How to enjoy the Premier League if you're not that into soccer
English Premier League soccer returns TODAY, which is great news for the legions of diehard soccer supporters who recognize it as the greatest professional league in existence. However, I'm here to tell you that it can also be great news for you and me, the American men and women who love sports but missed the soccer boat somewhere along the way. There's no better time to start enjoying the world's most popular game, especially now that there aren't many other team sports around. (If you've managed to become a Korean baseball fan, bless you, you may stop reading.)
Last summer, I said "screw it, I'm going to become a Liverpool fan." You can read my rationale here. Almost one year later, I can report that it was a moderate success. I watched most of their matches before the pandemic hit. I went to crowded pubs for the bigger ones. I learned a majority of the words to the incredibly cheesy song "You'll Never Walk Alone." I even bought a Roberto Firmino jersey in Belfast, wore it to a pub showing the Liverpool match that night, and quickly discovered—due the unfriendly stares of about 100 people—that nobody in Belfast wears soccer jerseys at pubs.
And I've had fun! A moderate, reasonable amount of fun! I'm now in a position to teach you, my fellow lukewarm soccer-curious American friends, how to make EPL fandom a good experience. Here are the seven tricks you'll need.
1. Accept the boredom
This runs the risk of infuriating people like my editor Coleman, who is a big EPL fan and writes really great analysis that you should read. To him, and those like him, soccer is not at all boring and I am an idiot. That's fair, and certainly true in the latter regard. However, I've been nurtured on sports with constant action and near-constant scoring (and baseball, which is a cult). For me, no matter how much I want to get into soccer, actually watching the match will include moments of boredom, and that feeling can lead to frustration...like you're not getting it. And of course, you aren't getting it, just like a European struggling to watch a Yankees-Red Sox game will never quite get baseball. That's okay. Take soccer for what it is—a sport that can get extremely exciting and extremely emotional in a flash, but that has some dull stretches for the uninitiated. It's not a dealbreaker; the slight boredom makes it a perfect sport for weekend mornings, and a perfect sport for Twitter or other Internet distractions.
2. Pick a great team to support
European soccer is ridiculously imbalanced, and while it may be tempting to feel cool by picking a mid-table team and inheriting all their neuroses and historical agonies, be honest with yourself that you're not going to have the commitment to sit through all that. I know you; you have plenty to work through without adding the burden of foreign mediocrity to the tab. I chose Liverpool in part because they've got a brilliant coach and at least four of the world's best players, score many goals, and would compete for a league title and play in the Champions League. You're not going to have the patience to pretend to like Everton or Aston Villa; be a frontrunner.
3. Read soccer books
I'm not sure why this is the case, but nonfiction books about soccer are tremendous, and better than any other genre of sports book. I recommend starting with Among the Thugs, which I wrote about almost a decade ago here. If you like it, go on from there, but take my advice: Nothing is going to kickstart your understanding of the game and the culture, and thereby enhance your enjoyment, than reading. It's the ultimate shortcut.
4. Listen to a team-centric podcast
When my plan began to pay off and I actually started caring about Liverpool's fate, I made the best possible move and started listening to The Anfield Wrap. Podcasters like these understand the game on a vastly different level than you ever will, they're usually local, and they're passionate. If they're as entertaining as The Anfield Wrap crew are, they're going to communicate the intricacies of the game to you in a way that's bound to open your eyes to what makes the sport special. Or at least open them further; energy like this is infectious, and makes the whole experience more engaging.
Go to a supporter's bar if you have one near you (oh, but wait for the pandemic to be over), drink lagers, and take in what you can of the fan culture. I watched the Manchester United match at the London Bridge Pub in Raleigh (where I could wear my Firmino jersey proudly), and even sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" with everyone at the end. Was there a hint of irony in my performance? Yes, because I'm not used to sincere singing anywhere outside the shower, much less at a sporting event, and also my friend was there and I didn't want to look like an idiot in front of him. And also because the song is lame. But I sang nevertheless, and it was good.
6. Read Reddit
Even if it's for five minutes a day, get a sense of what the fanbase is thinking, how they behave en masse (Liverpool supporters are sincere and a little sensitive), and if it ever feels right, make a post. I once wrote something complaining about how Jurgen Klopp basically sacrificed the FA Cup for an uncertain Champions League (they lost shortly after) and an inevitable league title (there was absolutely no way they could lose). I was downvoted and called an idiot; again, totally fair. I would recommend the experience.
7. Ignore the Haters
Soccer is a territorial sport when it comes to fans, and nothing is more annoying to a certain subset than a johnny-come-lately supporter, particularly an American, who has the audacity to feel a little tepid about the game (or to call it "boring" in an article). Remember that these people don't own soccer, and in fact many diehard fans will be incredibly supportive of new people entering their orbit. There's a place for the ambivalent centrists like us, and anyway, everybody has to start somewhere.