Let’s say you don’t follow soccer, but you enjoyed watching some World Cup matches. (Yes, I’m going to call it soccer. I usually call it football, and you will too if you get into it. But I’m talking to my fellow Americans now, and many of them will probably already be suspicious that this is some sort of hippy thing without my self-consciously appropriating the name of the Sport That Tebow Plays.) If you’re a fan of other sports, I can’t imagine it will be very hard to convince you that soccer is worth following. So let’s suppose you’re not. Maybe, like me, you watched a sport or two as a kid, but you became a Mathlete and games came to mean either Dungeons and Dragons or Autoduel. Guess what, you’re going to like soccer.
It is indeed a beautiful game, even when viewed as a one-off affair. Matches between top clubs are, in my opinion, even better than those in the World Cup, as the quality of teamwork and concentration of top players can be higher. But here’s the real hook for geeks like me, the key mechanic that absolutely makes the sport: every year a league’s worst teams are demoted to the league below, while the best are promoted to the league above.
Maybe you know something about baseball. Well, imagine that in baseball the worst teams each year went to the minor leagues and the best were promoted to the majors. Now imagine that rather than two such tiers, there were twenty-four. Now imagine that a bunch of other countries had quality leagues and that the very best teams around the world competed in both their own leagues and in a true world series. And now imagine that the games reliably lasted two hours at most and that there was continuous action. Read on.
The game itself
Soccer is really, really simple to understand. There’s a ball. There are eleven players on each side. Your team scores one point every time you put the ball in your opponent’s goal. You can’t touch the ball with your hands or arms, unless you are the one player on your team designated as the goalkeeper and you’re within a box around your goal. The team with the most points wins.
A few more simple rules: If the ball is kicked out of play on the side of the pitch (i.e., the field), a player will throw it in. If it goes out at the end, it will be kicked in from a corner. Each team can substitute up to three players during the course of a game, meaning at least eight players have to last the entire ninety minutes. That’s basically it.
Unfortunately, there are two impurities that make the game a bit more complicated, but it’s unavoidable. First, offsides. In a nutshell, you can’t receive a pass unless the ball or a defender other than the goalkeeper is between you and the goal. It’s easy to understand both how the rule works and why it has to be that way after watching a game or two.
The second impurity is fouling. Action stops, and the other team gets a free kick when you improperly kick, trip, or push an opposing player. The rules are detailed, involve judgment calls, and encourage faking. The gist is that dangerous or repeated fouls (or faking fouls) will lead to the referee’s showing a player a yellow card, a warning. If a player receives two yellow cards, he’s shown a red card and is out of the game. The team must then make do with ten players. Particularly bad fouls, including those preventing goal-scoring opportunities, may bring on a straight red card, and the player’s out without a warning. Also, fouls in the box give a penalty kick, a close-range shot on goal with only the goalkeeper to beat.
In each of the top leagues in Europe there are about twenty teams. Over the course of a season, each team plays every other team twice, once at home and once away. Winning gets three points. A draw earns one (no overtime). Losing gets nothing. At the end of the season, which typically runs from August until May, the team with the most points is the champion. Wait! What about the playoffs, the championship game!? No, none of that. The team with the most points wins — and it’s awesome. It means that every game of the season matters.
When I say every game matters, I mean that nearly every game matters to nearly every team. This is where relegation and promotion come in. Though it varies from league to league, usually around three teams at the bottom of the table (the listing of teams in order of points) are relegated to the league below. The top three teams are promoted to the league above. In some leagues there are special play-offs for one of these spots. For example, the play-off final for the third promotion spot from the second tier of English football (the Championship League) to the top league (the Premier League) is played at Wembley Stadium and is worth millions of pounds to the winner, perhaps the most valuable single game in any sport. In a league of twenty, there will usually be a good handful of teams competing for the top three spots and another good handful competing to avoid the bottom three. Lots of teams have something to play for right until the bitter end.
The biggest, single prize in European soccer, however, is not winning the league. It’s winning a pan-European league comprising the top teams from the various leagues. You see, the top few spots in each nation’s top league lead to participation in the next year’s European Champions League. The Champions League is played very much like the World Cup, with a group phase in the fall (like a mini-league from which two of four teams advance) and a knock-out, play-off style competition in the spring.
But wait, there’s more. Each country also has a national cup tournament, contested by all the teams in the top few leagues. And all of these competitions — the league itself, the cup tournament, and the Champions League — are all going on at the same time. The greatest honor is to win the European triple, called different things but meaning to win the league, the cup, and the Champions League in a single season. (There are other kinds of triples and doubles and more than one domestic cup competition. Doesn’t matter for now.)
What’s so cool is how, in concept, a rag-tag group of amateurs can build a team that rises all the way through the English league system to win the European crown. And a mighty team can fall through the floor. About twenty years ago, Fulham was in the fourth tier. Manchester City, leading the Premier League as of this writing, was in the third tier in 1998. It’s a high-drama, fascinating system (with interesting economics to boot).
How to watch
You don’t need to understand or think about every competition, every country, or every team. Pick one league, and pick one team in that league to follow. That’s what I did when I started rooting for Arsenal about a year and a half or so ago. (Yep, big newbie here.)
For those in the U.S., the English Premier League is the easiest to keep up with. It’s also quite competitive, with six or so teams in the hunt for the top spot, and features top players. Other excellent leagues are the top flights in Spain, Germany, France, and Italy. Spain features what are probably the two best teams in the world, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Madrid-Barcelona games are worth watching no matter what league you follow. (Unfortunately, they so dominate that the Spanish league is mostly a battle for third place.)
ESPN will usually play a game or two a week (with many European matches on espn3.com), and Fox Soccer carries far more. I watch online and subscribe to foxsoccer.tv, which is a bit pricey at around $20/month. But by far the best way to get started is to watch a match a week at a local soccer pub. For me, that’s The Royal Peasant, a ten minute walk from my house. Search the web or ask around to find yours. Even for a non-sports-fan like me, it’s a blast to be at the local pub with fans from around the world when a goal leads to cheers that blow the roof off.
Many of the English games begin at 10 or 11 and, remember, last two hours. So it’s a perfect way to enjoy a Saturday or Sunday lunch, without spending hours in front of the TV. I’ve found soccerway.com to be an easy place to check schedules, standings, and results. Don’t get overwhelmed, just follow the results in your team’s league. Welcome to the beautiful game.