Let me start by stating I am a recovered fantasy football (american version) addict. I am 5 years sober. When I was at my peak, I didn’t watch football, I devoured it. Simultaneously watching 3-4 games at once, I would watch each of my players perform, whether they be for the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, or, yes, the Washington Redskins. As an addict, I should have known I had gone too far when, in a game between the Cowboys and Redskins, I rooted for Michael Westbrook (and celebrated with him) for catching a scoring a TD against my lifelong favorite team. Fantasy football ruined by football watching experience – it is hard now to even make it through the game. But, it is not the only reason that I do not watch football anymore.
Yesterday, I told my wife that I wanted to watch the Cowboys play the Seahawks. I have been uninterested in any professional game the last 5 years, to say the least. I would have never expected this years ago, but I am just one of many average fans whose only complete game they watch per year is the Superbowl. (And I like the commercials as much as the game!) I feel less of a man for even admitting to such. So…yesterday I tried watching. But I just couldn’t get into it. Start, stop. Commercial. Start, stop, huddle, penalty. I lasted about a half of a quarter before I retired to my room to continue my new passion – The West Wing. I am on Season 3. And, while I love The West Wing, I also enjoyed watching the Arsenal v. Southampton game from Saturday, even though I knew the result. No commercials. No huddles. Very few penalties (we call restarts). Beautiful shapes and geometric play by Arsenal. It was a pleasure and a breath of fresh air.
I cannot believe I just said that. I remember I used to be the one making fun of the soccer fans. I was puzzled as to how they could defend soccer against the modern-day gladiator, made for TV, NFL. But here I am. And my message to all of you….WATCH MORE SOCCER. As we are trying to alter the culture of soccer in our country, even from a play-paradigm, we need to watch more soccer. It is one of the big items missing. Even among our soccer volunteers and referees, very few of the ones I know are interested in talking about soccer, what is happening in the professional leagues or World Cup qualifying, or watching it. Our soccer IQ and that of our children can be raised immediately if we just watch the game more.
For coaches, if you want your kids to understand the game better, have them watch the game. Support your local college. Watch it on TV. We are dawning on the beginning of a golden age of televised soccer access — between ESPN3, FoxSoccerTV, FoxSoccer channel, we have access to MLS, EPL, La Liga, Serie A, World Cup Qualifying, etc. The great thing about soccer is, unlike our other sports, you can watch it 10 months out of the year. For parents of soccer players, sitting down and watching the game with your kids will help you better understand what it is that they are doing. Since many of our soccer players are first generation players, parents can catch up on the tube or computer.
So, back to the title…the wonderful thing about soccer is that it gives all year round. Like today! Today starts the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. Yes, it is European (no MLS teams), but it is a club tournament of the best teams from all the professional leagues in Europe (including Russia). So, if you are wondering how strong La Liga is (is it just Barca and Real Madrid), check out Valencia playing Bayern Munich tomorrow. How strong is Serie A (Italian premier league)? Well, their champion play Chelsea tomorrow too. What about La Liga and the EPL (English Premier League)? Their champs play TODAY!
The group stages comprise 32 teams in groups of 4. Each team will play each team in their group (home and away). They are mixed up so that EPL teams are not in the same group as other EPL teams, etc. They are also spread out according to a UEFA formula based on UEFA tournament success in prior years. Unlike American football or baseball, soccer is a sport played all over the world. So, beginning today, you can watch the best Danish club, the so-called Barcelona of Denmark, match up against the EPL, Croatians, and Serie A heavyweights. There are some fun story lines:
1. Can Chelsea repeat? Chelsea are the improbable returning champions. They won with a defensive, countering strategy, conceding possession to the Spaniards then the Germans in the final. They have reloaded with Eden Hazard, Marko Marin, Victor Moses, and Oscar ($87 mm pounds combined). Will the stregthening of their midfield line mean we will see a more creative, offensive Chelsea? Are they stronger than they were last season? In another great Round 1 match, Chelsea play the Italian champs Juventus tomorrow.
2. How good is Barcelona without Pep Guardiola? As you all know, Pep stepped down. So far, so good for Barcelona. They are 4 for 4 in La Liga, sit atop the standings, and also defeated Real Madrid in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup under Tito Vilanova. They added Jordi Alba and Alex Song, a personal favorite, in the transfer window.
3. Who will miss the cut in the group of death? Group D consists of Real Madrid, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, and Ajax. So, the winners of the strongest three leagues in Europe all in the same group! You cannot ask for a better kickoff today than Manchester City traveling to Real Madrid. What a game. But, can the two-time consecutive Bundesliga champs parlay their domestic success into European success? Watch out for Dortmund – although they lost Kagawa, a magnificent player, to Man U, they added Marco Reus to an already deep squad. Reus, just 23, is already a German international. He scored in the Euros and looks poised to replace Podolski on the left wing for the national team. Just two teams from this group survive. Come on Dortmund!
4. Is the Danish teamNordsjaelland
the David in the tournament of Goliaths? They have been referred to as the Barcelona of the Denmark premier league. Roughly half of their team plays on the Denmark national team. Will they be the success story of the year? Follow them in Group E for your David v. Goliath storyline.
5. Is Arsenal stronger this year than last? Arsenal, while never lifting the Champion’s League Trophy, have always had success. When RVP left, people wrote them off. But, as we have seen the last couple of weeks, Podolski can score and Cazorla will be the Player of the Year in the EPL – unbelievable that he attracted so little attention in his signing. Their play the last two weeks at Anfield and at home against Southamption was magnificent. With Cazorla dictating the pace, angles, and geometry of the attack, look out. Arsenal travels to France today to play Montpelier, the returning French champion and the team for which Olivier Girourd, another Arsenal pickup and winner of the Golden Boot in France last season.
6. Will all of PSG’s purchases result in Champion’s League success? Surely you heard of all the purchases at Paris St. Germain in the offseason: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva from AC Milan, Lavessi from Napoli, Lukas Moura from Sao Paulo, Gregory van der Wiel from Ajax – in total, $160 mm spent on transfers. They started the season with three draws but have won their last two. Will their retooling mean success? Are they the new European power?
7. How good is Bayern Munch? Real good. While they did not make all the big splash headlines of the other clubs, particularly the English and the Spanish, they did make a big signing: Javi Martinez for $40mm, the largest transfer fee in Bundesliga history. They didn’t need much. With arguably the best keeper in the world, Manual Neuer (26), and the formidable front line of Gomez (27), Ribery (29), Muller (23), Robben (28), Kroos (22), Schweinsteiger (28), and their backline anchored by captain Lahm (28), Boateng (24), Badstuber (23), Alaba (20), and Gustavo (25), they were already set. Add Martinez, who can hold at mid or support, and it may end up being the signing of the year (after Cazorla!).
8. What’s up in Russia? So, you thought the transfer season ended August 31 – that is if you set your calendar to EPL times. The Russians have a different date and Zenit St. Petersburg secured two of the hottest players, in their peak years (not as +30s), from the Portuguese Super Liga: Hulk and Axel Witsel for $57mm combined. While Witsel will not play this week, Hulk will and you can count on him to put it in the net. It is not odd to see big hames head East, it is odd to see them do it in their early 20s. Either of those players could have picked their team in the EPL.
So, there are just a few things to watch for. A full schedule of games kicks off today around 1:45 pm. Check out foxsoccer2go if you want to watch them all (except for the one on their main channel, foxsoccer, they black that one out). Some helpful links:
Enjoy your day today and WATCH SOME SOCCER! My prediction, as last year, Bayern Munich. Just too much depth and strength and a world class keeper! You heard it here first!