With the culmination of the NFL season last Sunday, as the Baltimore Ravens battled to a close, but deserved victory against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, a large number of American football fans are now left with the sad realization that their beloved sport is over and many months away from starting up again.
For lovers of sport, that finality is the bitter bill to swallow after the stress and excitement of any season. The major finals only give way to emptiness and occupying oneself with transfer speculation and team rumors in the offseason barely fill the void of watching your favorite team turn out every weekend.
But do not let your hearts be troubled! Although the NFL will not pick up until the late summer, there are still months worth of world football (or soccer) action to keep one busy. And, there are big tournaments, huge matches and epic player battles happening at this very moment that will only intensify as the majority of domestic competitions cease in May, and then international summer tournaments begin.
Here are six reasons why American football fans should tune into soccer now that the NFL season is over.
USA fans in a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica
There has been a major war in American sports; battled in chat rooms, high schools and bars across the country. On one side are American football fans and on the other American “football” or soccer fans.
And, while there may never be an end to the ridicule that either group has for the other, it is silly to argue which is the better or truer sport. There is room enough in our nation of over 300 million people for both, and there already exist countless folks who choose to follow both the American and international versions of football.
However, one thing is in soccer’s favor, which even ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning discussed heavily in an episode I randomly caught last week. That is, while the NFL hierarchy struggles with the limited market for gridiron football and its difficulty in expanding outward to other nations where other sports are historically more popular and deeply embedded, soccer is already globally significant.
Although the Super Bowl is clearly the most watched sporting event in the United States on a yearly basis, the international soccer equivalent, the FIFA World Cup Final, was watched by over 700 million people in 2010. If that seems a bit unfair because of the differentiation between domestic and international competition, the UEFA Champions League Final, which is the continental European version of the Super Bowl, outperformed the NFL's chief game for the first time in 2009, bringing in three million more viewers and staying ahead in the proceeding seasons.
That is not meant to insult American football in any sense. It is the simply reality of the situation outside of the US. The world loves soccer. Every nation has its own domestic league, continental club competitions, continental national team tournaments and worldwide club and national team competitions.
For example, in the US, we have the MLS (domestic), whose best teams compete in the CONCACAF Champions League (continental), with the champions playing in the Club World Cup Final (global). Our national team competes for the Gold Cup (continental) to feature in the Confederation’s Cup (a mini-World Cup), and then goes through a qualification process every four years for the FIFA World Cup.
That means a lot of soccer available to watch at all times.
Japan and Australia are in the same qualifying group in Asia
Qualification to the world’s biggest one-sport tournament is one of the most excited and nerve-wracking periods for soccer fans all over the world.
Depending on the federation, qualifiers are played for periods in between World Cups and will determine which nations will represent their continent at the tournament. The breakdown is generally 13 spots for Europe, 4-5 for South America, 5 for Africa, 4-5 for Asia, 3-4 for North and Central America and 0-1 for Oceania, which adds to 32 qualifying berths altogether.
Currently, the United States are in the final stage of qualification for our region and lost our opening match 2-1 away at Honduras. They will play nine more home-and-away fixtures, and must finish in the top three to automatically qualify for Brazil 2014.
Already, a number of teams have been eliminated or are on the verge of elimination worldwide who featured in the 2010 World Cup. North Korea fell in the preliminary rounds in Asia, Paraguay sit bottom of the table in South America and Slovenia are tied for bottom in their group, with a ton of more upsets surely on the way.
Chelsea won the 2012 Champions League via penalty-kick shootout
Even with the MLS on our shores, American soccer fans tend to follow the English Premier League and other European competitions with more fervor than our own.
As most European seasons end in May, continental and cup competitions—separate from regular league play—are nearing their final stages. That means the biggest and best teams in Europe are beginning to butt heads, and upsets are on the cards for smaller sides who have managed to squeak into the later rounds.
The Champions League is in the Round of 16 stage, with huge matchups in the coming month. Spanish champions Real Madrid will face EPL leaders Manchester United, 2009 and 2011 winners Barcelona take on Italian giants AC Milan, and Arsenal clash with last season’s losing finalists Bayern Munich among other fixtures.
