what i watched last week
downton abbey, season four finale

world cup is coming

Experiencing the online joy of Canadians as their men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams beat the USA reminds me that another every-four-years international sporting event is coming where people who happily ignore the sport for the majority of those four years get caught up in the excitement. I confess, this thought came to me as I read the missives of the gloating Canadians. They deserved every part of that gloating, and there was nothing I could say in response, except to note that in a few months, while here in the States we’ll be watching the U.S. in the World Cup, our neighbors to the north will be watching … the U.S. in the World Cup.

Soccer, as a spectator sport, is increasingly popular in the U.S., and for all the talk about how soccer was destined to become a big deal in this country because of all those kids playing youth soccer, what matters has always been how many people would turn up in the stands and in front of their televisions. In the past, the World Cup was the one time when Americans paid attention, much like the Winter Olympics makes luge fans of people who don’t think about the sport in the years between Olympics. As always, the anticipation in advance of the World Cup finals grows so intense the closer we get to the tournament that the actual Cup will be hard-pressed to meet expectations. Great moments are guaranteed, as is great drama. The soccer? No one can really say, but at the least, we’ll be getting a month of most of the best players in the world (there will be a few notable absences, most notably, the magical Zlatan Ibrahimović, whose Sweden did not make the finals). It’s no surprise that I get obsessive about this stuff, effectively removing myself from public life for a month while I try to watch every single match. I’ll even crank up my World Cup blog, which made its first appearance in 2006.

Here’s the truth about the World Cup, though  … and I can’t claim to originality here, but neither can I provide a link to where I first read it, because I’ve long forgotten it. The World Cup will not feature the best soccer in the world.

If, say, Liverpool has a weakness at right back, they can go out on the transfer market and find someone who is better than what they have. And they can look anywhere … they aren’t the richest club in the world, but they do have plenty of money, and the international market is open to them. (Their current squad includes players from Belgium, the Ivory Coast, Denmark, Slovakia, Brazil, Wales, Uruguay … even their manager is from Northern Ireland, and the owners are Americans who also own the Boston Red Sox.)

But if there is a lack of good English right backs, the England manager has no choice but to play the best he has. He can’t just go find someone on the international market. It is much easier for a club to repair holes than it is for a national team.

Also, clubs build teamwork over the course of a season, and soccer is definitely a team sport more than something like baseball. Sign a free-agent starting pitcher, and his performance will be within expected parameters. Sign a right back, and the team will be better once the new player has had time to blend in with his teammates. National teams, though, mostly lack the time to create such a blend.

This isn’t to say that the play in Brazil will be subpar. On the contrary, amidst all of those great players, some will perform bits of excellence to take our breath away. And some managers are better than others at building a coherent squad in a short period of time. To say nothing of the inherent drama of a World Cup.

But if you want to watch the best soccer, the place to look is the Champions League, an annual tournament that features the best clubs in Europe. The best leagues are in Europe … there’s more money at the top level, so someone like Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world, will be on display for Argentina in the World Cup, but he plays his club soccer for Barcelona. If you buy the argument that the best clubs play a bit better than the best national teams, and accept that the best leagues are for the most part in Europe, then a competition of the best teams in Europe will, all else being equal, be the best possible competition.

The 2013-14 Champions League is currently in the Round of 16, and over the next two days, there will be matches featuring teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, and Real Madrid. Paris Saint-Germain are still in the tournament, which is especially nice since their big star is the afore-mentioned Zlatan Ibrahimović, who you won’t see in Brazil (he scored twice in a 4-0 drubbing of Bayer Leverkusen last week).

And there are plenty of other options for Americans wanting to watch soccer, which wasn’t true a few years ago. Your domestic league, MLS, begins in a couple of weeks. If you are lucky enough to have a team in your area, get out and see them … the atmosphere can be great at MLS matches (for an extreme example, check out the season opener in Seattle on March 8, shown on NBC Sports Network).

Also, you could do worse than to pick a team to root for in the English Premier League, and start following them. The Premier League isn’t necessarily the best league in the world … Serie A in Italy and La Liga in Spain are in the mix … but it is the easiest of the top leagues to follow in the States. NBC bought the U.S. broadcast rights to the EPL for three years ($250 million), and it’s quite remarkable: they are doing a great job. It’s a dream come true for American soccer fans, who have grown used to crappy televised soccer productions over the years. Between their broadcast, cable, and mobile outlets, NBC shows EVERY match live. They have a very strong crew of announcers and commentators, they have decent highlights shows … basically, they make it easy for an American to keep up to date on the league.

Start watching now, and by June, you’ll have seen many of the stars of the World Cup in action. Today, for example, I can watch Champions League matches, and/or Copa Libertadores matches (that being the South American version of the Champions League). This weekend, depending on what kind of cable/satellite package you have, you’ll have the opportunity to watch league matches from England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, and Mexico, with the U.S. to follow the week after that.