First, a disclaimer: This guide is not intended to be the ultimate list for any new soccer fan (which is properly called ‘football’ everywhere else in the world). This is enough to get your toes wet and hope that anything else you need you will research on your own. Please note that your mileage may vary with your fandom and as with all things, your experience is what you make of it. These tips could also apply to any sport, but there may be a few that are specific to this one.
So, after sucking down years of the NFL, NHL, NBA or MLB, you want to try and give soccer a go?
Ask the average American fan about world soccer and our knowledge, if we are lucky, may begin and end with either Pele or most recently David Beckham or the USWNT. Well, here are a few tips from a new fan that may help along the way to help increase some of your knowledge. As for you veterans reading this, feel free to let me know what recommendations you have (in the comments section below).
Tip 1: Unlearn all that you have learned
Start off by reading up on the basics of the game including the rules and regulations and also learn the lingo such as: What the difference is between a penalty kick and a goal kick, what’s considered a tackle, when do red and yellow cards come into play and so on. In my opinion, the game itself is easy to learn because it’s very free flowing as opposed to American football with all the stopping and starting and the massive rules to understand in between.
Another thing to consider is that after learning some of the basics of the games, you need to be mindful that there is no draft in soccer. The teams outright pay a sum for players that they can afford. Think of it almost as when the NFL had no salary cap and teams won or lost based on their payroll; similar principal applies here. Some teams that can afford to buy players can do so and sometimes will buy players from other teams (rivals included) within their own leagues. This is something that doesn’t happen very often in American sports divisions or among rivals. Alex Rodriguez playing for the Red Sox? On a cold day in hell. Ray Lewis in Pittsburgh Black and Gold? That snowball in hell has a better chance. Kobe Bryant in Celtics Green? Red Aurbach would roll in his grave.
Something else that really keeps fierce competition going on is the idea of promotion and relegation. It’s a system that truly divides the best from the worst. In American sports, losers are rewarded by being first to pick the best talent in hopes of making their teams better. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t (Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning in 1998 anyone?). Soccer doesn’t work that way. Because of the millions of dollars, pounds, euros, or whatever the local currency is on the line, what happens is teams who prove they can play with the best get to move up into better leagues whereas teams who played in the big leagues and have done poorly move down. The rewards of staying in the running is of course money from endorsements and other revenue, which allows you to buy better players which then may help your team get better.
Can you picture how this could work in American sports? How something like this could force teams like the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Wizards, or Toronto Mapleleafs to step their game up or how this would push teams like the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Yankees, or Detroit Red Wings to constantly push to stay at or near the top. It’s a very different system to get used to but the way it drives teams to stay in competition keeps perennial losers from reaping all of the rewards. If you want the money to thrive, you HAVE to win.
Tip 2: Watching the games; Picking and following teams
Of course, if you are going to be a fan, you have to watch some of the games to follow along. If you are in the US, the majority of the games are broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel. Although ESPN doesn’t carry as many matches as Fox does, there are still some good matches to watch. For the tech savvy readers, if you have smartphones, tablets and/or iPads, then I would highly suggest getting the WatchESPN app and as long as you are a cable subscriber (unless your cable company, like Comcast, doesn’t have a deal with ESPN), you can watch any ESPN event for free and that includes any of the live and replayed events they have loaded on their sites for that week. Fox Soccer also has an app out at the moment but in order to watch games there is a subscription fee you have to pay.
As far as what’s in print, I downloaded the Flipboard app on my iPad and the Pulse news app on both that and my iPhone. I have them both linked up and customized with various RSS feeds which helps keep me in the loop with news and updates going on in my favorite leagues and teams.
If you are a gamer, it also doesn’t hurt to pick up the FIFA games and giving it a go. It did help me some more understanding of the pacing of the games…what happens, what events trigger what and so on. Treat it like it’s a tutorial to help you at your own pace but still YOU MUST WATCH actual games and talk to others to know exactly what’s going on.
That last point is a big one. Talk to people who are already fans! This is not the time to be shy. If you have friends or co-workers who are deeply entrenched in this sport (as I am with the NFL) then take some time to talk and ask questions (what is offside, explain what different formations do, what are some of the teams’ playing styles, and how many points do you get for a win, loss or draw). And also, if possible, watch a few games with them. Some of them, like my two co-workers here, are glad to have someone to be able to talk to about the game and if they are good people, they are even happier at explaining the nuances of the game. Of course, if there are supporters in your area, check them out.
And duh! Go read and join in some soccer forums also!
As far as choosing your teams, that is something that is a choice that you have to make as a new fan. Some people will follow a local team which is good because you get to interact with fans in your area. Others will get behind a team that is popular or well known. There are still others that get behind the underdog.
I say the same thing with this sport as I do about American football in that there is no one way to know how to choose your teams that you want to follow, except don’t do it for just one player. You will be surprised how quickly some of these players who have exceptionally long careers can play for many teams. And just like American football, what if you get behind a team this year because of a player and then next year he is gone? Will you still follow the team? And please, please please…no bandwagon hopping! It’s at its worst here in the States after the NBA Finals or the Super Bowl. People who have never cheered for the Steelers, or the Packers or the Lakers or the Mavericks all of a sudden became new fans. Granted, winning teams brings out new fans but it’s the retention of those new fans that’s the problem. I have met more than my fair share of fans who when teams that won in a particular year do dismally the following years. they disown them. So this, like everything else, pick wisely. Do some research because you have many leagues and divisions to choose from, such as La Liga, Ligue 1, Serie A, the EPL and if you are an American, you also have MLS right here in your own back yard. Don’t forget your local teams and also it helps to follow your national team. Many of the players on the US national team are playing throughout the world in some of the best teams in the world.
