Behind Boxing Day

While America is hungover on Christmas spirit, today the country’s football passionate still celebrate. Thanks to NBC Sports’s excellent coverage of the English Premier League, US fans are becoming acquainted with the British holiday Boxing Day and have started to adopt it into their holiday festivities. While the meaning behind Boxing Day may be lost in between the Atlantic, fans have begun to make their own traditions.

Head down to Piper’s Pub on the South Side of Pittsburgh and you can see how Boxing Day blends with American soccer culture. Many of the ex-pats overseas come home for the holidays, reconnect with old friends, and share stories of their time spent abroad, all while cheering on their Premier League club. Rivalries are put aside for a day of relaxation watching the sport that brought them together in the first place.

The origins of Boxing Day are mysteriously hard to pinpoint. The holiday can be traced back to the Middle Ages, but some believe it can be ever further linked back to the late Roman period. Essentially, it is a day where members of the lesser class receive gifts from employers or those more fortunate. Since members of the servant class would have to wait on their masters during Christmas, the following day they were allowed to visit their families. As a sign of appreciation for their hard work, their employers would give the servants a box containing gifts, money, and often times left over food. It also seems to be a reference to the Alms Box in churches that collect donations to the poor.

Football has been associated with Boxing Day almost ever since the sport’s existence. The first match on Boxing Day took place on December 26, 1860 between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC. Sheffield and Hallam are recognized as the two oldest association football clubs in the world. Sheffield prevailed 2-0 in the first ever inter-club match. This was the beginning of a proud English footballing tradition.

Boxing day matches have existed in the top flight of English league football since the inaugural 1888-89 season. Preston North End showed no mercy for Derby County on a day supposedly for benevolence. Preston won 5-0 on their way to the first league championship, going undefeated in the process. Christmas Day matches accompanied Boxing Day matches up until 1963, when it was decided to keep the two holidays separate. Christmas became a day for family, Boxing Day a day for football.

The football pitch has long unified the British people around the holiday season. Stories are passed down of the historic Christmas truce game in 1914 between British and German soldiers during the fighting of World War I. For one day, the two agreed to put down their weapons and kick the ball around on the battlefront of Northern France. It is an inspirational tale that shows how differences can be put aside thanks to a game that so many love.

Now there are massive stadiums for fans to share their love. Boxing Day sees some of the largest attendance numbers in the Premier League season. With English football clubs comes a sense of community. They sing together, they cheer together, and at times they act like drunken buffoons together. Families share experiences in those seats around the pitch. I can only assume that many fathers and sons look back fondly on the Boxing Day games they attended. Scorelines are hardly what matters on this one occasion; the day carries a much larger significance. It’s about celebrating a love for the game with the ones you love.

However, don’t tell that to the players and coaches. Boxing Day for them is hardly about feelings of good will. It is all about survival. The holiday comes right in the middle of a stretch of four games in two weeks. The players will need their jerseys cleared of the grass stains fast because they’ll be right back at it on Sunday. Hamstrings are put in danger. Conspiracies often swirl that players will dive into reckless challenges to pick up a 5th yellow card so they are suspended a game, giving their bodies a temporary respite. The whirlwind of games sees mass upheaval in the tables. If a mid-table team catches a poor run of form they could come into the new year near the relegation zone. There is simply no time for the players to think about the larger importance of football on Boxing Day.

For me, not much changes on Boxing Day. Eyes glued to the computer screen watching 7 hours of consecutive football is more of a daily tradition at this point. Yet there’s still something a little bit more special about these games. Maybe it’s the added energy from the fans, or the historical context, or hell maybe I too am still slightly tipsy from the Christmas spirit. Regardless, I love football therefore I love Boxing Day.

 

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Marrakech to Mumbai

Yesterday, Real Madrid defeated the Argentine side San Lorenzo 2-0 in Marrakech, Morocco to win the FIFA Club World Cup. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you had no idea either. The footballing community has reached a general consensus that this is an irrelevant tournament, which is unfortunate because the Club World Cup is an appealing idea. The tournament brings together the best team from each the 6 continents, giving clubs from Africa and Asia their chance to be introduced to the world often for the first time and determine internationally who is the best club.

