And may it last foreverton.
I live over 10,000 miles from Merseyside. I have no connection to the nation of England. I have nothing physically invested in the happenings at Goodison Park.
Yet, on Sunday morning, when Leon Osman launched a shot from long distance through the Liverpool defense to cut the lead to one goal, I actually yelled out “Yes!” as I sat alone in my dorm in front of the tiny TV. Naismith’s equalizer a few minutes later sent me into a vigorous air-punching celebration. I knew then that it was official. Just like the moment a very young version of me watched Tony Dungy’s Buccaneers defeat the Atlanta Falcons. Sort of like when I watched the Chicago White Sox play the Baltimore Orioles and felt a strange connection to them. Similar to watching Dominique James drive to the hoop time and again in a near-comeback versus Notre Dame in 2008. All of those times spawned a new fandom. It has happened again.
I am an Everton fan. More than that: I’m a soccer fan.
What I’m going to detail now in this blog is how that came to be and why I believe soccer is here to stay. It happened to me; it can happen to you.
June 11, 2010 was the beginning of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I said to myself, What the heck, why not watch some soccer? So I did. I watched a good portion of the opening match of South Africa versus Mexico. In the 55th minute, Siphwe Tshabalala rocketed the opening goal of the tournament into the upper 90. After that tremendous goal, I was officially into the World Cup. I would have never have envisioned myself watching soccer, but that summer I watched at least one match almost every day. Being in Tijuana when Mexico defeated France added to the experience.
After the World Cup, soccer took an entirely new place in my life. Futbol was all the rage in my high school, as our varsity team was one of the best in the state in their division. Kids started picking their favorite club teams and buying jerseys like crazy. Donovan, Van der Vaart, Kerzakhov, Messi, Vidic, Persie, Sneijder, Rooney, Eto’o, and Drogba all graced the backs of kids who had never been to an EPL or La Liga game in their life. Kids tossed Call of Duty aside for Fifa. I needed to keep up with the times.
All the while I was interested in soccer, but I did not have a favorite team, I did not play the sport, and I was not very skilled at Fifa. I still kept tabs on the happenings of soccer around the world, but I was not overly involved in the beautiful game. Then Euro 2012 came along and I was reminded about how much I had grown to like the sport. With the beginning of the English Premier League approaching, it was time for me to choose a team to root for and become an educated fan.
I took a look at the league standings and began to sort out my options. Both Manchesters were out: too unoriginal and it’s no fun cheering for the equivalent of the Yankees. Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal were all strong teams, but plenty of other people supported them and I kind of wanted to do my own thing. I considered cheering for one of the teams stuck at the bottom, like QPR or Stoke City. However, the idea of my team being relegated was a littler unnerving, and I was not sure if I would ever be able to watch them on TV. I looked at the teams in the middle of the pack. Something didn’t seem right about Newcastle, so I thought about Liverpool. Brian Jacques, one of my favorite authors, was from there. Then I found out that Luis Suarez (much more on him in a bit) was on that team and I dropped that idea.
Then I thought about Everton. They were in the middle of the pack but on the edge of contention. They had a U.S. international playing goalkeeper. I remembered seeing Nikica Jelavic dazzle during Euros. Their colors were really cool. They had an excellent coach. They were able to compete despite a lack of resources. They kind of reminded me of the Marquette Golden Eagles. And they’re called the Toffies. Something is to be said for that.
So it was settled, I would be an Everton football fan. I would not have long to wait to begin the experience. On August 20, they were on ESPN versus Manchester United, the favorite team of many of my friends and the most famous team in the league. From the moment I heard the roar of the crowd at Goodison Park, free of vuvuzelas, I was captivated by every moment of the game. My heart thumped when Manchester got chances in the box, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the staunch defense was able to clear the ball. I was locked into that game like it was a Marquette game, and at one point I stopped and thought to myself What am I doing? I just started being a fan of these guys. Why do I care so much? Yet when Marouane Fellaini leaped into the air to score the only goal of the game, I was thrilled. After the result went final, I went onto ESPN.com and the front cover story was something like “Everton stuns Man U.” That’s freaking cool, when your team gets national cred for taking down a favorite.
