Saturday, October 31, 2009

Checking in with Arsenal: With Thanks to Nick Hornby and ESPN

All hail ESPN for airing live soccer matches from England and Spain this year! Rather than having to settle for lesser North American leagues, the average American viewer can now watch the world's best every weekend. My team, Arsenal, faced off against its long-standing North London rival Tottenham today. The Gunners (good guys) handled the Spurs easily, 3-0.

Naturally, this begs the question of how I come to have a favo(u)rite English soccer (football) team (club/side). I shall apologize in advance for using American English in my posts about a sport that is far more important in other countries and for which they use a different word. I am what I am.

I grew up playing soccer and basketball, though I don't claim to have been particularly good at either. Due to those experiences they are, at least on a certain level, the sports I know best. I know how difficult it is to be good at them and have seen gifted players up close and personal - usually running over me. The US is, of course, the cradle of basketball so there's no lack of high-quality games to watch on TV or even live. While I lived in New York, I need only have walked a few blocks to the public courts to see some of the best pick-up players in the world. Soccer is another matter. While I can wallow in the World Cup every four years, top-flight club matches are harder to find.

When we first moved to Vermont, our cable package included Fox Sports World (now called Fox Soccer Channel). Live English Premiership games were on every Saturday morning. While I have only spent about four days total in London, the English have played an important role in my life. Some of my best friends are English. And I don't mean that in the apologetic sense in which one might say "some of my best friends are Yankees fans." More to the point, I don't often see some of the people I love most in the world because they live in England. Add to that the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and I suppose one could say I'm a genuine Anglophile.

An added bonus with soccer is the fact that my wife likes it, too. She has a bit of a fetish for bald French players so Fabien Barthez and Thierry Henry were favorites of hers at the time. We started watching without much of a rooting interest at all, though we agreed that Manchester United qualified as the evil empire. We also both read Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch that year, a memoir in which the novelist recounts his personal history as an Arsenal fan. In sports and in life, I love a good story above almost all other things. The triumph of the king's nemesis makes for a terrific narrative. I couldn't help but jump on the bandwagon as Arsenal grabbed the title away from mighty Man U in 2004. I've been hooked ever since.

When we moved into a house, we switched to satellite with a package that didn't include Fox Soccer. While ESPN has carried Champions League matches, they are on in the middle of the week, usually just finishing up when I get home from work. No more Saturday morning games until ESPN came to the rescue this year. Now, all is right with the universe.

Arsenal's looking well so far this year. They've slid a bit in the past few years but seem eager to threaten the top of the table this time around. They're at the top of their group in the Champions League as well. The diagnosis to this point is strong in the front, questionable in the back. Today's result should be encouraging. Can't wait until the next game. Thanks again, ESPN!

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