Except the best club is predetermined before the tournament even starts. The European team comes in and half asses their way to the title. Real Madrid only had to give about 35% to coast past San Lorenzo. In the last 8 years, the European team has won the title 7 times. It’s impossible for there to be parity in this tournament. The framework for club football in Europe has existed far longer than in any other continent. The only one that can come close to matching the history of European football is South America and it’s no surprise that Brazilian clubs have won the other 4 installments of the tournament. So if the Club World Cup comes down to 2 teams while the other 5 clubs (champion of the host nation’s league also gets a bid) travel halfway across the world just for the chance to shake hands with Cristiano Ronaldo, what’s even the point?

That’s simple, there’s money to be had. The sponsorship deals that accompany the tournament are too much for Sepp Blatter and his FIFA henchmen to walk away. If scraping the whole thing isn’t an option, then steps need to be made to improve it. One improvement that I believe will introduce a little more parity is making the tournament biennial. The tournament at the moment is just a major inconvenience, coming right in the middle of the European season. Having it every other year could present the opportunity for a two-week break in the season where club football pauses and focuses their eyes solely on this tournament. Also a tournament every two years would mean more teams, each continent now being represented by the past two winners of their respective Champions Leagues. They even could have a playoff between winners of the Europa League and Copa Sudamericana to give Europe and South America a third team. More teams would mean a group stage. As we saw at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the group stage can create chaos (see: Spain, Costa Rica). However, what can truly make this tournament more exciting is obvious. The sport’s infrastructure needs to improve in the other continents.

On the same day Real Madrid were giving their lesser opponents the business, Asian football made a huge stride forward. In Mumbai, Atlético de Kolkata stole the Indian Super League title from Kerala Blasters with a 95th minute header. In the inaugural season of the Indian Super League, the experiment has largely been heralded a success. The league was created to make football a top sport in India as well as a major player worldwide. Viewership statistics for matches has been in the hundreds of millions. The competition will surely be back next year and hopefully will push the sport further into the consciousness of the country.

Asia is an untapped market begging for the football world to reach out. While the gap between the Indian Super League and English Premier League is still immeasurable, quickly developing countries like India are finding the resources to close this gap fast. Most professional leagues in Asia have only been around for a couple of decades, but their popularity among their people was instant. With Asia’s ever expanding economies, these leagues are at no loss for sponsors and have seen huge amounts of cash infused into promotion of the sport. Sponsors and television deals lead to new training grounds and more money for coaching and youth development. These effects are already coming to the foreground in the Indian Super League. The final was not dominated by the aging Premier League rejects, but rather by the young Indian homegrowns. 22-year-old Mohammed Rafique, born and raised in the West Bengal region, scored the decisive 95th minute goal for Kolkata. With the Indian Super League gaining such popularity, the country will start to see their best athletes choose football over the nation’s pastime cricket.

Don’t get me wrong, India still have a long way to go in becoming a superior football nation. The Super League has presented the sponsors and interest though to make it a fast climb. Countries often use sport to showcase to the world their rise as a global power. India looks like they’re making football their sport of choice. It will be interesting to see in the upcoming decades whether Asia’s increasing capital can begin to cancel out a century of European domination. While it might be smooth sailing for Europe in the FIFA Club World Cup right now, competition is coming in the near future.

We Need You Wembley

The League Cup is very important. This is a statement that has supporters of big clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City laughing in their seats. They have much more pressing manners at hand such as winning the league or beating Barcelona in the Champions League. However, for the clubs beneath them like Tottenham the League Cup is one of the few chances available to win silverware in an increasing monopolized landscape. Only two or three clubs have a realistic shot at winning the Premier League anymore and Spurs are not one of them. They need to look elsewhere to add trophies to an increasingly barren display case. Spurs have set themselves up in prime position for their first cup final since 2009 and should do everything in their power to bring a supposedly meaningless League Cup back to White Hart Lane. While the League Cup may not have the historical significance of the FA Cup, a trophy is still a trophy dammit. At this moment, Spurs are in need of physical evidence that things are heading in the right direction.