However, I had to be sure my fandom was real. I wanted to watch more games. Unfortunately, only a few games were on ESPN or ESPN3.com, and of those games two of them were on while I was busy with school commitments and one was on at 6:45 on a Saturday. Additionally, I am too much of a wimp to stream them online because every site wants me to install iLivid, and I’ve heard negative things about that software. I had to follow along with the results online.
Finally, on Sunday, Everton would be on TV at a reasonable time, conveniently starting with enough time to almost finish before I had to leave for church. The match was the Merseyside Derby, which is the name for the battle of Liverpool’s two best teams, Everton and Liverpool. I had been reading online coming into the match the criticism that Phil Neville had heaped on racists in soccer and the blasts that David Moyes had taken at players “diving”. Luis Suarez was at the center of both of these controversies (I love how the Brits say con-TROV-ersy). I already disliked Suarez because of his match saving handball versus Ghana in the 2010 World Cup, so to have this villain featured in this game only added to the drama.
That match was everything I could have hoped for. A roaring and rambunctious crowd, tough play from the rival squads, brilliant goals, a terrific comeback, and the villainy, defiance, and eventual robbery of Suarez. I was so into the game and enjoyed it so much that a 2-2 draw was perfectly acceptable to me.
I realized after that game how cool soccer is. Luis Suarez is a PERFECT bad guy, better than any the U.S. has to offer. He celebrated after Leighton Baines’ own goal like he scored, taunting David Moyes and the crowd with a fake dive. I loved and hated that. When he scored Liverpool’s second goal, it was one of those moments where I just sat there thinking No, not him, not Suarez. I hate him. He had really cheap and dangerous fouls and continued his diving, and the crowd just let him have it time and again. But as the commentators said (more on those guys as well) “People don’t boo bad players.” Suarez is freaking dangerous. Whenever he had the ball I was afraid he would score. The best sports villains are those guys that you just can’t stand because they’re good and they know it. His entertainment value is unreal.
Soccer fans rule. When’s the last time you heard a football stadium sing a song together? When do they do chants without prompts from the PA guy? Do they see plays developing before they happen? In both games, I felt like I was there at Goodison, with 40,000 other fans locked in just like I was.
Soccer can be baller, too. Basketball is my favorite sport, and I’m not going to say soccer moves are as cool as those in basketball, but there were some serious “What now?!” moments in that game. I almost fell over when Kevin Mirallas used a spin move in the box to get a shot off on goal. I am able to see now what so many sports fans still don’t: soccer IS a beautiful game.
And lastly, ESPN soccer commentators rock. Ian Darke and Steve McManaman are terrific. Of all the crews in sports, I would put them right there with Michaels/Collinsworth, Breen/Van Gundy, Albert/Miller/Kerr, and Vitale/Schulman. They are so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and the accents go a long way. They make the game easy to understand for a novice like me, and rather than condescending to the viewer, it’s like they invite you into the pressbox to enjoy the game with them.
It took two games on TV to make me a true Everton fan. I’m still learning a lot about the players, organization, league, and sport, but I have definitely taken the first steps. And over the past few months, I have realized how easily soccer can take over the U.S. and send baseball to its hockeyesque grave. I wrote about this over a year ago, and then ESPN decided to copy me this summer (what’s new?). But even then I didn’t fully comprehend how ridiculously entertaining English football can be. Now I see that it has all the things U.S. sports fans love. Additionally, I just found out last night that NBC is becoming the official home of the EPL starting in 2013, with every single game broadcast on NBC, NBCSports, and other networks. This is right on the heels of the worst possible result baseball could have hoped for in the World Series. Who wanted to watch Game 4 on Sunday? Anyone? A sweep of a feel-good team is just awful for the game. It had trouble getting viewers for last year’s Series, which was one of the best in recent history. To top it all off, the foundations of football are finally being challenged, and some fans might want an alternate sport to watch on the weekend.
I would have never thought before Tshabalala’s goal that I would reach this place, but here I am. I am officially an Everton fan, an EPL fan, and a soccer fan. I don’t think my case is all that rare.
That was a different kind of weekly football article. Hopefully more can follow. Disappointed that Assassin’s Creed 3 on PC is being delayed until November 20, but for now, the NBA regular season starts tonight, and MU plays OSU on a carrier a week from Friday!!!! Like, comment, subscribe/follow, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading, and Go Toffies!
Soli Deo Gloria