How to Enjoy Watching Soccer When You’re Not a Diehard Fan

We’ve all heard the complaints about soccer, the world’s most popular sport. “There isn’t enough scoring,” we like to mutter. “There are so many fake injuries,” we say. “Ties! Outrageous!”

Whether you’re a fan or not, soccer is here to stay. In fact, with more domestic channels picking up tournaments and league games abroad — not to mention a flourishing home-grown league in the MLS — the sport is only expanding its already massive reach.

(Don’t forget, either, to listen to our interview with Timber Joey, the mascot of the Portland Timbers.)

If American football is your thing, so be it. Love hoops? Me too. But there are ways to enjoy soccer for even the most casual or curious viewer.

Focus off the Ball

It’s been said that watching soccer is a bit like watching a flock of birds. Having played my entire life, it’s still one of the cliches about the sport I love most. With 11 players on each side, including a goalkeeper, there’s a lot of action away from the ball. My advice: embrace that action.

soccer field aerial
Izuddin Helmi Adnan

The runs players make can be breathtaking. An 80-yard dash from a defender in the midst of a counterattack. A striker checking away from the ball to lure an opposing defender or two away from the play. The tireless work of a midfielder, buzzing about in the center of the park like a worker bee. The play revolves around the ball, sure, but take a moment to appreciate the big picture.

Love the Legacy

The MLS is a baby but clubs elsewhere, Europe especially, are many generations old. Affection for a team is on par with religion and is passed down the branches of the family tree. It’s led to diehard supporters that sing the praises of their beloved team the entire 90 minutes of the game.

This kind of devotion can get out of hand, as stadium riots and hooliganism suggest. But mostly, it’s just an infectious type of allegiance that most American franchises pine to have someday. You see it at just about every level of the club scene abroad and you see it with national teams, too. Anybody who’s caught some World Cup action knows it’s the Carnival of world sport. 

Embrace Rivalries

Some of the fiercest rivalries on the planet unfold on the soccer pitch. Soccer is one of few sports with frequent meaningful games and tournaments between entire nations. As such, things get downright political. Don’t believe me? Catch a “friendly” game between the U.S. and Mexico.

Manchester United v Manchester City Carabao Cup Semi-Final 2020 soccer
Manchester United vs. Manchester City at the Carabao Cup 2020. Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

Similar rivalries exist at the club level, although with multinational rosters, it’s a little different. But because a lot of these clubs have been going head-to-head for well over a hundred years, it’s a sight to behold. Some of the biggest club rivalries on the planet include River Plate and Boca Juniors in Argentina, Manchester United vs. Manchester City in England, Roma vs. Lazio in Italy, and what many refer to as the marquee game in club soccer today, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid (otherwise known as El Clasico).

As you settle into the league of your choosing, you’ll see that intense rivalries exist all over the soccer map, playing out weekly on TV.

Ignore the Scoreline

This Simpsons’ take on the sport is priceless. The scoreline, however, is worth dismissing. Some of the best games ever have been 1-0 affairs or even 0-0 draws. That’ s because goals themselves serve are merely the finishing touch on the much more interesting lead-up play that created those chances in the first place.

Think of a goal as a rarity, equivalent to a grand slam in baseball of four-point-play in basketball. Take in other stats, like possession and shots on target. Watching the momentum shift, and shift again, throughout a match is as good or better as witnessing a goal. It’s incredible to witness the mood of a team shift as they clamp down on their opponents, bolstered further by their chanting supporters.

Savor the Commentary

Only in soccer (well, maybe rugby and cricket) will you hear color commentary that is genuinely colorful. The English, especially, are known to drop some pretty amazing lines. They’ll call a bad pass “agonizing” and a good piece of dribbling “magisterial.” Buckle up, you might even improve your diction while taking in a game. Seek out famous voices like Ian Darke and Ray Hudson. They call big games and it’s a joy to hear their passion.

Respect the Work Rate

Research suggests that the average pro soccer player runs about seven miles per game. At the highest levels, it’s almost certainly more. It’s an impressive feat for a sport that literally doesn’t stop (and is often lengthened with extra time due to injuries).

Megan Rapinoe USA v Netherlands 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Finals soccer
Megan Rapinoe of Team USA scores the first goal against the Netherlands during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup finals. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Soccer players are some of the most fit people on the planet. They’re marathon runners, sprinters, high-jumpers, and acrobats. It’s easy to overlook because so often they look like regular people (albeit more svelte). The fact that a lot of major teams play multiple games a week for the better part of the year is truly remarkable.

Master Offsides

It’s a tough rule to fully understand but a fun one to try to grasp. Essentially, a player is offsides if when the ball is played, he’s crossed the plane set by the last defender. With the addition of VAR (video assistant referee), it’s become even more of a dramatic spectacle. Say what you want about instant replays, it’s fascinating to see just how close these calls can be. 

Once you get the hang of the rule, you’ll begin to notice how defensive lines set traps to catch opposing players. The way they communicate with each other to work as a unit is impressive. Organized defending can be as pleasing to watch as a good bit of offensive combination play or a beautifully struck free kick.

Watch Messi

We live in perhaps the greatest era of soccer, in which two of the best players on the planet are still — for the most part — in their prime. I’m talking about Argentinian midfield maestro Lionel Messi and Portuguese wizard Cristiano Ronaldo. The former, by all informed accounts, is the better player and an absolute pleasure to watch.

Lionel Messi FC Barcelona passes the ball during the Supercopa de Espana Semi-Final 2020
Lionel Messi representing FC Barcelona at the Supercopa de Espana in 2020. Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Few players in the history of the sport possess the touch, technique, speed, vision, and work rate of Messi. Watch the guy, he appears to love every minute of it. He can see the game five or so passes into the future and can maintain possession in the tightest quarters, effortlessly. And in a world that so often produces massive egos and selfish play among the most lionized players, Messi is a true working-class hero. His team-first mentality is something of a lost art.

Speak a Global Language

When you watch soccer, you’re taking part in a universal language, like laughter or Bob Marley. It sounds cheesy, but it’s genuine. Every nationality understands the soccer ball and that’s empowering. In an increasingly divided planet, it seems to be one of the few things we can all still agree on.

Make it a Drinking Game

Still not sold on footy? Fine, make it a drinking game. Take a swig every time a player dives (the simulated movement used to draw a foul that’s spread like wildfire to other venues, like the NBA). Have a pull every time somebody heads the ball. Better still, have a gulp every time Cristiano Ronaldo complains about something.

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