A defeatist attitude is starting to find its way into the club. It starts with the supporters and is working its way into the minds of the players. We even have a word to describe this, “Spursy.” Before the match even kicks off, fans expect something bad to happen and when it inevitably does they simply chalk it up to unfortunate luck. I know I’m guilty of this. Each matchday I slip on one of my Tottenham jerseys reluctantly, hoping just not to receive it in the face. We get hammered by big clubs, shit the bed against small ones. It’s a never-ending cycle that us supporters have grown to accept.

The deeper the team progresses in the League Cup though the more it looks like the club can break free of these feelings. Yesterday, Spurs put in a complete performance against Newcastle United, winning 4-0 and breezing into the semifinals. Even better news, they drew League One side Sheffield United with a place in the final on the line. Unless things go drastically wrong, Spurs will be going to Wembley once again.

The first couple months of the Mauricio Pochettino regime have been rocky, but this cup run will give supporters confidence that the ship is heading in the right direction. How could you not have faith in a man that won a trophy in his first opportunity? Pochettino is still trying to bring large-scale system changes to the club, but European football is a result driven business. A trophy would ease the pressure for the considerable future and ensure supporters that he is the man that can bring Champions League to the club.

Provided everything goes as expected against Sheffield United, Spurs still have a huge obstacle in between them and the League Cup. A trip to the final will see them paired up against either Chelsea or Liverpool, two teams that have torn them to shreds recently. In the last 6 matches they’ve played against these two clubs they’ve been outscored a combined 20-1. However, I can’t think of a better way to reverse our fortunes than by knocking off one of our conquerors and lifting a trophy at the same time. It would be a notice to the big clubs that Spurs are on their way to closing the gap.

It is also not as if this is the only thing left to play for in our season. Tottenham are just 4 points back of the 4th Champions League spot and are in the Europa League Round of 32. Champions League football has been the dream for a while now and a Leauge Cup victory would provide the momentum for that late season push.

The League Cup is not pointless. It actually could have a great effect on the future of this club. It can springboard further success on grander stages. Much simpler however, it’s a chance to bring silverware back into the fold. We the supporters must believe. We can’t think of this potential cup final as another chance to get exposed by Chelsea. No more defeating ourselves before the match even starts. With the favorable draw, the soccer gods gave us a golden opportunity. Time to take it and run with it all the way into Wembley.

Until Next Fall

The 2014 college soccer season came to a close without a storybook sunset. A spotless blue sky arched over the towering North Carolina pines in the distance. The midday sun beamed onto the field at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC, detailing each individual blade of grass. The temperature rose into the 50s and sent coats underneath the seats. Mother Nature summoned everything she had left to produce one last beautiful day for the beautiful game. It was a proper goodbye before the soccer passionate packed it up and headed indoors for the winter.

At the same time, the University of Virginia’s men’s soccer team were saying hello to their 7th College Cup. They defeated the UCLA Bruins in the final 4-2 on penalty kicks after the Cavaliers’ head coach George Gelnovatch saw his players execute his gameplan flawlessly. In order to stifle UCLA’s quick passing, the Cavaliers spent the majority of the game with 10, and at times even 11, men behind the ball. Virginia wanted penalty kicks from the beginning. The Cavaliers bend but don’t break tactics frustrated UCLA. The Bruins lost their composure and squandered clear chances. When the match came down to PKs, the Bruins already defeated themselves mentally. Two spot kicks rattled off the crossbar and the Cavaliers went back to Charlottesville with the trophy.

