Essays from 116th Street

Self-therapy, since 2004...

Location: New York, New York

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Great Soccer FAQ, Part I

Zack, why are you doing a "Great Soccer FAQ?"
I plan on doing more writing about soccer in 2006, and this FAQ is the foundation upon which all terminology, players, teams and context will be established for my purposes.

But why soccer?
It's a beautiful sport that I have been following consistently for nearly seven years. It is full of strategy and logic, yet it is also remarkably unpredictable. It is full of grace, but at the same time it is vicious and dangerous. The game has many colorful personalities, and has such a broad scope that keeping up with players and teams is a very fun challenge.

So how did you get into soccer in the first place?
Well, besides from sucking at it in elementary, junior high and high school, I suppose it all started in 1997 with this really hot Japanese girl named Mariko who I was into. She told me she loved soccer, and asked if I liked the game. I lied and answered yes, a move which would backfire when she started dating a soccer player a couple of weeks later. Not long after, I was in a friend's apartment playing FIFA Soccer '97, where, while playing first with Brazil and then with England, I was schooling my friends with dudes named Bebeto and Sheringham. I had no idea who these guys were, but I thought the game was cool.

That December, my family went to England to spend Christmas with my brother and his family. One late night, I stumbled across a show highlighting a team known as Chelsea, which seemed to have recently won a championship of some kind. Chelsea immediately captured my imagination, with their flashy style and international flavor, especially the Italian players Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and the legendary Gianfranco Zola.

I came home, bought myself a copy of FIFA '98, and was hooked.

So you're a pretty big Chelsea fan, then?
Actually, no, I was for some time, but no longer. After Zola left Chelsea in 2003 to return to his native country, the team lost much of its personality, and ever since Jose Mourinho became coach in 2004, the team has become a dominant force with zero personality or style. They are better than they ever were, but are also pretty boring.

So who do you root for?
My only true allegiance is to the U.S. national team. They are just the kind of doomed, scrappy underdog that a Philly fan like myself can get behind. After that, I enjoy creative, attacking teams like Manchester United, Arsenal and Barcelona, although I don't consider myself a fan of any of them.

Who the heck are they?
I'm getting ahead of myself, I see. The teams I mentioned above are club teams, equivalent to pro sports teams here in the USA. Just about every nation in the world has its own professional league, each with about 20 teams. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal play in the English Premier League, while Barcelona is part of Spain's La Liga. Other notable leagues include the Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliga and the Dutch Eredivisie. The United States also has its own league, Major League Soccer.

National teams, such as the U.S. team, are made up of players who play in the various leagues worldwide, much in the same way that the U.S. Olympic basketball team is composed of players culled from various NBA teams. Due to the year-round schedule, prominent players are often members of two teams during the same season, their club team and their international team. Many prominent players are often identified in articles as members of both teams (i.e., "Real Madrid and England midfielder David Beckham was interviewed today...").

Do teams in the various leagues ever face each other?
Yes, they do. Teams that finish high enough in their league get to go on to play the next season in a major continental tournament, such as the Copa Libertadores in South America, or the Champions' League in Europe. These tournaments take place concurrently with each team's regular domestic schedule, causing teams that do well enough to essentially play two seasons within one. The winners of the continental tournaments eventually play in the somewhat-lightly-regarded Club World Championship. The Champions' League is generally considered the pinnacle of the yearly soccer schedule.

So players are allowed to sign with teams and get traded all across the world?
They basically are, so long as each country's differing immigration laws are upheld. Players are seldom traded; instead, they are sold for money in transactions known as "transfers." Transfers are allowed between July 1st, and August 31st, and again from January 1st-31st. It is very common for players to be sold to teams in other countries, and free agency is also quite common. Transfer fees are not part of a player's salary; teams that buy a player must pay his original club the transfer fee, then take on that player's salary. The most expensive transfer in history occured in 2001, when Real Madrid bought midfielder Zinedine Zidane from Juventus for a $64 million fee.

