Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Where I’m Coming From and Who I’m Pulling For

I was not born a football fanatic, I became one. When I was a kid I played more traditionally American sports like baseball and basketball. I had lots of friends who played soccer, but never had much interest in it myself. That changed when I went away to college, which was in 1994, the summer of the United States-hosted World Cup. I was swept away by the tournament and enjoyed each subsequent cup more than the last: France in 1998, Japan and South Korea in 2002 (although I watched most of it on tape) and all of this year’s Cup in Germany. Each World Cup brought with its silver lining a dark cloud, however, as I knew the final match would bring with it four long years of waiting for the next Cup to begin.

Things changed this summer. Through the careful and patient explanations of friends, I realized that the technology now existed to watch great football from around the world. For a few dollars a month, I was now able to watch league games in England, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, and virtually every other country that had a televised football league.

This opportunity to immerse myself in football, to become the fanatic that lived inside me, also presented very unique opportunities. It allowed me to nurture the love of this game, but it also allowed me to form alliances by choice, and by interest, and not by simple fate. You see, I am from New England, close to the city of Boston. To people outside where I live, that means little, but to those who live here know that it means I am by birth a fan of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, just as my father is and just as how both of my grandfathers were. My maternal grandfather, for example, was five years old when the Red Sox won the World Series in 1918; he lived a rich and full life, but did not live long enough to see the next one the team won, in 2004.

I have and always will be a fan of the Boston Red Sox (as well as the Patriots, Celtics and Bruins) and happily so, but football presented a different opportunity; a chance to choose the teams I would root for based on interest and likeability; not on location. And I would not be a follower of a single team, either. I simply enjoy football too much to root for one team, and I enjoy the sport much more if I have a genuine rooting interest. I am, however, conscious of the serious crime of what sportswriter Bill Simmons calls ‘sports bigamy.’ I gave myself only the minimal rule that I would not root for more than one club in the same league. Other than that, I have chosen to support the teams that have caught my fancy or affection for one reason or another; since I will be writing quite a bit about these teams as the year goes on (I expect) I thought I would briefly explain why I support the teams I do here.

Real Madrid
Real is probably the team I support the most passionately; it has proved in success and failure to often be the most fun to watch. I also very much like many of the Real players, especially Robinho, Beckham, Ronaldo, and the seemingly ageless Roberto Carlos. I also pull for Real because I like watching the Spanish football league above all others. I find the play more exciting and the passing sharper than anywhere else. That being said, I wanted to root for a Spanish team that I would be able to watch often, and in the U.S. that means Madrid or Barca. And since I pull for Madrid, I must detest Barca.

There are many appealing players on this year’s AC Fiorentina team; most famously, the great goalscorer Luca Toni. Its disappointing, of course, that ACF had points deducted this year, (although they have no one to blame but themselves) since without their deductions they would be competing for a place in Europe. Regardless of their success and problems, however, I feel a connection to the team as theirs is the only home game I have ever attended in Europe. It was a magical evening complete with a come-from-behind win, flares, ultras, and Italian riot police. I can’t wait to go back. About one quarter of their games are televised here in the states.

Sheffield United
The most televised foreign league here in the States is the English Premier League. I knew I wanted to support a club in the Premiership but in the case of this particular league, where so many of the games are televised, I wanted a different experience than pulling for one of the big clubs. Eventually I thought I would follow the fortunes of a club that would battle relegation for the year, and after reading an interview with Neil Warnock I decided to choose Sheffield United. Players like Phil Jagielka have helped me to form a real connection with the club; I now badly want them to extend their stay in the top flight. Probably anywhere from a third to half of their games are televised in the U.S.

New England Revolution
For all I said above about choosing teams based on interest and not geography, I do believe the local MLS teams here in the States need to be supported. The Revs are a good, well-run team that is frequently selling players to Europe, including their best player from last year, Clint Dempsy, who is going to England. I have attended Rev games in the past and will probably bite the bullet with season tickets next season. At the very least the Revs will be an interesting counterpoint to the big money teams of Europe, and will prove a satisfying football fix when Europe is on their summer break.

Even this long list is not exhaustive; I haven’t even touched on my thoughts on the leagues in Portugal and France. But it does give a good touchtone to what I am thinking about, and a good basis for what I am watching here in the States.

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