurs!