Two days before Independence Day, the universe answered my call. Shea Serrano decided to start watching soccer and wanted help getting into it. Shea needed a soccer sherpa.
Let me be your Tenzig Norgay, Shea.
Even the answer to his first question has more nuance than an Andrea Pirlo free kick. Shea wanted to know “what soccer league is the equivalent of the NBA (meaning the one where the best players in the world play)?” I’m sure it seemed like a simple enough question. The author of the New York Times Best Selling Basketball (And Other Things) basically said, “where are the LeBrons and Jokics and (of course) Wembanyamas at?”
But soccer does not work like that.
Predictably, a lot of folks piped up for the English Premier League. And, sure, they have the most money (maybe? that Saudi League is splashing it around) and matches can be streamed right to Shea’s sofa.
The Prem also has players like Erling Haaland (Manchester City), the most terrifying Norseman to arrive on the shores of England since Ragnar Lothbrok, and Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), and Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur – the original Ted Lasso and Coach Beard team). World class players.
Better than Kylian Mbappe, though? He is a World Cup winner and the man who almost willed his team to beat Lionel Messi with a hat-trick in the greatest game ever played (think 2016 Game 6 Lebron, Shea). Mbappe plays for Paris Saint Germaine. In France.
Better than Messi himself, the greatest player of his generation and maybe all-time? He never played for an English team and was playing with Mbappe at PSG before taking his talents to South Beach this summer.
And while the Prem has Man City and United and Chelsea and Arsenal, they are not head and shoulders above Bayern Munich (Germany), Real Madrid (Spain), and Inter Milan (Italy) – to name just a few. And you can stream most of those teams as easily; I watched every Napoli (Italy) match on Paramount+ during this glorious season.
Furthermore, players switch teams and countries all the time. Just over a year ago, Haaland still played for Borussia Dortmund (Germany). In another year he may be at Madrid, the epicenter of another Galacticos experiment. Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s foil over the past two decades, went from Portugal to Manchester United to Real Madrid to Juventus (Italy) back to United and then to Saudi Arabia.
My point is everything changes all the time in soccer. But there is beauty in the chaos, Shea.
For one thing, while there are no playoffs in the American sense – the team with the most points at the end wins the league – there is the Champions League. Think of it like a full year-long playoff for the best teams in Europe.
The top three to four clubs from the best leagues get thrown in with some minnows from smaller leagues. There are John Wick level bloodbaths, NCAA March Madness upsets, and clashes between titans. And this happens while they are also playing their domestic matches at the same time.
If anything, maybe that is the best place to start, Shea. Every match means something.
More important than the clubs or competition, though, is the supporters culture. No sport comes close to soccer fans. Those might be fighting words for some diehard Knicks fans or the lunatics in Raiders Nation. But I will take my chances.
For example, watch this video of an entire stadium of Irish fans serenading their team in 2012. You would expect they were winning. Nope. Spain, the most dominant team in the world at the time, was thrashing Ireland 4-0 as they sang. And that is before we get to fans literally setting off hundreds of flares in the stands.
Here in the States it is hard to find anything quite the same, but Seattle and Portland both give it a go. Also, you can find some really great supporters clubs to watch European football with. I have written about my beloved bar, The British Bulldog, and the Chelsea fans I meet to watch and sing and chant and generally talk shit with on a regular basis. We even went to Las Vegas and Orlando together last year. We watch ever match, for both the men’s team and women’s team.
I could keep writing about Beautiful Game for hours, but I worry Shea would go take a nap before finishing. So, here is some homework:
Movies to Watch:
The Firm with Gary Oldman (not Tom Cruise). One of the movies that launched Oldman’s career and a study in soccer hooligan culture. Alternatively, you can watch Green Street Hooligans if you prefer a mash up with Jax Teller and Frodo Baggins.
Diego Maradona on HBO. Arguably the greatest player ever (not just because he played for my beloved Napoli) and an Argentine tragedy all in one. Don’t take my word for it, either. Bill Simmons called it “one of the best sports documentaries of all-time.”
Fever Pitch, the original British version with Colin Firth. There seems to be a lot of sports movie theft from the UK.
Podcasts to Listen too:
Men in Blazers, who can explain why soccer is America’s sport to the future … as it has been since 1972!
That Peter Crouch Podcast – while Peter played for both Liverpool and England, he is most famous for doing the Robot as a goal celebration, marrying supermodel ass-kicker Abbey Clancy (basically the archetype for Keeley Jones), and being hysterical. #PassThePod
Stuff to Watch (and, if you get in touch, I’ll walk you through it – my offer for GrubHub still stands):
Women’s World Cup – some of the best matches I have seen have been women’s matches, including going absolutely nuts for the greatest goal I have even watch live – Megan Rapine to Abbey Wambach as time runs down against Brazil in 2011. Literally just got goosebumps rewatching the video.
Chelsea v Wrexham (Ryan Reynolds team) – I will 100% fly to Raleigh to meet you there and walk you through it.