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Me, Liverpool, the EPL, and Why You Need to be a Soccer Fan

Me, Liverpool, the EPL, and Why You Need to be a Soccer Fan

No, Steven Gerrard, NO!

Gerrard’s bad play against Chelsea will forever go down in Liverpool lore as something like The Slip, or The Drop, or The Fall. Something to do with the legendary Reds Captain falling down and going boom as Demba Ba streaked into open field for an entire half a pitch before booting a fireball behind keeper Simon Mignolet. It will go down as symbolic of more than just Gerrard tripping over his own feet; in that one moment, Liverpool’s stupendous season seemed to fall on its ass with him. One minute, there they were, one win away from a grasp on the Premier League title so tight the trophy was turning blue. Losing to Chelsea shouldn’t have been a death knell. Chelsea is one of the best teams in the EPL, and Liverpool was five points up in the standings. Then came that meltdown against Crystal Palace. If you haven’t heard this one yet, the Eagles were down 3-0 well past the 70-minute mark before they caught fire and mounted a full-out assault, drawing the game and basically killing Liverpool’s shot at their first title since 1990.

This, I think, has been my official induction into Liverpool fandom. I had already been following the team for a couple of years by that point, but with the advent of EPL matches on NBC Sports, I had finally developed my affection for one of England’s most stories clubs. I was able to watch them as they meekly snuck out of the gate, opening their season with three straight 1-0 victories, with every goal coming courtesy of Daniel Sturridge. They outright lost to Southampton, which was a League One club just in 2009. 2013 concluded with back to back losses to Manchester City and Chelsea. By New Year’s Day, the Reds were doing that bouncey/teasey routine. You know the one: The one where they’re playing just well enough to make you think they have a real shot, but you’re always keeping your defenses up because they slacked at all the worst times in the past. Then right on New Year’s Day, the Reds beat Hull City 2-0, and it began a magical run which would see Liverpool rise to the top of the EPL and dominate, not losing another match until April. They were beating the giants of the EPL and making it look easy. Behind record-setting MVP Luis Suarez, top-five scorer Sturridge, and emerging star Raheem Sterling, the Reds smoked Everton, torched Arsenal and Spurs, and in the biggest test of the year, took the rematch against the Citizens they were supposed to lose, thus setting up what should have been a very winnable final four matches. Now all that’s left is for us Reds supporters to weep into our beers again, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for another year while watching helplessly as Manchester City clinches a title which is theirs to lose.

It felt like the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals all over again, except this time there was no ref to blame in order to make myself feel better. Liverpool was the club I had chosen; or, rather, the club that chose me. I have to live with this defeat-snatching collapse on my head forever. It’s right now that I’m wishing I followed some mid-table club no one cares about, because at least my expectations wouldn’t have been so high. But nope, it had to be Liverpool that picked me.

Liverpool picked me. That’s kind of a funny think to think about, but it’s the popular adage of being a European soccer fan. In my case, it also happened to be true. When I made the decision to commit to a Premier League team and make my soccer fandom official, I had a certain set of rules I wanted to abide by, and those rules at first appeared to be pointing me straight at one of the big London teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, or Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal was the most fitting candidate, and the Gunners’ matches were even being picked up by YES before showing EPL matches came in vogue. They’re the subject of my all-time favorite sports book, and are located in a place which is easily accessible to Americans. They even have a website catering to American fans which not only promotes the side, but tries to help interested Americans to really know and understand the team history and the way English soccer works. I liked Arsenal. I wanted Arsenal. I was fully expecting to go into life as an EPL follower supporting Arsenal. But something about them wasn’t feeling right. My following Liverpool doesn’t make any logical sense, but the Reds clicked with me in every way the Gunners didn’t, and so I held my head up high last year as I followed my newest sports team to a seventh-place finish.

Soccer climbed surprisingly high in my sports pantheon in the short time I’ve been following it. Since I’m caring about the NFL less and less these days, the EPL is leaps and bounds ahead of any team loyalties I had in the NFL and will probably be leaping up further. (Though it will probably never surpass my beloved NHL.) Even though the EPL, like any American sports league, is corporatized as hell, soccer still acts as sort of the hipster antidote to people fed up with the way sports are done in the United States. Soccer is the world’s sport, and as such, it’s one that, despite our efforts, will never, ever be Americanized the way the suits want it to be. Soccer doesn’t know commercial break timeouts; 24-7 draft commercialization which includes mock drafts and the grading of those mock drafts; threats to move; or boardroom rivalries. Yes, it has its corporate problems (corporate branding being prominent on the jerseys, ahem), but nothing that interrupts what happens on the pitch.

