The growth of soccer in the United States over the last 15 years or so has been phenomenal. I know that because I was there for every step of it. Back during the 2002 World Cup, matches were being shown at 4 AM in Buffalo. As everyone who has ever lived in Buffalo can tell you, 4 AM is Last Call there. So traditionally, people are on their way home at that time, not going out! Since soccer games were kept on backwoods cable networks if they were shown at all, soccer was nothing more than a weird little curiosity. But I’m a curious type of person. So one day, I decided to see what all the hype was about. I rolled out of bed at some absurd hour, found a World Cup match on one of those backwoods networks, and watched. I fell in love with the sport after about 10 minutes.
From there, I would try and watch soccer games wherever I could find them. I watched international matches whenever they popped up, regardless of who played. After a couple of years, ESPN signed a TV deal with an unknown little American professional soccer league called Major League Soccer. That meant there was now soccer being shown on a major network every Saturday at 5 PM, and so I followed MLS. Then I moved to Chicago, met travelers, and the English Premier League slowly found a spot on my radar. The European giants trickled in and out on promotional tours, and I watched Chicago’s local coverage of the Fire. ESPN started airing Champions League matches. Then in 2013, NBC picked up the rights to the EPL, and the world’s most popular sport blew up. NBC’s biggest sports competitor, Fox Sports, even grabbed the German Bundesliga a little later, so we have that too.
But enough about my personal relationship to soccer. You’re reading this because you, too, have discovered this deceptively simplistic sport. Of course you’re a good American local – you support the Yanks (both the men and women, but especially the women) and throw your weight behind the closest MLS club. But what say you’re both a sports fan and a traveler and you’re looking for one of the true world teams to get behind so you can relate to other travelers? Well, the good news is, this isn’t like adopting an ill-fitting civic loyalty when your city doesn’t have a team. The bad news is that you live in Buffalo, where people still scoff at soccer, so you’re not quite sure where to start. The only teams you’ve heard of are the Manchester teams, United and City, and you’re wary of just latching on to either of them because you fear they’ll make you into a bandwagoner. (And you’re absolutely fucking right! Supporting Man United makes you a regular ol’ scumbag, and supporting Man City makes you the moral equivalent of a Patriots fan.) You’re not necessarily looking for a team that wins a lot here, you’re looking for one that exemplifies you, your hometown, your ethos… Something that has enough familiar parallels to make you feel like they’re really yours. Here’s a short list of teams to start looking. If any of them pique your interest, you can probably find supporters and matches for many of them at Mes Que.
Borussia Dortmund German Bundesliga Dortmund, Germany I figured I’d lead this thing off with a Bundesliga team, since Buffalo has the world’s largest German community outside Germany. And tell me if you’ve heard this kind of profile for a city before: Century long steel industry that collapsed? Revival around biomedical technology and tourism? Okay, there’s some stuff I omitted: Dortmund was also a leading producer of coal and beer, and its revival also has a metric ton of engineering, finance, and education involved. But hey, a blue collar root is a blue collar root, doubtless folk there still pine for the old steel-workin’ days, and they love good football. And Borusse plays a flowing, high-scoring version soccer which always seems to come up short when it counts! You’ll be tempted to think of the K-Gun Buffalo Bills as a comparison, which is definitely warranted. But The BVB also makes a decent offset for old school NBA fans who were around to see the old Buffalo Braves. These guys have a hell of a pedigree too: Eight-time Bundesliga champions, four-time DFB-Pokal winners, and five-time Supercup champions. Just make sure you start bandwagoning NOW, though – their American wonderboy, Christian Pulisic, will be jumping to Chelsea next season.
Crystal Palace English Premier League London, England Soccer fans can all remember the epic end to the 2014 EPL season: Chelsea’s Demba Ba streaking onto an open pitch, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard hot at foot. Gerrard tripping on his own normally sure feet as Ba shoots a fireball right by Simon Mignolet. That moment is still credited as the moment that cost the Pool Boys the 2014 championship, which was Gerrard’s last, best chance. What gets forgotten amidst such a signature moment is that after that loss to Chelsea, Liverpool still had a healthy lead in the standings, and the championship was still theirs to lose. What REALLY did the Reds in was what happened the following week: Holding a 3-1 lead against Crystal Palace in the 70th minute, Liverpool looked like they were on their way to a routine win. But the Eagles launched an all-out assault which drew the game and let Man City leapfrog Liverpool to the top spot, which they never relinquished. Crystal Palace was newly promoted, and they had just replaced the manager who got them up to the EPL. This was looking like a token one-and-done appearance, but since then, Palace has proven to be a gnat, and a rather resilient one at that. They seem to always be a trap team when they play the EPL’s giants, and although they’re usually middling, their finishes lately have been well out of the relegation zone. They’re a club that can always be counted on to play the full 90-plus minutes, never get intimidated, and play up to their opponents. It helps that their kits are red and blue and one of their nicknames is the Eagles.
