If, ten years ago, someone would have told me that the professional sports league I’d be following most closely these days would be the Barclay’s Premier League of soccer teams in England, I probably would have laughed at them. But, here I am now, some weird American finding himself caring more about who finishes at the top of the table and who wins the FA Cup more than who wins the Super Bowl.
There are some good reasons for liking international soccer over other, more socially acceptable professional sports over here. ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons wrote an alternately insightful and funny article a couple of years ago about the merits of European soccer and how to pick an English Premier League team to follow (he wound up choosing Tottenham Hotspur in the end, for reasons both silly and serious). One of the points he highlights is the nature of fan support. Crowds at a lot of big-time contests in the U.S. today (baseball, basketball, etc.) seem to follow whatever the P.A. announcers, music clips, and electronic scoreboards tell them to do. That doesn’t seem to happen in the crowds in the European soccer leagues.
I also like the fact that teams can and do change tiers from year to year. The bottom three finishers in the top-flight Premier League get demoted to the second-flight Championship League for the next year, changing places with the top teams of the Championship League. The same thing goes on between the Championship League, third-tier League One, and fourth-tier League Two. If only the names of the leagues weren’t so misleading…
It’s become easier to follow international soccer these days, thanks to the presence of the Internet, Fox Soccer Channel, Gol TV and other outlets. A surprising amount of free audio streams for games are available on the Internet these days as well.
Anyway, back to the FA Cup. It’s a gigantic, single elimination tournament that occurs every year involving several hundred teams across England from all tiers. This past weekend marked the fifth round, and boy was it fun. Liverpool got knocked out of the tournament with a 2-1 home loss to Championship League member Barnsley. Good things… And then there was my favorite team, Manchester United, currently in second place in the Premier League, crushing first place Arsenal 4-0 to knock the Gooners out of cup contention. Arsenal fans can take heart here: as much as I wouldn’t like it to be the case, their team is most likely going to win the Premier League title this year, barring any completely unexpected collapse. Arsenal is a great team, and great teams can have a bad day now and again. When that bad day happens to occur while playing against another great team in a single elimination tournament, then you get the kind of result that happened Saturday. Something like that isn’t going to happen very often, and I’m afraid Manchester United isn’t going to be able to catch Arsenal this year in the table. At least we’ve got a shot at the FA Cup, though.
Disclaimer: In case you’ve read the aforelinked Bill Simmons article by now, I must say I’m not the equivalent of “a foreigner in their mid-30s who was looking for a baseball team and announced, ‘I’m going with the Yankees!’ Wouldn’t you hate that person? I don’t want to be that guy,” he said about the prospect of becoming a non-English Manchester United fan. My grandmother is actually from Manchester, and I have older relatives who still live in Gorse Hill, a neighborhood adjacent to Old Trafford. Because of that, for me to follow any other team would have just been weird.
Heading into the quarterfinals March 8 and 9, at most only four of the eight teams making it into the next round are in the Premier League: Manchester United, Portsmouth, Chelsea, and possibly Middlesbrough, if they can get past Championship League member Sheffield United in the fifth round replay game. If Sheffield United gets in instead, they will join fellow Championship League members West Bromwich Albion, Cardiff City and Barnsley in the quarterfinals, along with League One member Bristol. Personally, I love the fact that at least half of the eight remaining teams after the completion of the current round aren’t from the top tier. Granted, you can make convincing arguments that this isn’t always a good thing, but I tend to like seeing the Cinderella stories come to the fore anyway. I can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.