The Europa League, much like the younger, less illustrious brother of the UCL, is also into the knockout rounds with Liverpool, Chelsea, Newcastle Unite, and Tottenham Hotspur all featuring, along with Lyon, Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax and 2010 and 2012 winners Atletico Madrid.
Domestically, the FA Cup in England, Copa Del Rey in Spain and Coppa Italia in Italy are all reaching their climax.
Spurs and Liverpool have already been eliminated, whereas defending champions Chelsea face a tricky replay against third-tier Brentford to make it through to the FA Cup fifth round. In Spain, Madrid and Barcelona are embroiled in a tight semifinal, and next door in Italy last season’s cup finalists Napoli and Juventus are already eliminated, with Lazio awaiting the winner of Inter and Roma in the final.
Brazil will host the Confederations Cup and World Cup in consecutive summers
With my family being from Argentina and there not being much access to South American leagues on television when I was growing up, international tournaments were always what energized my soccer soul in the summer.
Outside of the World Cup qualifiers already underway, the mini-World Cup known as the Confederations Cup will begin in June. For this tournament, all of the continental champions from the past cycle will meet, along with the hosts Brazil. That means Spain, Uruguay, Mexico, Tahiti, Japan, Italy (runners-up at Euro 2012, qualified since Spain won both the World Cup and their continental competition) and the winner of Wednesday night’s Africa Cup of Nations Final between Nigeria and Burkina Faso will all battle.
The fascinating thing about this tournament is that Tahiti have already been eliminated from the World Cup, and both Uruguay and Burkina Faso are struggling in the bottom-half of their respective qualifying groups.
Along with the aforementioned AFCON final next week, the Gold Cup and U-20 World Cup are also major events to look forward to starting in June.
The LA Galaxy are two-time defending champions
In only three weeks, the MLS season will again be underway.
Although the fanfare behind our own league is not as major as many of those in Latin America and Europe, there has still been tremendous growth over the past several years.
In 2011, the league averaged more fans on a regular basis than the NBA and NHL. Overall, it is the seventh most attended soccer league in the world, with more fans than Ligue 1 in France and the Eredivise in the Netherlands. The Seattle Sounders lead the way for the league, averaging a spectacular 43,144 supporters per match.
There are also a number of both experienced and promising foreigners who have recently boosted the pedigree and popularity of the MLS in the States and abroad. On the New York Red Bulls, there are former World Cup winners Thierry Henry and Juninho, as well as Australian star Tim Cahill. The LA Galaxy have Robbie Keane and until recently David Beckham. And, Eric Hassli, Freddy Montero, Torsten Frings, Marco Di Vai, and Mauro Rosales are just a few others who either currently play or have made a name for themselves in the league.
With two tightly-contested conferences and exciting teams such as Sporting Kansas City (where former NFL legend Chad Ochocinco had a brief trial in 2011), the Sounders, and the Houston Dynamo, it will be worth it to give the MLS a watch in 2013.
The two Manchester clubs are battling at the top of the EPL
Everyone loves a good title race. And, that is exactly what is happening throughout Europe right now.
In England, perennial champions Manchester United boast a nine-point lead over Manchester City. However, last season a slip-up against Everton at home in a 4-4 draw saw United lose the pace and their arch-rivals win the title in the last minute of the last match of the season.
And, guess what? Tomorrow, the Red Devils host Everton once again.
In Spain, Barcelona have a similar lead against Atletico Madrid, while rivals Real Madrid sit 16 points back in their attempt at a title defense. Bayern Munich have a commanding 11-point lead against the 2009-10 and 2011-12 winners Borussia Dortmund in Germany; and, perhaps the closest major race on the continent is in Italy, where last season’s untouchables Juventus are three points ahead of Napoli.
But, the fascinating aspect of global soccer is not only that winners are crowned. Unlike the NFL, at the end of the season 3-4 of the lowest-placed teams are relegated (dropped to the division below them), while the next division’s top finishers are promoted up a level.
As well, anywhere from 3-6 of the highest-finishers in the top divisions are able to qualify for continental competitions such as the Champions League and Europa League.
So, incentives remain all throughout the table.