$64 million? Who is he? God?
Pretty much, yes he is. He led France to victory in the World Cup in 1998, and the European Championship in 2000. He won the Italian Serie A title with Juventus in 1997 and 1998. He led Real Madrid to the Spanish La Liga title in 2003, and no one can forget his amazing goal to give Real Madrid the 2002 Champions' League title. In addition to all of that, he was named European Player of the Year in 1998, and World Player of the Year in 1998, 2000, and 2003. He is widely regarded as one of the five greatest players of all time, alongside Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer.

How do you pronounce his name?
ZEE-nay-DEEN, ZEE-dahn.

What other names should I know?
Ronaldinho (roe-nahl-DEEN-yo) is a playmaking forward for Barcelona and Brazil who is known for his superhuman dribbling, passing and shooting skills. Only 25, he is already a World Cup winner (2002), Spanish La Liga champion (2005), European Player of the Year (2005) and two-time World Player of the Year (2004 and 2005). His technique, enthusiasm for the game and gleeful personality have made him a worldwide icon.

Thierry Henry (tee-AIR-ee, AHN-ree) is a speedy, lanky striker for Arsenal and France. He made a name for himself at the World Cup in 1998 by scoring three goals in the tournament to help France capture the trophy. He joined Arsenal in 1999, and by 2005, he was the club's all-time leading goalscorer. He won the European Golden Boot (top goalscorer) in 2004, and shared it with Diego Forlan in 2005. His goalscoring and playmaking abilities have also helped Arsenal capture the Premier League in both 2002 and the memorable 2004 season, in which they went through the league undefeated.

Samuel Eto'o (EH-toe) has been Barcelona's scoring sensation for the past two seasons, and is currently destroying opponents for Cameroon in the African Cup of Nations. He was third in the voting for World Player of the Year this past season and is the reigning two-time African Player of the Year.

Wayne Rooney signed for Manchester United in 2004 as a teenager, and became an immediate scoring star. He is seen as the key not just for Man United's future success, but also for England's World Cup hopes.

Frank Lampard is the centerpiece of Chelsea, known for his ability to score from distance, as well as his affinity for jumping into the attack from midfield. Like Rooney, he is an England international player.

Ronaldo is the only player besides Zidane to win World Player of the Year three times. The Real Madrid and Brazil superstar has battled numerous injuries throughout his career, but, when healthy, his speed and strength make him unstoppable. He led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title, picking up the Golden Boot for top goalscorer in the process.

Paolo Maldini joined A.C. Milan in 1984, and remains the team's captain to this day. Whether on the left side of the pitch or in the center, Maldini's status as one of the greatest defenders of all time is unquestioned. His illustrious career includes 23 trophies with Milan, including 4 European cups, and he is still considered one of the top defenders in the world, even at age 37.

Andriy Shevchenko is Maldini's teammate at Milan, and a one-man arsenal for Ukraine. His winning penalty in the 2003 Champions' League final gave Milan the European Cup, and he was named 2004 European Player of the Year. He also led Ukraine to its first ever World Cup qualification, for the upcoming 2006 event in Germany.

David Beckham may be all glamour off the pitch, but he is a tireless worker on it. His hustle, determination and long-ball ability have helped make him a global superstar. He is also incredibly clutch, and he has come through for club and country numerous times. He won 6 Premier League titles with Manchester United, as well as the 1999 Champions' League title, before moving to Real Madrid in 2003. He presently serves as England's captain.

Anyone else?
Sure. Check out Steven Gerrard, Adriano, Juan Roman Riquelme, Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Raul, Carlos Tevez, Kaka, Roy Makaay, Michael Owen, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Luis Figo, Rivaldo, Ryan Giggs, Dennis Bergkamp, Alessandro Del Piero, Pavel Nedved, John Terry, Alessandro Nesta and Michael Ballack, just to begin with.

Next time, in The Great Soccer FAQ, Part II:
I will explain why you should never name a club "Real Salt Lake"; why nobody gives a $#!+ about Olympic soccer; why Jose Mourinho is evil; why England should win this year's World Cup, but won't; what the deal is with MLS, anyway, and why you should be paying attention to the U.S. men's team...


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