Passion is contagious. Sure, there has to be a 'patient zero' to get the ball rolling, but if you spend time with someone who is really passionate about something, it's hard not to develop at least a little appreciation for whatever it is.
I fell in love with Harry Potter because I caught the passion from my little brother.
I fell in love with college basketball because I caught the passion from my parents.
And I fell in love with international soccer when I lived in London during the EURO2004 tournament.
In summer of 2004, Team England went deep into the tournament, losing in the 'final four' in overtime penalty kicks (that's when I first learned who David Beckham was - he's the one who kicked the turf instead of the ball). No one I spoke to that summer wanted to talk about anything other than the EUROs. Luckily for me, the English were patient enough to share their passion with me, to explain it to me so I could be excited about it, too.
After watching the various soccer tournaments over the last eight years, I think I've figured out why Americans haven't embraced this particular brand of "football":
1. The best players don't play in America. They play in Europe, which means the important games tend to happen between noon and 4pm EST, when most Americans are at work, or at ungodly hours of the morning on weekends, also not overly helpful. ESPN airs games live anyway, and also stores several of the games on their ESPN3 website so you can stream them later.
2. The best players aren't Americans. However, a handful of Americans have started trickling in to the limelight. Landon Donovan and Tim Howard have both been popular players for Everton (a team in Liverpool). And Texas's Clint Dempsey was quietly the 4th highest scorer in the English Premier League this season for Fulham (that's kind of like having the 4th most touchdowns in the SEC, not too shabby).
3. Your average American has never had someone explain the context of how some of these tournaments work (thus, the complaints about games ending in ties).
Number Three is what I'm going to try to work on here. America, we dig the Olympics, right? We like watching the best in the world, and we like watching nations compete against each other. But now hear this:
The Olympic soccer tournament will feature the world's JV teams.
The real world-class players will be playing in EURO2012 instead.
You can watch any and all of these games here.
Repeat, you can watch any and all of these games and they will be streamable at your convenience. America, we are running out of excuses.
A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF THE RULES:
The EURO tournament is held every 4 years, like the Olympics or the World Cup. Each country in Europe selects its best players for their team (think the USA Basketball Dream Team). In the years between tournaments, all of the national teams in Europe compete in various qualifier games until only the best 16 teams remain. These 16 teams are divided into 4 groups (Group A, B, C, and D).
This is when the tournament turns into something of a chess match. Each win is worth three points. Each tie is worth one point. The two top scoring teams from each group advance to the next round. If teams have the same number of points, they use 'who scored the most goals over the course of the group stage' as the tie-breaker. Note: Sometimes you want the tie for strategic reasons, depending on how the math works out. It can be a fun way to screw your opposition.
After the group stage, it turns into a format more recognizable to Americans: single elimination brackets, much like the NCAA tournament. No more ties. At this stage, they'll go to overtime and possibly shootouts, much like hockey to determine a winner. They'll keep going through the bracket until a single winner is crowned. By the way, the World Cup works the same way, except they have more groups during the Group Stage.
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE TEAMS:
Maybe you are an American of Italian heritage and want to support Italy. Maybe you had an awesome vacation in Germany once and want to support der Deutsch. Maybe you're a huge fan of those Dragon Tattoo books and want to cheer on Sweden. Maybe you go by uniform (the Dutch wear bright orange uniforms, and Croatia wears a groovy checkerboard style). I'll probably follow team England (even tho they're kind of seen as haphazard villains), and hope against hope Cinderella Team Ireland has a good showing, Quidditch World Cup style.
Czech Republic - Goalie Petr Cech plays for European Champion team Chelsea (which plays its home games in London).
Greece - Won EURO2004, same year as Athens Olympics.
Poland - Host nation.
GROUP B **GROUP OF DEATH** (the hardest group to win)
Netherlands - Best player is Robin van Persie, most goals in English Premier League this year - came in 2nd in 2010 World Cup.
Portugal - Best player is Cristiano Ronaldo. Generally speaking, the Portuguese are a beautiful people.
Ireland - Cinderella team, great fanbase, Captain Robbie Keane plays in America for the LA Galaxy.
Italy - Mario Balotelli, he once set off fireworks in his own bathroom.
Spain - They won EURO2008, probably favorite to win it all again this year.
England - New coach and new captain, kind of scrambling to put itself together. Best player Wayne Rooney is suspended for the first two games due to an altercation during qualifying games.
Ukraine - Other host nation.
Games begin June 8th. The tournament concludes July 1st. Choose your favorite European Nation and give it a chance. There are no commercial breaks. You know exactly when the matches will start and end. It's all shockingly convenient. I'm telling you, my fellow Americans, we are out of excuses. Catch EURO fever, you won't be sorry. Unless you get attached to a team and then see them lose in heartbreaking fashion. Then that will suck. But it will still be worth it.