(it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these)
With a friend of mine starting to get into football with a full two weeks remaining of the season, and displaying the kind of sporting ignorance and foolish language – ‘Sturridge is in Liverpool? I thought he was in Chelsea?’ – of those American types who refer to teams like the ‘Tottenham Hostpurs’ and are surprised to learn that David Beckham doesn’t play for England any more, I thought I’d give you some tips on how to get into sports for the first time without looking like an arse in the process.
1) Learn what the sport is called by people who actually watch it.
Americans, stop calling football ‘soccer’ because you’re trying to defend your steroid-encouraging, lockout-friendly and TV-monopolising game of American Football; you will never be taken seriously by analysts, fans and pundits here in Europe, where our football is far more popular than your soccer it to you. Equally, British people, don’t be a smart-arse and say the NFL plays ‘hand-egg’, because the ball is egg-shaped and they hold it with their hands; I call it ‘football’ when I’m talking to my friends about the NFL, even though hand-egg would be a more appropriate way.
2) Understand how the sport is perceived in the places it is popular.
For instance, football in Britain is historically associated with bravery, sportsmanship and giving things a jolly good go, partly because we invented the game and when we realised the foreigners we introduced it to were better than us physically, technically and tactically, we fell back on the stiff-upper-lipedness that led us to throw millions of men over the trenches in World War One (go us). See Tim Sherwood, who is the highest-placed English manager in the Premier League, who bangs on about ‘desire’, ‘passion’ and ‘effort’, and has the tactical sophistication and adaptability of attempting to fix a car by banging its engine with a rusty spork.
Similarly, football is seen as a form of hipster’s coffee shop discussion starter in Germany, with lovable Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp resembling the archetypal counter-culture bloke. It’s also a damagingly political affair in Spain, where the generations-old duopoly of Real Madrid versus Barcelona dates back to the Spanish Civil War, with the former representing the central government – seen in their power-through-money transfer policy of ‘throw cash as players to make them play for us’ – and the latter representing the near-independent Catalan region, whose own recruitment strategy – signing impoverished teenagers from Argentina and developing them into superstars – resembling a sort of cut-price Rebel alliance of underdogs and outsiders, who are required to be fantastically loyal so as to oppose the massive money signings of Madrid.
These insights will help you engage with the people who follow the sport, making getting into it much easier, and more enjoyable: you’ll be ignored and probably laughed at in a German bar if you talk about your players needing to ‘run about a bit’, rather than suggesting a switch from a pressing 4-2-3-1 to a counter-attacking 4-3-3.
3) Find reputable sources to follow the sport.
Watching ITV’s coverage of England football matches will not help you understand the game, as co-commentator Andy Townsend is essentially a soundboard with a face that rolls through advice to ‘put balls into areas’ about seventy-four times a game. Similarly, their coverage of the Tour de France isn’t particularly tactically insightful; you want Sky’s coverage of football, and Eurosport’s cycling shows, provided the excellent Sean Kelly is commentating.
Also, you’ll have to find good sources of post-match analysis and debate; personally, I’ve used the NFL’s own site for a few years, because the reports are accurate and the opinion pieces pretty intelligent, if it is a bit sensationalist at times; and The Guardian provide wonderful analytical pieces on football, especially if Jonathan Wilson is writing.
4) Watch and comment on matches live
Watching a weekly review show is all well and good, but you’re spoon-fed the opinions of those doing the reviewing, which isn’t particularly helpful if it’s Match Of The Day; watching matches live allows you to focus on what you want in them, and learn to love the sport for your own reasons: I like football because I like watching a 90-minute tactical battle between 22 chess pieces wearing Nike shorts and ankle-tape, while others are just in it for the exciting goals and saves. This focus will make your enjoyment of the sport more personal, and so more genuine.
Also, you’ll be able to understand factors like the behaviour of the crowd, what constitutes ‘action’ and when to moan at the referee; I won’t lie that about 90% of watching the Tour consists of seeing rider pedal pedantically like sperm in jumpsuits across hay-bailed French countryside, but the other 10% is a mad confusion of riders sprinting away from each other up a mountain, and the frantic calculation to work out if Horner’s 30-second advantage will be enough to win the red jersey, or if he’ll hit the wall and be caught by Nibali.
5) Find friends to talk to
Ultimately, sports function like any other recreational activity: they are only fun if your engagement with and enjoyment of them is natural – I’ve failed to get into the slow pace of Baseball games, but love the fire-and-ice combination of 300-pound man-mountain violence and simultaneous tactical outfoxing – which will be a lot easier if you have someone to talk and enthuse with about the sport.
Talking with friends in the know will also help you avoid any of the pitfalls of following a sport; it doesn’t matter how annoying it will be at first, but eventually your mates’ attempts to correct you that its pronounced ‘Ha-zaard’ will be successful.