Three weeks from now, the first all-English final in Champions League history will take place. While some will bemoan an all-Premier League final as less than representative of the best intentions of the Champions League, the next three weeks offer a rare opportunity. Manchester United and Chelsea will compete on two different levels. First, they’ll compete in England for points and the Premier League title, with United only slightly at an advantage due to goal differential. On May 21st, the teams vie for the title of champion of Europe, in a direct match-up at the neutral site of Moscow. This game will provide a rematch of last week’s, when Chelsea outworked United and got a deserved 2-1 victory on Michael Ballack’s penalty kick goal in the 85th minute.
Though I am a United supporter, in European play I always support English teams, so in a way an all-English final is win-win for me. On the other hand, I hate Chelsea. It’s always dangerous to characterize a very large group of people, but I’ve heard too many anti-Semitic and racist comments from Chelsea fans to ever consider the group less than despicable. Avram Grant has been buffeted by rumors of his imminent firing all year, and has never gotten the credit he deserves for stepping into the shoes of the popular and charismatic Jose Mourinho. That task could never be easy, given Mourinho’s success with the club, but on top of all he’s handled with aplomb, Grant must hear anti-Jewish chants from his own club’s supporters. Grant certainly deserves to be back next season, given the comeback Chelsea has pulled, bridging five points in the past few weeks. He also deserves to hear those horrific chants replaced by something more fitting a civilized nation, but sadly, there’s little chance of that happening.
There are so many compelling leagues in the world’s most popular sport. Picking a league to devotedly follow is difficult. It’s impossible to follow them all, unless it’s your job as a football journalist. For me, which league to follow depended on American television coverage. On Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV, I have access to a limited amount of games from many different leagues. In South America, Brazil, Columbia, and Argentina boast highly competitive leagues, but many of the best native players play in Europe. GolTV broadcasts the German league, which boasts many of the German players who always contend for World Cups. German powerhouses like Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen dominate the league and acquit themselves ably in European competition. France’s Ligue 1 powers historically include Marseilles, Lyon, Nancy Lorraine, and St. Etienne, but as is the case in South America, the best French players play in other leagues.
The Spanish, Italian, and English leagues offer the most coverage for American football fans. These also happen to be the best leagues in the world, offering by far the largest sampling of the world’s most exciting and skilled (not to mention richest) players, and the clubs that continually compete for Europe’s most prestigious honor. Spain’s elite, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are among the most valuable clubs in world football. Italian clubs like Juventus, Roma, Inter, and AC Milan offer stacked international rosters, plus nearly every Italian who played on the 2006 World Cup championship team. Finally, the English Premier League is exemplified by its “Big Four”: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, and of course Liverpool, the most decorated English club in European history.
While I keep an eye on the other leagues and make certain to tune in to derbies and high profile match-ups, I dedicate the vast majority of my time for viewing soccer to the English League. First of all, the language is a huge factor, and having commentators, managers, and players who speak English helps my understanding of the game. The English league also gets the most coverage on American television and the majority of column inches of coverage on American sports websites, such as espn.com and si.com. My favorite players from Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, namely Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Ballack, and Steven Gerrard, also play in the English league. Many of the English national team’s newer stars, like David Bentley, Theo Walcott, Gareth Barry, and Jolean Lescott play for the other teams in the Premiership.
Another reason for following the English game is its style of play. The English, who are often credited with inventing the modern game of football, play a very physical, aggressive game that still allows for sublime skill. Witness the contrast of a Rooney and Ronaldo pairing. Rooney, the British bulldog, tenaciously covets ball possession in the final third of the pitch, and is nearly impossible to knock off the ball. Ronaldo often flops to the ground at the slightest of touches, and draws plenty of free kicks in dangerous areas. Ronaldo will finesse his way by defenders and Rooney will attempt to sledgehammer through them. Dogged will and hard, physical fouls pair nicely with athleticism and elegance in the English game.
Finally, having other people in the area who also follow the English league helps. There’s another teacher in my school—a genuine Englishman—who follows Tottenham, and is able to offer insights based on a lifetime of following football and actually attending games. For as many Man U, Liverpool, and Chelsea shirts I see on the backs of folks in the Boston area, virtually none of them have ever been to a game in England. I will be remedying this gap in my sporting resume next year, when in April my wife and I will travel to England, and hopefully take in three games in a week. Look for details about the long-awaited trip to England in my next entry!