Yet for this cup final being a battle to the end between two of collegiate soccer’s powerhouse programs, match attendance barely crept past 8,000. To give this number some context, the average home attendance for Division I-FCS football is around 8,000 as well. While it might be unfair to compare college soccer to the moneymaking schemes of college football and college basketball, it still brings up a much more important question. Where exactly does collegiate soccer stand within the American soccer system?

If you even just have a passing interest in the United States men’s national team or the MLS, then you’ve probably heard the conversation about what American soccer needs to do in order to compete with the world’s best. These conversations however focus almost exclusively on expanding the professional game, while college soccer is left out of this dialogue. The MLS’s Homegrown Player Rule is making the leap from youth academies to the pros a more appealing option than going to college and maintaining amateur status for another four years. Europe is also beginning to notice soccer’s increase in popularity in the states and has started to take more kids overseas. College soccer is in jeopardy of becoming only a chance for student athletes to live out the final moments of their competitive soccer careers. Stepping-stones into the professional game are being found elsewhere and college soccer seems to exist outside of the American soccer pyramid.

So how can it be brought back into the fold? College soccer needs to look more attractive and student bodies around the country can play a big role in accomplishing this. The lazy Sunday atmosphere that accompanies college matches won’t cut it anymore. We need to get loud and show these players we care. Soccer is starting to build large followings on college campuses. Access to European matches is easier than it’s ever been. Students are picking clubs and learning more about the sport each day. This easy access has made us picky though. Why try to brave the cold and wind when we can watch the world’s top talent on our computer screens? This is a particular problem at my school, the University of Pittsburgh. Matchdays see huge gaps of empty bleachers at Ambrose Urbanic Field. Maybe this is because of specific circumstances related to my school like Cardiac Hill and indifference in general to our mediocre athletic programs. Still, I attended games at 10 schools this season and Duquesne was the only one that had a decent student turnout.

I’ve realized that the only way to develop an understanding of the game’s organic flow is to see it in person. Watching the game on a computer doesn’t show how players utilize space or the communication it takes to construct an organized back line. If you enjoy watching the Barclays Premier League on NBC and are looking to take this interest to the next step, then supporting your school’s team is the logical choice.

I’m also not going to act like I don’t know what us college students love to do. We like to get drunk and make asses of ourselves. Well, I’m presenting a way that we can do this and be constructive at the same time. Soccer support is all about being as obnoxious as possible. Drums, chants, and costumes are a few ideas to get your student section started. If we come together and give our schools legitimate fanbases, then young players might start believing that college soccer will prepare themselves for the atmospheres of the MLS and top leagues in Europe.

A spike in student turnout will help shine light on two very important things college soccer is doing to promote the sport in America. The college level is the first chance that European tactics can be infused into the American style of play. Many collegiate coaches rely on recruits from Germany and England to give their stateside players a deeper understanding of the game. Soccer pervades every aspect of European culture and kids learn how to play within a system from a young age. The American style, based on speed and individual skill, melds with the systematic adaptability of the Europeans to create a comprehensive product.

The other thing that college soccer is doing right is allowing this mixture of skill and system to be seen by impressionable eyes. Tickets to matches are free almost anywhere. It is a great way for the family to spend a Saturday. I was amazed by how fixated these young children were to the actual play. For these little soccer stars the college athletes are role models. They look on analyzing the proper technique and try to emulate it in the backyard.

Later when I look back on the 2014 college soccer season, my lasting impression will not be of Riggs Lennon’s Virginia teammates rushing the field to congratulate him for slotting home the decisive penalty in the College Cup final. Instead, it will come from a mid-season match between Saint Louis and George Mason in Fairfax, VA. A group of ten-year-old girls dressed up in their soccer uniforms unfold a large George Mason banner. Their tiny arms struggle to hold the banner up in the air and large chunks drag along the bleachers. Yet the girls are relentless in their passion for the game in front of them. They start a call and response. “GEORGE!”…… “MASON!” A boys youth team on the other side of the stands joins in. Together they make the only noise in the park. When next fall rolls around, take inspiration from these little girls and do your part in making sure the college level is a vital part of soccer becoming America’s sport of the future.