There are other appeals, too. Since substitutions are limited, the superstars often play the entire 90-minute game time, and it’s not unusual for a club to have to finish a game with fewer players on the pitch than their opponents after an injury. There are no division alignments or playoffs, meaning that whoever has the best record at the end of the season is the league champion, and there are a handful of other tournaments running concurrently with the league schedule which offer teams chances at other trophies. My favorite aspect of soccer is relegation. It gives teams incentive to do well, because if they’re too bad, they get kicked out of the league while the best teams from a lower league are brought up to see how much damage they can do. If they suck in the lower league, they get knocked back to an even lower league, and it keeps going. This means that, in theory, I could start an amateur club in England and eventually make it into the champion of Europe.

The EPL is about to conclude the kind of dramatic year that solidifies the fandom of interested fence-sitters. First there was the sudden transfer of Spurs superstar Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, the Spanish league giant which may be the best soccer side in the world. Bale was indomitable, and Tottenham Hotspur was looking like a rising power with him, but they sent him packing apparently for what was wrongly assumed to be a better shot at a league title now. Cardiff City rebranded themselves after getting to the Premier League for the first time in 51 years and fired their manager halfway through the season. Crystal Palace, another usual suspect for relegation, made the most of their promotion on a surprise run to the middle of the table after winning only one match in the whole first three months of the season, beating Aston Villa twice and Chelsea and Everton once each and playing Liverpool to a draw – ruining the season for both Chelsea and Liverpool. Manchester United’s new manager, David Moyes, led the Red Devils to a campaign which was disastrous by their standards, and was fired before the end of the season. The title race has been a fight without an immediately emergent winner. (Though we know it won’t be Chelsea, and we’re pretty sure it won’t be Liverpool.)

It all made the so-called football league in this country rather easy to forget. There’s less than 20 minutes of real action during NFL games, and breaking scoring records is commonplace because the commissioner keeps rigging the rules to make them nicer to offensive players. They don’t do this very often in soccer – a goal is a goal. I still enjoy watching NFL games, where there’s always a palpable sense that something incredible is about to happen, but watching 22 do-everything athletes on a field for 90 minutes is too great a show to ignore. The only real parallel we have to it in the US is the NBA, where the biggest stars can play a half hour of a 48-minute game.

Of course, the practical downside is what happens when the attachment finally arrives and you’re stuck supporting your team. Goal margins tend to be pretty low, so you’ll be on edge during every match, living and dying with every pass. It’s not enough for your favorite team to just be favored by a mile, because momentum shifts can be sudden and unexpected. That’s a fact that small teams cling to when they’re clearly overmatched, because no matter what the talent differential looks like, a single-goal lead is still a single-goal lead. Also, if you like a small club, god help you because there’s no salary cap in the EPL. You team needs to spend big and bigger if they want a shot at a title.

I’m quite happy following Liverpool and the EPL. I can’t say I miss the NFL.

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Our Odd Sportsmanship Quandary

Our Odd Sportsmanship Quandary

Yesterday morning, I watched Stoke City FC play against Manchester United in the Premier League. Like a million other people in the first world, I learned long ago to hate Manchester United with a searing passion. So I reveled as I watched the heavy underdog Potters – a strictly mid-level club I don’t have any particular strong feelings about here or there – beat the defending champions Man United despite a last-leg onslaught which, thanks to a mighty rash of injuries, included a whopping seven minutes of stoppage time. When the 99 minutes of the match were finally whistled, I was happy Manchester United had lost. Naturally, I’ve been loving the past season of Premier League soccer because Alex Ferguson, the fearless leader of the Red Devils for the better part of the last 30 years – and the man who managed them to the 13 or 14 most recent of their 20 or so titles – retired after last year, and so the rest of the league has been reveling in the customary revenge beatings.

It doesn’t even matter quite so much that my team, Liverpool, is still in the mix and has a legitimate shot of winning the League Title. I’m just Manchester United’d the hell out, and the bottom line here is that I want them to lose. Sure, I can be the nice guy out in public, shake the hand of the average Man United supporter, and congratulate him for his team playing a nice game, but I don’t care to. If Liverpool just beat them for the first time in umpteen games, I’m going to be that guy wagging his finger in the other guy’s face, shouting the more explicit versions of the word “booya!” When Manchester United is involved, my sportsmanship goes right out the window.

