How to be a soccer fan
So, you loved the World Cup. Here's how to get into soccer.
Words— Marc Richardson
So, you ended up liking the World Cup more than you had originally expected, eh? We don’t want to tell you we told you so… but we told you so. There was no way we could have predicted that the 2018 edition was going to be literally the best World Cup of all time — a claim we make without a shred of hyperbole. But, since it was, there’s probably a lot of casual soccer fans who are ready to immerse themselves in the topsy-turvy world of European football. And, understandably so. But, unlike the traditional North American sports, where there’s one clear-cut elite league and where fandom is often a byproduct of geography, soccer is a bit more complicated. There are leagues all around the world and each league is chock full of teams with historical legacies, elite players and compelling storylines. So where does one turn when dealing with a World Cup hangover?
Old faithful: The Premier League
If you enjoyed the World Cup because everybody seemed to be talking about it, then the English Premier League might be the best fit for you. It’s the most popular of the European leagues and by far the most televised, so you won’t be alone tuning into the matches on Saturday and Sunday mornings. You can walk into most sports bars — or English pubs — on the weekend and find one of the dozen or so games playing on a TV; it’s easy to become immersed in the EPL season.
Plus, there are countless options to choose from when comes time to throw your support behind a team. Did you like watching heavyweight dismantle minnows and cruise to relatively foreseeable success? Great, Manchester City, led by Spanish tactician Pep Guardiola is your team. You’ll also recognize some players from the World Cup, with Man City boasting an impressive roster of world-class talents. If you’re one to cheer on teams aiming to reclaim glory, then Manchester United should suit you well; they are arguably the most famous club in the world but have struggled to enjoy sustained success since their legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013. If attacking, breakneck football is your cup of tea, then look no further than Liverpool, which boasts a fearsome trio of attacking wizards that are always out for goal. Plus, Liverpool’s defence isn’t the steadiest and the team has a habit of staging spectacular stumbles, so the entertainment level is almost always high. If you’re torn between Manchester United and Liverpool, then Arsenal is a good bet — the team play entertaining, attacking football and are entering a new era under Unai Emery that will see the Gunners try to regain the swagger that defined the Invincibles of the early aughts.
What makes the EPL great is that there is entertainment at the top, bottom, and middle of the table. Even if you choose a team like Burnley, Southampton or Wolverhampton, the ultimate goal is avoiding relegation or qualifying for European competition, which gives each game value — unlike the North American sports, where you either make the playoffs or you don’t. And, as Leicester City showed a few seasons ago, sometimes even the minnows can mount a magical run to the title.
A legend renewed: Italy's Serie A
There was a time when the Italian Serie A was the cream of the crop for league football. Players like Zidane, Maldini, Weah, Batistuta, Totti, Del Piero and Ronaldo (the Brazilian) made Serie A the league to watch. Teams that have faded into relative obscurity, like Parma and Sampdoria, were forces to be reckoned with in the ‘90s and the league was well-balanced. Today Serie A is synonymous with Juventus’ seven, going on eight, year domination, but, in the ‘90s it was anybody’s to win every season.
Until only a few weeks ago, there was hope that a semblance of competitive balance was going to be restored. Napoli has mounted increasingly convincing title challenges in recent years, Roma was getting younger and absurdly talented players and made the Champions League semi-finals last year, Inter Milan had a stable of talented players, Lazio was, well, Lazio, and AC Milan had been rescued from bankruptcy by an American firm that pledged to invest $150 million in the club to keep it competitive while it found a new owner. Juventus’ reign at the top was no longer as assured as it had been for the better part of the last decade!
But, then, Juventus went and signed Cristiano Ronaldo. Which, while it may not restore competitive balance, immediately elevates Serie A to the second most watchable league. Yes, Juventus will probably win a mind-boggling eighth scudetto on the trot — they’re shooting for a decade of uninterrupted excellence and they might very well achieve it. But what if they don’t? What if Napoli, or upstart Roma, or a feisty team like Fiorentina — la viola — manage to put together a season for the ages and stop the star-studded Juventus? That’s must-watch TV all season long.
Cristanio Ronaldo sure left his mark in Real Madrid. Legend! pic.twitter.com/SGdvIoOryy— FBL (@FOOTBALRLIFE) August 9, 2018
Plus, Ronaldo playing in Serie A is bound to attract more elite players over the next few years. The league’s TV rights deal is up at the conclusion of this season and with CR7 playing in Italy, all of the Serie A teams are in for a mammoth pay day. In turn, that will give them money to go and spend on elite players, poaching them from Spain, Germany, France and England. So, really, you have two options: either you can pick a team now, in preparation for when Serie A is at another peak in a few years, or you can wait until then and miss out on the magical ride.
If you’re a bandwagon fan, you’ll look great in Juventus’ white and black stripes; if you like young, free-flowing, attacking football and you’re OK with not winning but would relish the underdog upset, side with Roma; if you like possession soccer and want to feel cheated out of a title, opt for Napoli, the second fiddle. And, if you really feel like torturing yourself, go out and buy an A.C. Milan kit.
Other European competition
While EPL and Serie A may offer the most entertainment, they aren’t the only leagues in Europe! In the Bundesliga (Germany) and La Liga (Spain) you’ll find a pretty big talent gap between, say, the top three teams and the rest. In France, the league may be more balanced on the whole, but the gap between Paris Saint-Germain and the rest really makes it less entertaining. Still, though, PSG does boast the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Gianluigi Buffon, so they’re definitely fun to watch.
If you’re looking to be a bit more casual fan or if you want to cheer on a PSG, Bayern, or Barcelona, but don’t feel like watching a coronation, then you’ll want to watch the crown jewel of European soccer: the Champions League. As the name implies, it’s a tournament involving the champions of various leagues across Europe, as well as some of the best also-rans — winners of domestic cups, runners-up, etc… It’s where the biggest teams from different countries play each other; first in the group stage, which runs through the fall and then in the knockout stage that goes until the end of May. Two-legged knockout ties make for considerable drama — see Roma’s comeback win over Barcelona last year and Barcelona’s comeback win over PSG two years ago — and the quality of players in the tournament make the football as entertaining as the World Cup.
Real Madrid have won the last three Champions League titles, but with Ronaldo no longer there, this year’s tournament is sure to be a fascinating one. For some teams — Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern, PSG — the league title is less important than the Champions League. It also means that if you’re jumping on any of those teams’ bandwagons because the league is going to be a cakewalk, you’ll have to deal with the same agony and nerves in the Champions League as others deal with in the domestic league.
If your team wins 7 league titles in a row, you’ll soon find yourself heartbroken that they can’t break through in the Champions League. Perhaps that’s the one thing that we should remind any prospective fans about: in football, glory is fleeting, even for the best teams; fandom is as much about suffering as it is about the victories.
Go full kit wanker