A Romance Rekindled

I’ll admit it, the last couple of years my interest in soccer waned a little bit. I still kept up with the big stories, watched a lot of the big matches, but I just wasn’t as into it as I had been. There were a few reasons for my cooling off. The biggest one was the fact that Newcastle United was relegated two years ago. They bounced right back up, but that year of very limited access to the team I support puts a bit of a crimp in the enthusiasm. When the team came back up last season, it was kind of weird. I didn’t know nearly as many of the players as I had known the previous year, the coaching carrousel that seems to be a constant at NUFC, and the impending threat of going back down made it a lot harder to get into last season.

The fall of Newcastle wasn’t the only reason I lost interest in soccer. My favorite podcast about soccer, World Soccer Daily imploded about two years ago or so. Basically on of the hosts, who had a difficult time shooting his mouth off about Liverpool fans, going so far as to blame them for the Hillsborough Disaster. First the sponsors of the show, few as they were, deserted the show, then Steven Cohen, the host in question, was fired by Fox Soccer Channel from their phone call-in show. The show was re-launched, but as a subscription-only broadcast. Sorry, just can’t pay for radio. So, my favorite method of getting my soccer news was pretty much gone.

Also, I hadn’t kicked a ball in anger in about four years. Playing a sport is a great way to make it more interesting at the best level. For myself whenever I try and do something athletic and then see those that do it at an incredible level, I’m just in awe. Soccer has held this fascination for me more than just about any other sport, even baseball. I do get more into baseball when I play softball to be sure, but the rules and equipment are different to make it feel like a shadow of the same game. With soccer, all things considered, the rules are pretty much the same the ball is the same size and if playing on a full sized pitch, with eleven players, the goal is the same; ten by ten. Watching professional soccer players ply their trade after playing on a Saturday myself, it just blows me away; the speed, the power and the grace that the best players in the world exhibit make me realize how special their talent is. Anyway, after being away from playing, that connection and to a certain extent that admiration faded a bit.

Finally and this may seem kind of weird, but my kids didn’t play last year. The other day my friend mentioned that there is just something about watching kids at play. For me, that is especially true with regards to soccer. It is such a simple game and kids get a chance to just go crazy. It’s awesome to watch them develop too, moving from the great swarm following the ball, to playing in some semblance of positions and making real passes, stops and shots. Watching the kids play and improve just makes the professional level more fun to watch, for me anyway.

Take all of those avenues of access into a soccer culture away, and it put quite a damper on my excitement for the game. Like I said, I wasn’t totally gone, but I was less interested than I had been for some time.

What changed? A few things, a lot that are pretty much old methods getting some new life. First, the kids got signed back up for soccer and as luck would have it the local league had an offer for really cheap tickets for a Chicago Fire game. Not only were the tickets cheap, but they were fantastic seats, only slightly off-center. I took the kids and loved it. LOVED IT! I could smell the grass, hear the foot strikes on the ball and when the players charged by us I could practically feel the ground shake. Even though the game was a draw I was hooked.

Unfortunately, the game was in June and other than MLS, there isn’t much soccer going on throughout the world. But I was checking in again on the transfer market, seeing how Newcastle was spending all the money they got for Andy Carroll (not very well I’m afraid) and seeing where all of the big names were going. By the time the season kicked off, I had a pretty good idea what was what and who was where and as luck would have it, Newcastle was featured on Fox Soccer Channel for the opening weekend. As a bonus, the Magpies have been playing really well, unbeaten this year and flying high in the standings. I know it won’t last, they just don’t have the horses for the long haul, but it is a lot of fun right now.

It isn’t just Newcastle making a go of it either. The kids are playing and it is much more competitive than when they were younger. The score is actually kept during the games and like stepping it up in little league wins and losses are part of the league. It has also been fun because the kids are getting into it and playing hard. It’s a lot of fun to see and support. More than that, watching some of the kids, the ones who really know how to play the game, is just amazing. I wonder if we were in a soccer crazed country if some of these kids would be scooped up by an academy and sent off for a soccer existence.

I’ve also discovered a new radio program Talk Sport live out of London. The sportscaster Georgie Bingham (@georgiebingham) referred me to them and it has been a real treat at work. Not only is it informed soccer discussion, but it tends to be a little more sedate than the sport yellers here in Chicago. Not only that, it saves me from the endless Bears talk that dominates these parts from July until January. There are also some good podcasts around so I’ve got quite the media collection to choose from.

I must admit though, as great as Newcastle playing well is and watching the kids play, the fact that I’m playing again is probably the biggest reason I’m getting into it; nothing much, coed, small pitch, small goals, six on six (more if we’re just scrimmaging.) It is still a blast though, slightly dreading that first touch, screwing up here and there, and then after that first push from an opposing player, wanting the ball to come my way. There is something about executing a good pass, taking a shot that is just pure and simple fun and it makes everything about the sport more engaging more connected and quite simply, more fun.

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