Imagine if the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB all morphed into one colossal sports league. Instead of having a Ritz-Carlton Sunday brunch spread of sporting options, there would be just one item on the menu. One sport to follow religiously 365 days a year. One team for every fan to call his or her own. One rooting interest.
Welcome to Europe, Latin America, South America and Africa, where soccer is king and everything else played with a ball has about as much relevance as a VCR.
Despite playing the game for much of my youth, I never could understand the obsession with soccer. I know people who spend every waking moment discussing players, teams, coaches, tactics and transfers (trades). And there are many more I don?t know who do the same.
Is Cristiano Ronaldo worth $238 million?
How will Zlatan Ibrahimovic fare in La Liga?
Is Barcelona the best team on the planet?
Will Carlo Ancelotti last an entire season managing Chelsea?
Why has the 4-2-3-1 formation replaced the 4-4-2?
How will Kaka impact Real Madrid?
The debates go on and on. If you have no idea what any of them mean, you?re not alone. Soccer has a language all its own. The passion for the game around the world is admirable, but from an outsider?s perspective, it borders on lunacy. And it made no sense to me.
My wife writes a soccer column for ESPN.com, and one of her assignments this week was to write on the inaugural World Football Challenge — a four-team round-robin tournament featuring Club America, Chelsea FC, Inter Milan and AC Milan with six games in six different U.S. venues. As I was reading one of her pieces, the light bulb went on in my head, and it dawned on me what makes soccer so compelling.
In what other sport can the head of state own a team? Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is the president of AC Milan. That would be like George Steinbrenner running the United States, or Barack Obama being in charge of the White Sox. Forget about balancing the budget or health care reform, what will it take to get Albert Pujols in a trade?
When there?s a big game between rivals, the entire city shuts down for three hours. Good luck finding a cab to the airport during that time. The only places open are the restaurants, bars and cafes showing the games on TV, and everyone is glued to the screen.
That is, unless they are watching the game at home or in person. Stadiums stand bigger than cathedrals in many countries and some can hold up to 100,000 people. Marcana in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, has a capacity of 125,000, and legend has it 200,000 filled the stands for the 1950 World Cup. And you thought seating at Fenway was tight?
Away games are not like away games in the states. Planning a road trip to cheer for the visitors on the home team?s pitch (field) is the equivalent of rolling around in honey and heading to a bee farm. Christians had a better chance against the lions. Hooliganism may not have originated with rowdy soccer fans, but they perfected it. If the only thing thrown at you is a bottle in enemy territory, consider yourself blessed. Once a goalie got hit with a flare on the field after fans became upset with a call.
Soccer derbies (rivalries) are fierce, last generations, and can even cost supporters their lives. Former Spanish dictator and avid Real Madrid fan Francisco Franco had his soldiers assassinate Barçelona team president Josep Suñol in 1936. Now that?s loyalty. It makes Red Sox-Yankees look like a summer picnic.
This weekend, one of soccer?s biggest rivalries comes to New England. AC Milan will square off against Inter Milan at Gillette Stadium on Sunday at 5 p.m. Some of the world?s best players will be on the field. Good seats are still available, and the show will go on regardless of weather conditions.
See what the rest of the world?s obsession is with soccer and why they call it the beautiful game. Over 5 billion people can?t all be wrong.