Arsenal English Premier League London, England I could comprise most of this list strictly of London teams, but I had to compromise for want of variety. Looking at the BIG London clubs, I was torn between Arsenal or their rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. Buffalo’s supporter club for Spurs is the only soccer club in Buffalo which is officially credited by the team itself. And Spurs is easily the more exciting club to watch. But fuck, you’re BUFFALO! Exciting in sports is a foreign concept to you! Your obsession with a football team that keeps modeling its identity on 60’s style football despite abject, consistent mediocrity fits into Arsenal Football Club. Yes, Arsenal is one of the world’s giants. Their history includes 13 titles, more than every EPL team save Liverpool and Manchester United. But ever since the most recent title – the famed “Invincibles” team of 2004 which didn’t lose any matches – all they can seem to manage is last-minute runs to being the fourth-best team in the EPL. They’re best known – somewhat unfairly – for a long-outmoded long ball style of play which inspired their fans to adopt “boring, boring Arsenal” as a chant! They kept former manager Arsene Wenger for WAY too long, even as he developed the habit of lopping the club’s best players. It happened with Thierry Henry, it happened with Theo Walcott, it happened with Robin van Persie, and I wouldn’t get too attached to Aaron Ramsey or Robbie Burton if I were you. At least they haven’t been relegated since 1919.
Atletico Madrid Spanish Liga Madrid, Spain At a single glance, Atletico Madrid comes off as sort of an odd choice. They represent working class rebellion in a wealthy establishment city. But look a little bit closer, and there’s a strong sense of kinship between Buffalo and Atletico Madrid. Like Buffalo, Atletico has a huge daddy complex with a richer, bigger, more successful joint across the city. That sums up Buffalo’s relationship with New York City. Also, the rebellious reputation really isn’t warranted – during the Franco years of Spain, Atletico was the local team of the boys in charge. Once again, this sums up Buffalo – it tries to establish itself as a badass rebel, but what it means by badass rebel is adherence to rightfully dead traditions, only with more swearing. And in the Madrid Derby, Atletico struggles against Real in a way that Bills fans can appreciate when they play against the Patriots. Atletico Madrid’s crest features a motif that reeks of the American flag. And much like the Bills of the 21st Century, the team is in the habit of hot starts which create belief among fans which then gets dashed. Being a Liga team, though, Atletico Madrid makes up for its shortcomings with that beautifully fluid and entertaining Spanish style of soccer.
Celtic Scottish Premier League Glasgow, Scotland Okay, I know Buffalo’s ginormous Irish population is waiting for me to name a club representing their country. Unfortunately, soccer in Ireland is so low-scale that there are two governing bodies of it. That being the case, I refer you to the Scottish Premier League’s pretty much official Irish team, Celtic Football Club. Created as a charity for displaced Irish in 1887, Celtic has established itself as one of the most absurdly dominant teams in any local sports league on Earth. Their most recent victory set them up for this year’s title, and barring an epic choke job, it will be Celtic’s 50th. That goes with 38 Scottish Cups and 18 League Cups. In addition to that, Celtic is Irish in everything but location. They fly the Irish flag, sing Irish songs during chants, play in one of the more fun leagues in Europe, and supporting them isn’t a financial strain. Now, you would expect a team like Celtic to come with a few drawbacks, and there are some considerable ones with Celtic: First, this is a Scottish team. That means following them requires doing the legwork yourself rather than just letting the information find you. Also, the Scottish Premier League isn’t as high quality or as rich as the biggest leagues in Europe; the SPL is where third substitutes from, say, Leicester City go when they decide they want to attain godhood. If you make it to Glasgow, their stadium isn’t in the most convenient location. And the rivalry between Celtic and their crosstown rival, Rangers, is rooted in the same old-fashioned sectarianism that Northern Ireland fought a war over. The rivalry, which is called The Old Firm, is fucking terrifying even by soccer violence standards. You do NOT want to be seen wearing green, ever, around Ibrox Stadium. If you’re willing to overlook those flaws, though, following Celtic is worth some incredible fan riches. Celtic is one of the clubs that I follow myself. And if you’re a fan in Buffalo, you won’t have to degrade yourself any longer by continuing to follow the NBA’s Boston Celtics (they’re from fucking BOSTON!) or the NCAA’s University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (I mean, COME ON!!!).
Hannover 96 German Bundesliga Hanover, Germany Think for a minute. What is the one thing that sums up the populace of Buffalo better than anything else? It’s their ability to work their asses off, forgoing every break, every excuse to call in, every day of vacation legally allowed. It’s bragging about how they don’t take time off and about how they work all the overtime they possibly can. And, despite all that, NEVER getting ahead. See, like Buffalo, they believe the great golden age of anything, ever, existed in the past. Hannover 96 won two titles – 1938 and 1954 – which get discounted because they were reeled in before the league took its current form as the Bundesliga. The Buffalo Bills won the 1964 and 1965 AFL Championships, but those get discounted because they occurred before the Super Bowl was a thing. As for success since then, Hannover has been good for two second league titles and one DFB-Pokal. And while they are frequently able to sign players with oodles of potential, that potential always manages to get wasted despite occasional impressive performances. Although H96 can sometimes finish strong and knock out one of the big clubs in the Bundesliga, they always seem to mislead fans and pundits while failing to build on whatever potential they’ve shown.
