Soccer, it’s more than just a game
Soccer is the world’s most popular sports hands down. According to England’s The Sun newspaper, 3.4 billion tuned in to watch “some of the World Cup” in the summer of 2018.
While many Americans struggle to understand just why soccer is so popular around the world especially when compared to baseball, basketball, or American football, it really isn’t difficult to see.
Soccer is a non-stop game in which tactics, individual skills, and team effort combine. It is a game that requires stamina, speed, and strength like few others.
A 90-minute match is just that, and there are no three-hour marathon games with overtime and incessant timeouts being taken.
Over the last decade, soccer tourism has become ever more popular. Fans, especially in Europe where budget airlines offer flights to all corners of the continent, regularly travel to foreign countries to take in a soccer match and the local culture.
Books have been dedicated to soccer tourism, including my very own book titled Soccer Travels.
But why do soccer fans enjoy flying to various locales for matches? The answer is simple, it is an exploration of new destinations, stadiums, and supporters.
It is a unique way to experience a city, country, or culture that few sports fans of baseball, basketball, or grid-iron football will ever enjoy.
Soccer fans, or supporters as they are commonly called, are passionate like no other sports viewers.
Supporters live and die at the hands of wins and losses. A good or bad week can be made thanks to a win or a loss.
Soccer fans can be difficult to please. A poor performance from a player or team can incur the wrath of supporter anger.
How far can soccer fans go in their excitement or anger?
In May 2018, a masked group of 50 Sporting CP (one of Portugal’s three most famous clubs) supporters attacked the team’s players at their training ground. Players and coaches were beaten by the masked men due to the players’ poor play over the course of the season.
Of course, this was extreme, but some “hardcore” fans take things into their own hands.
In 2012, Italy’s Genoa, one of the country’s most storied clubs, had their game against Siena suspended for 45-minutes when fans began an in-stadium protest. Players had to negotiate with the supporters just to get the game to continue.
This year in Germany, peaceful protests have occurred before games as fans dislike games being played on Friday and Monday nights rather than the more traditional Saturday.
While fans of other sports accept what is given to them, soccer supporters are far more passionate. This passion can result in some of the most amazing sports atmospheres and that is why so many sports tourists go to soccer games abroad.
Not all stadiums provide a great atmosphere, for example, England’s Manchester United has been branded as dull and corporate.
Much of this has to do with fans from all over the globe attending games at their Old Trafford stadium as many local supporters have been priced out by high ticket prices.
One does not pick the soccer club they support, the soccer club they support is chosen for them.
It may be due to growing up in a specific city, having a father or mother that supports a team, or having a connection to that club in some way.
Walk the streets of Manchester, England, home to two of the world’s biggest soccer clubs Manchester City and Manchester United, and it is rare to find a local who doesn’t support either club.
The Manchester clubs are much like the New York Mets and New York Yankees.
One is a club that has struggled more than it has succeeded in its history, while the other – and its fans – believe they have a God-given right to win every trophy available.
The fandom can be intense and is exemplified in the energy and reactions during matches. Sometimes, this can manifest itself into trouble outside the stadiums between fans.
Of course, this is also happening more and more inside and outside NFL stadiums today.
I, myself, support one of England’s biggest clubs, Liverpool. From the moment my son was born, he is five-years-old now, I have instilled in him that we support the Reds.
Although my wife and her family are fans of her hometown team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, he has never been pushed to follow them.
Although he has been attending soccer training since he was three-and-a-half, it was only this season that he has truly begun to understand the game.
Part of that was due to being enthralled by the World Cup and England’s qualification to the semifinals.
Liverpool, who are much like the Boston Red Sox of English soccer, is one of Europe’s most storied teams. In fact, Boston Red Sox owners Fenway Sports Group owns Liverpool as well.
Liverpool’s Anfield stadium is much like that of Boston’s Fenway Park. It is historic and loved by fans of all ages. It is the same for supporters of their clubs all over the world.
In the case of England, many of the football stadiums are old and over the decades saw cities develop around them.
There are fancy new grounds, such as Tottenham Hotspurs’ new stadium which will cost £1 billion once it is finished.
Others, like Anfield, are well over 100 years old. Anfield was built in 1884 and in many ways feels far from the glitzy, glamorous sports stadiums found in many countries.
It is the stadiums that provide the background for a soccer game’s atmosphere. The atmosphere can be forbidding and ominous.
Supporters can build an intense atmosphere with their singing and chanting, and the tight confines of many stadiums can make the ambiance even tenser. Fans sit close to the action in many of the best soccer stadiums in the world.
In the summer of 2000, Real Madrid paid arch-rivals Barcelona £37.5 million for their star player Luis Figo. The Portuguese player was considered the world’s best at the time.
Barcelona supporters were angered over the player’s departure and held him accountable for forcing the move. The two clubs played on October 21, 2000, and when Real Madrid arrived at Barcelona airport, armed guards had to transport Figo to the Camp Nou Stadium.
Emotions were high during the game and Barcelona supporters littered the pitch with rubbish when Figo came within range.
Two years later, when the two sides played again at Camp Nou, the atmosphere was just as intense if not more.
Figo took a corner kick for Real Madrid and as he placed the ball down, a pig’s head – yes, a decapitated pig’s head – was thrown from the crowd and onto the pitch near the player’s feet.
That is not only how close fans are to the action, but just how passionate they are.
Soccer competitions in Europe are difficult to understand for many sports fans not familiar with them. As an example, I shall talk about English soccer and the soccer pyramid in the country.
The Premier League is the top level of soccer in England and is the most watched in the world. It currently has a global £5.14 billion television contract. The Premier League features the best players and teams in England, but it isn’t the only professional league.
Below the Premier League is the Championship which is followed by League One and League Two. Each is a professional league, but they contain varying qualities of teams and players.
Through the system of promotion and relegation, teams in the lower divisions can win their ways into the Premier League.
At the same time, teams finishing at the bottom of their respective leagues can be relegated or sent to the division below it. The Premier League does not feature a playoff system. It has single standings in which all 20 teams play each other once. The team with the most points (three for a win, one for a draw, zero for a loss) at the end of the 38-game season wins the title.
The three teams with the fewest points are kicked out of the league and sent to the division below to be replaced by the three best from the Championship.
It is cut-throat and very different than the socialist model endorsed by the NFL, Major League Baseball, and NBA, where teams that didn’t have the best record during a regular season can still be champions at the end of the playoffs.
Soccer and supporters are unique. In 2007, I began traveling around the world for work and pleasure.
It was at that time I began attending soccer matches in various countries and compiling notes about my experiences. I wrote about the cities, teams, stadiums, and random experiences I encountered.
In 2016, my first book Soccer Travels was published recounting some of the fun, excitement, and adventures I had had.
As the title suggests, I wrote about both soccer and travel in England, Germany, South Korea, Qatar, and more places I journey to.
It was a chance to share my adventures with other people interested in the rising phenomenon of soccer tourism.
Soccer continues to grow as a sport. In the United States, it has seen unprecedented growth in the last 11 years.
David Beckham’s arrival at Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 was the catalyst for the increased awareness.
It is now thriving in the U.S. and soccer tourism is becoming more popular with soccer fans in the States.
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