Most Americans think of football as a seasonal sporting event that happens on Friday nights (high school), Saturdays (college) and Sundays (pros); a sport where giant guys run full speed and try to kill each other.
However, there is a sport going on in Europe, and the rest of the world, called fútbal (aka soccer) that can be just as entertaining. And this version lasts about eight or nine months of the year.
I know what you’re thinking: soccer is boring. They never score. All they do is kick the ball around for 90 minutes. Nothing ever happens! Believe me, I used to be one of those people.
I grew up on a farm in the Midwest (Minnesota to be exact), and we played all the American sports of football, baseball and basketball. Summers and Falls were spent playing catch in the yard and shooting baskets in the drive way. Since we didn’t have cable television or the Internet until the early 2000s (after I left for college), you could say my exposure to soccer was about zero! I knew what the World Cup was and knew soccer was played all over the world, but I really didn’t know much about the sport in general, or the players and teams.
While on a vacation or two in my 20s, I went to a couple soccer matches, including an L.A. Galaxy match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. To be honest, I was more interested in seeing the historic venue than the actual team. And on another trip, I went to a match at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, site of the famous 1936 Olympics. Again, I was interested in the history of the stadium more than the game.
Through the Internet and actually having a TV with more than five channels, my soccer knowledge began to grow a little more. I knew who Manchester United was, along with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Of course, I was familiar with a few players as well.
But everything changed for me a couple years ago. After planning a trip to Europe (London-Paris-Madrid), I was determined to attend another match. Since I was only in each city for three days, there was a small window of opportunity. I had two chances. The first was during my first day in Madrid, and the other was the day before I left London with the help of my buddy Robert. He’s a giant Barcelona fan (barf) and had been telling me for years how great soccer was. So, I decided to attend an Atlético Madrid match. I conducted a little research about them before I left and knew they were off to a great start while competing with Real Madrid and Barcelona for the top spot in La Liga (Spanish League).
Well, the time for my trip arrived. I touched down in Madrid on a Saturday morning after flying all night from Minneapolis. Upon 10 hours of walking around all day in an extremely jet-lagged state, it was time to hit the subway to the stadium. I didn’t have a ticket and didn’t speak any Spanish, so I was really nervous about getting in. However, I found a nice fella on the corner of the street with an extra ticket for sale. Somehow we made a deal, and I was in! The match was great: Atlético won 7-2. The fans sang and chanted the whole game. It was a great experience all around.
After I returned from the trip, I had to add the Spanish fútbal package to my cable bill and haven’t missed a game since. Atlético went on to have a magical season by winning the Spanish league after outlasting Real Madrid and drawing against Barcelona on the last day of the season to win the title. Both the Real and Barcelona teams had three times the payroll as Atlético. Three times! Atlético Madrid also finished runner-up in the UEFA Champions League by losing a heartbreaker in extra time after having the lead the whole game until the 95th minute. They were literally a minute or two from winning both trophies. Despite the heartbreaking loss, it was still a remarkable run.
This season has not been as successful as last year. Atlético is fighting to finish third in the Spanish league and was knocked out of the Champions League in the Quarterfinals. However, a top eight finish was still a great achievement and finishing third in Spain is still quite good considering the competition.
Here are some of the factors that should make fútbal interesting to the unfamiliar American, and a few reasons why it’s better then some American sports.
TIME OF PLAY
The matches are 90 minutes long with running time, and a 15-minute halftime. The matches are typically played at night in Europe, which means they are on during the day or the morning in the United States. I love it. You can get your weekend soccer game during breakfast. It’s awesome. There are no timeouts or intentional fouls that drag out the end like basketball. And there’s no TV timeouts. Don’t even get me started on how long a baseball game can take with the pitchers taking forever, 10-pitch at-bats, extra inning games and the foul balls. Sitting through a three-hour game can be quite the bore.
STRUCTURE OF THE LEAGUES
The structure can be confusing to the unfamiliar sports fan. It’s not like American sports where you have a regular season and playoffs. In soccer, there are three competitions going on at the same time. They all overlap but are still independent from each other, which can be confusing if you don’t follow it closely. Teams that finish in the top four of each major European league qualify for the Champions League. And they play against other Champion League teams in mid-week matches throughout the year. Next, they play domestic league matches on the weekends, and there’s also a domestic tournament that occurs every year. So, the top teams in Europe are playing in at least three different competitions all at the same time. It’s quite different than American sports.
SALARY CAP? WHAT SALARY CAP?
There is no salary cap in soccer like there is in American hockey, football and basketball. In those sports, teams are allowed to spend roughly the same amount of money on players as their competitors. In baseball, teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers spend way more than most organizations, and the same is true in soccer. Teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich seem to have unlimited money. They can spend four times the amount of some competitors. The aforementioned squads have payrolls of over 150 million, including Real Madrid and Barcelona with around 190 million, and Manchester City taking the cake at 202 million. The only teams in the world that can top those numbers are the Yankees and Dodgers. Cristiano Ronaldo makes around 52 million a year, and Lionel Messi makes around 45 million a year. That’s more than LeBron James, but not quite as much as Floyd “Money” Mayweather. Crazy money!
TRANSFER? WHAT’S A TRANSFER?
In American sports, teams draft and trade players. In soccer, players are transferred, which is a better way of saying they are bought and sold. If a big money team offers big money for a player from a smaller team, the player is normally sold, and you don’t have to trade them a player in return. You just get the money. With that being said, whenever a player from a smaller team starts doing well, the rumors begin. Of course, this can be frustrating for the smaller teams. However, the money they receive can help them buy other players. It’s a trickle down system, as the big clubs pay the other teams to compete against them, in a way.
European soccer will probably never take over American sports in domestic popularity, but for me, it deserves more attention. Fútbal has a lot to offer with drama, rivalries, passionate fans and tabloid-like rumors on a daily basis. It also broadens your world view. There are so many people in the world that don’t care about American sports, and soccer gives you something to talk about with them. If you ask anyone from Europe, “Who’s your club?,” I guarantee you will get a passionate answer!
But the number one suggestion I can make to a non-interested American is to pick a team! Follow that team. Get to know know the coach. Get to know the players. Get to know their style and fans. Buy a jersey. But you need to pick a side, because if you just watch without caring, you will think it’s just 90 minutes of kicking the ball around. However, if you have a horse in the race, the 90 minutes of scoreless or low scoring games can be super intense, because you hang on every chance. And those two hours waiting for a goal can be the most frustrating part of your day. If you’re looking for a team to root for, I suggest Atlético Madrid!
Our coach, Diego Simeone, is a bad ass. Our fans rock. And our players compete with all heart! Stay away from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea, because nobody likes unoriginal fans or bandwagon jumpers! These are the same reasons why nobody likes the Yankees.
Jason Sportel (@jaysrideMSP) is a full time business owner and full time sports nut. He has a degree in history from the University of Minnesota and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.