A word on kits (jerseys was we call them here). Here in the States, many of us who are into sports at one time or another may have jerseys of various teams and players in our closet. It’s not common for one of our friends to sport a Kobe Bryant jersey today and have a LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers (see what I did there?) on the following day. Myself, I have a few current players and a number of throwbacks. Since I am primarily a Baltimore Ravens fan, I have three Ray Lewis jerseys, an Ed Reed jersey and one of our first receivers from 1995, Michael Jackson (I can hear the jokes now). I also have a Jerry Rice 49ers jersey, Randy Moss Patriots jersey, a Reggie White Eagles jersey and so on.
One thing that I found out very quickly is that if you are planning on being a fan, and a serious fan at that, cherrypicking kits is usually not a wise idea. While there may be diehard fans in US sports, none can say that they are as diehard as some of the soccer fans that I have met and talked to. Many fans live and die by their teams. Many of them will stop you on the street and dish out a comment, or just drop something derogatory into your lap.
And what if you are wearing the wrong kit? Well, be prepared. This is a sport where wars have started and ended because of games. People have killed and been killed over games. This is a sport where fans have gotten into bloody fistfights over their teams and choosing to have a kit in your wardrobe because it looked cool with a pair of Nike sneakers is certainly not a bright idea if you have no idea about the team you are wearing. Case in point, I saw a guy a few weeks ago with an Inter kit on. Looking at him, I could almost tell he had no clue what he had on and I nicely asked him where he got it from and he replied that “some girl hooked him up with it” at which point I asked if he followed the team to which he said he didn’t, but he watched car racing. Now just imagine if it was a dyed-in wool Inter fan or AC Milan fan! It could have escalated.
Bottom line is, don’t settle on merchandise until you find a team you will follow for a long period. For myself, I haven’t settled on too many players whose kits I will willingly wear as of yet, so keep this in mind when buying your team gear. Also please note, if you are like me and you are taller than average, or larger than average, be prepared to get some of your orders custom made or remember that a lot of what you may want may not be available in your sizes. Kits are not made like American football jerseys, which can be oversized. Kits generally are made to fit and if you find a few really nice ones, they can be wearable in your place of business.
Tip 3: I found a team. Now what?
As I stated before, watch the games, follow the news. Have fun and enjoy them. Once you are watching a game, be prepared in knowing that the clock never stops in soccer, so take a bathroom break and get your snacks before the game starts. Then relieve, refresh and refill (my 3 R’s) at the half. Why? Because you don’t want to miss that cool header that slid by the goalkeeper because you just HAD to have your Cheetos, especially if that was the only goal of the game.
Also remember that most live games are televised from 6 to 10 hours ahead of our schedule so sometimes you may find yourself doing a lot of DVRing of some matches. And don’t spoil it for yourself or other fans if they haven’t watched yet be peeking at the scores because it really ruins the watching of the game even if it’s recorded. Also, if you like ‘quick games’ it’s good to know that on average, a game can be done in under two hours. Games rarely ever drag on because as I stated before, there is no clock stoppage and if the game is extended it’s due to either extra time or penalty kicks.
One of the coolest aspects in this sport is that there is ALWAYS something going on. There is a cup contested here, a qualifying match there, and a tournament elsewhere. This is something you don’t see enough of in American sports. Most American sports teams play for one championship occurring at the end of the season. Soccer is similar but there always seem to be other trophies that can be won during the course of the season. And of course there is the World Cup which occurs every four years and is played on an international stage. In a sense, this is the ultimate All Star game. Don’t forget to use your friends as a resource to ask about how tournaments are set up, what the difference is between knock out play and round robin, what point modifiers are used to determine the winner and so on. If you like to see different types of contests and trophies won in the course of a year, this is the sport for you.
Then there is the all important part. GO TO GAMES. Go as often as your pockets will allow. If you follow a MLS team, it’s not expensive at all and you should get in a good game for less than $100. It’s considerably cheaper than any American football game I have been to. If you get really lucky and a national or international tournament or team is coming your way, it doesn’t hurt to invest a little more to go.
Just recently, some of you may have read my article about going to the Gold Cup semifinals, international friendlies between Everton v DC United and the Manchester United v Barcelona friendlies. As a new fan, what makes these games worth seeing is that the Gold Cup is played once every two years and I got lucky that the US qualified for that match. And Everton, Barcelona, and Manchester United — all of which are huge teams in Europe — made appearances here stateside and no one knows definitively when they will return. So it was a wonderful once in a lifetime experience to see teams that many of us will only get to see on TV play live. However, if you are truly a huge fan and your pockets run deep, make a trip overseas and go to a game there.
This game is a great game to get into if you are a new fan. It’s played all over the world in every country available so there is no shortage of choices to make with who you choose to follow. As stated from the very beginning, it’s a sport where your mileage as a fan will vary and it’s up to you to figure out your dedication. All I can say is, don’t be afraid to jump in, the water here is fine. Take some time and you too can get into deep discussions as to why some think that Lionel Messi is over or under rated, if Evra is better than Abidal, how did Diego Maradona put Argentina on the map or if Roberto Baggio is the best Italian player ever.
Thanks for reading. And with that, any grizzled old timers who would like to share some advice can do so in the comments section below.