That’s the big thing about sportsmanship. We’re hypocritical about it. After two weeks of hearing the word hurled everywhere as nothing but a veiled synonym for “quiet,” it’s time to address the idea for what it really is: A kids’ concept and a way to replace real parenting. It’s antiquated in the age of information, with everyone now thinking they have some kind of stake in the personal lives of the rich and famous. You would think we learned our lessons in the worst-case scenario of OJ Simpson, the public gentleman who was revealed in a murder trial, but for some reason we’re clinging to the image of the milk-drinking, Jesus-praising, white male athletes more than ever and offering weak cries of “sportsmanship!” whenever someone breaks the mold.

Richard Sherman broke the mold right after the NFC Championship game. After apparently being spurned for a handshake by San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, he forgot to hit the phantom adrenaline off switch which most people are under the apparent delusion exists. The result was that he exploded right at the camera when Erin Andrews stopped by after Sherman made the game-saving play. Now, Andrews was visibly petrified, but never in any danger – Sherman made no threatening comments, and nothing he said was directed at her. And yet, for a breach of some nonexistent social contract – and even though Sherman is a straight-A Stanford grad who runs one of the best charities in the country, is a student of the game, and is extremely well spoken and a good guy by all accounts – we decided to start labeling him and judging his character based on 30 seconds of an interview cutoff.

I’m well aware of the fact that professional sports feel different from other forms of entertainment; I mean, really, I don’t see very many people putting their whole emotional well-being into how their favorite actor or band is performing. If there’s a city somewhere that threw a riot to celebrate a Best Picture Oscar win, I haven’t heard anything about it. Regardless of how much sense it actually makes, though, we manage to keep placing our favorite professional athletes into a really, really specific mold: Quiet? Check. Christian? Is there any other kind of religion? Glory for the team above all else, never insults the hometown? Nice to have. We think different about sports because athletes aren’t associated with movie resumes; they run around in clothes which we believe symbolizes everything our hometowns hold dear to their cultures. There’s a whole argument to be made under that faulty logic since no one ever seems to care about a team’s image when the team is good, but I’ll save it. Most of these athletes don’t adopt the city they’re contracted to play in, anyway.

The aw-shucks, milk-drinking athlete who plays his heart out and then goes home to the high school sweetheart was crowded out of the building when Muhammad Ali told the Army where they could put their draft notices. Ali was the first to truly recognize and capitalize on the sports industry for what is really is, and also the first to recognize the fact that he was a private citizen with every right to share his opinions with whoever he saw fit to share them with. Professional athletes have always been doing things against the image of what clean-cut America desperately wants them to be, since King Kelly womanized and drank himself to death in the late 1800’s. Ali, though, was the first one to show that they didn’t necessarily have to hide it. He stepped up and became as much a showman and a symbol as an athlete, and 50 years after the fact – and with the likes of Chris Kluwe standing up for the rights of people who are widely still not treated like actual people – we’re still clinging to the gee-willickers image of Mickey Mantle, despite the fact that Mantle was another rabid womanizer who also drank himself to death.

At the professional level, in an information age with clockwork coverage and athlete salaries more than the gross domestic economic products of entire countries, showmanship is the real account of worth for athletes. These people make their entire living playing in front of enormous crowds, and the more they get noticed, the more opportunities they get for extra income (read: attention) which people are more than happy to give them. Right there lies the ultimate double standard: We’re happy to watch the games and pick out the players we like the best, who are more often than not the ones who are the best on the field. Then we shower them with extra attention and money for being that good and, when the inevitable ego inflation occurs, we suddenly get shocked and forget a lot of these players had millions of bucks suddenly land on their heads. It’s a wonder more professional athletes don’t end up like Randy Moss. Now, with Facebook and Twitter and all those other social networks giving us all-access passes into private lives, we should be getting nullified to the transgressions of the rich and athletic.

No matter how hot the spotlight gets, professional athletes are still people, and they have every right to live their personal lives without having to apologize or be vilified by a vindictive public which expects them to excel all the time, play injured, turn their adrenaline on and off at will, and accept public deification while keeping their heads down and gracefully accepting their free rides. Screw sportsmanship. If I want my team to win, I’ll take passion and fire over sportsmanship any day. Don’t expect me to contain myself when they really do win, either.