Saturday, April 3, 2010

Soccer - 2010

I’m pretty much a soccer novice. And, for the record, I live in the United States, grew up calling it soccer, and that’s what I’ll continue to call it here, even if football is much better applied to this sport than that other sport they play over here.

Anyway, as I was saying, I am a soccer novice. I “played” for a year or two when I was a kid (assuming we use very generous definitions of the term “played”), played some pick up games here and there back when I was in more reasonable physical condition, and have watched two World Cup tournaments somewhat extensively (1994 and 2006) and some other World Cup games here and there in 1998 and 2002, and maybe even 1990, now that I think about it. And frankly, while basketball is my first love and American football (weird having to use that modifier) a close second, I really like watching soccer. The thing is, it is not often that I am going to forgo watching either basketball or football in favor of soccer, so that leaves a huge chunk of soccer that has no chance of ever being watched by me. I’ve wanted to follow an entire English Premier League season from start to finish, but found that I would have to pretty much ignore American winter sports in order to get that done, and that realization pretty much killed that aspiration. Anyway, that would mostly explain why the only soccer I’ve ever watched extensively is the World Cup, played in the summer when the only American sport for competition is baseball (which ranks somewhere behind competitive grass-growing and professional paint-drying on the list of my top seven thousand spectator sports).

Which brings me to 2010. I’m a college hoops junkie, the season is winding down (just three games left), and I find myself more and more disinterested in the NBA. I’ve definitely watched less NBA this season (I doubt I’ve watched more than 12 total minutes worth of game time of all NBA games this season) than anytime since I was six or seven years old. Couple that with the fact that I’ve been greatly looking forward to this World Cup since 2002, and here I am, in early April, getting ready to go all-in with soccer for a few months.

And, to warm it all up, I happen to come across the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal round (and, again, I’m a soccer novice, so while I get that this is a tournament between elite soccer clubs in different leagues in Europe, beyond that I’m still in the middle of trying to figure out the significance of this tournament– I understand winners here qualify for some other tournament of some kind – and who all gets to play in this tournament, let alone some of the simple mechanics of the tournament; it’s all very alien to an American sports fan) just in time to serve as a great transition from the NCAA basketball world that I’ve been living in for the better part of five months and a warmup for the World Cup that I have been looking forward to for several years.

Anyway, my plan is this: watch a match a day (so long as there are matches to watch, and perhaps minus this Saturday and Monday – the days for the semifinals and finals of the NCAA Basketball Tournament) and write up a little bit about my impressions (and I mean “little bit” as I don’t know how meaningful my impressions will be, given my aforementioned novicicity). For me it will serve as a fun little project and a nudge towards watching the games with as much interest as possible. For whoever may happen to read this, we’ll see if this is anything more than a waste of time.

One caveat: I am a complete and utter devotee of the time-shifting capabilities of DVRs, and specifically my TiVo. As a result, while the first leg of the quarterfinal round of the Champions League ended yesterday, I just watched my first match tonight. Given that I don’t really have a lot of discussions with a lot of people about soccer matches, I don’t think my tendency towards watching games/matches at my own pace will really be a huge issue in this endeavor.

So, with that preamble complete, onto the game I watched tonight (and, again, if I haven’t made myself abundantly clear: me=soccer novice, must remember that always, so, for instance, if I get some of the jargon wrong or seem super-obvious or even things that seem as clear as the name of the team I am watching is wrong, forgive me or better yet, correct me): Inter Milan vs. CSKA Moscow. Quite simply, Moscow is very lucky to be heading back home only down one goal. The CSKA keeper Akinfeev (not to mention one defender who made his own stellar save) played a huge part in the second half, making several saves as Milan took over what had been a fairly even game in the first half. Most of the game post-half was played on the Moscow side of the field, with Inter having several corner-kick chances and multiple shots on goal. Moscow seemed to struggle with simple possession in the second half, while Milan players like Eto’o, Maicon, and Milito (who had the sole goal in the match, on a quick little stroke in a tight space between CSKA defenders) kept the pressure on offensively.

It is my understanding that it is something of a surprise for CSKA to even be alive at this point, and frankly it was surprising that they were able to stay just a goal back of Inter, as the Milan squad seemed to have far better ballhandling skills and athleticism than the Russian squad. And, still, the Muscovites go back home with a fighting chance to advance.

Some other quick impressions:

After the Milan goal, that place went crazy, rush of fans from their “seats” in the stands to the front of the section behind the goal. Very cool.

Not a huge fan of the current state of the offsides call. Seems like inside the goalbox offsides should be legal, or at least the defenders shouldn’t be able to jump forward and draw the offensive player offsides. I know, very American of me to suggest changes to a sport that seems to be doing just fine as is, but for what its worth, I think American basketball should allow players to take a ball right off the rim like in international play.

I love the idea of the team with the ball intentionally kicking the ball out of bounds when there is an injured player. But, in practice, when a guy writhes in faux-pain for the exact length of time that it takes to get the opposition to clock the ball and then gets back up ready to play, allowing the rest of his teammates to fall back into formation in the interim, that seems like a waste of time. And, again, since I am suggesting changes to a sport I am merely a novice at, I will also admit that in basketball, the onslaught of stoppages (whether timeouts or intentional fouls) at the end of games is obscene and can kill a lot of the momentum of the game.

That’s all for now, hope to watch either Munich vs. Man U or Arsenal vs. Barcelona tomorrow, or maybe Sunday.

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