SSC Napoli Italian Serie A Naples, Italy Napoli is a very popular team in Italy, but when you get a good look at these guys, there’s one thing that really stands out: In a country rife with heated soccer rivalries and hooligans, no one really considers Napoli the team to beat. In fact, their fans are known for inter-fandom friendships that exist with fans of Catania, Palmero, Borussia Dortmund, Bulgaria’s Lokomotiv Plovdiv, and France’s Paris Saint-Germain. This can translate over since Buffalo is The City of Good Neighbors, especially since Buffalo isn’t high on anyone’s list of major sports rivals. (Okay, I’ll give you the Ottawa Senators.) Think about it. You think Patriots fans hate us as much as we hate them? No, because they know their team is going to fucking kill ours. We’re not a rival to them, we’re just another opponent to plow over. Maple Leafs fans obsess over two things: The Montreal Canadiens and the fact that the Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup in 50 years. Bruins fans hate Montreal and New York, Hurricanes fans don’t deserve the attention, the Jets are always trying to out-tank everyone, and the Dolphins don’t matter anymore and most of their fans have turned to the Heat anyway. So why not follow a cute, insignificant little Serie A team which isn’t anyone’s target even during rare good years? Besides, Italian teams swear by defense, which is something you can appreciate.
Aston Villa English Premier League Aston, England Okay, we all know London is a place someone from Buffalo would visit. But if you’re looking for a team from a Buffalo-like city, you’re cheering for the Villains. If there’s a British equivalent to the Rust Belt, Aston is on it, still with proud blue collar people, still struggling with economic depression. Aston was bombed during World War II, and victimized by sets of ill-fated, large-scale urban renewal projects after that. Poverty and unemployment are still all over the city, and the people undoubtedly don’t look for options outside of the factories. Aston Villa is where the people turn to distract themselves and find entertainment and inspiration. The Villains have spent longer on the top tier of English soccer than any team except for Everton, but their golden years are long past. They’ve won seven titles, seven FA Cups, five League Cups, and a European Cup, but the vast majority of ALL of those accomplishments happened outside the last 50 years. Their most recent title was in 1981 and their European Cup was the following year; both shocked the world. (The Villains had won their sixth title way the hell back in 1910.) Two years ago, they also lost one of their proudest distinctions when they were relegated for the first time since the highest level of English soccer split from the FA and became the Premier League. Only six other teams could say that. Aston Villa prides itself on its toughness and grittiness in the same way Buffalo’s teams do. That same ethic is worth a very limited amount of success, like Buffalo’s teams. And in the last few years, they made Bills-like final runs to escape the relegation zone before their luck finally ran out in 2016.
FC Nurnberg German Bundesliga Nuremberg, Germany Another Bundesliga team with a particular affinity toward the days of yore, Nurnberg was the most successful team in Germany’s top flight until Bayern Munich took the record in the 80’s. They were dominant in the very early years of the Bundesliga, winning five titles between 1920 and 1925. They captured four more since those days – the last in 1968 – but had a ton of trouble even maintaining a spot in the Bundesliga. And the reason why is a typical Buffalo sports reason: They didn’t bother trying to adjust their game. The greatest teams they ever fielded played at a tight, deliberate pace meant to slow things down to their level, but every other team in the league just runs circles around them. Yes, Der Ruhmreiche still manages to get ahold of some of Europe’s great players – Tomas Galasek is a notable recent, and the modern tactics of former manager Hans Meyer was worth the 2007 DFB-Pokal, Nurnberg’s only high-level honor since the 60’s. But Nurnberg still always turns out to be Nurnberg, they can’t fucking stop using boring, DEAD strategies, and they still get used as a jump-off point to a bigger club. Again, this is a close parallel to the Buffalo Bills, and following Nurnberg will require you to dig around the German Second Division a lot.
Real Madrid Spanish Liga Madrid, Spain Are trophies and international prestige really THAT fucking important to you? Fine, here’s Real fucking Madrid. Now go take a front-run on the Skyway. And remember that CHRISTIANO RONALDO PLAYS FOR JUVENTUS NOW! HA!
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and that’s just a scraping of available options. Hell, the leagues I mentioned are merely the biggest and most popular and the Scottish Premier League. I probably pissed off everyone in Buffalo’s Polonia neighborhood by not bringing any Polish teams into this. As for myself, I cheer for Celtic and Borussia Dortmund, but my own primary team – Liverpool – didn’t make the cut, either. (Both EPL teams in Liverpool – Liverpool and Everton – are worth honorable mentions, by the way.) Just keep an open mind and do a little research and, at some point, one team is just going to jump right out at you. Just remember that picking either of the teams in Manchester makes you a terrible person. Just a terrible, terrible person.