The Difficulty of Explaining Soccer to Newbies

Explaining soccer’s vast scope to casual American sports fans is a lot more difficult than it seems
by Herb Scribner   |   Friday, February 17, 2012

Will Ferrell the newbie soccer coach in Kicking & Screaming

There’s good and bad about being known as “The Soccer Guy” in your circle of friends.

The good side is that you know a lot about the sport. You know how the game works, you’re a local expert on offsides, you know which players are performing to their potential and who is likely to move in the next transfer window, which countries are where and how good their teams are, the list goes on and on.

The bad side is that you have to explain it all to someone who, more often than not, doesn’t have a clue about the game and the words you use to describe it.

With the Champions League back in full-swing I’ve been trying to catch a few games on the television. When I do, it likely leads to a few curious onlookers (generally newbies to the sport) wanting to get in on the passion-infused and exotic action. Once they start watching, they get hooked and then they almost always want to know more about it all. Some want to know why a Spanish team is playing a German team, the difference between Bayer and Bayern or what a UEFA is … there’s certainly a lot of things that are curious to the uninitiated.

But explaining the structure of the world’s game to newbies looking to grasp and consume it in a few minutes is difficult at best. While I understand what tournaments represent what and which players play for what teams, that’s taken me years. To explain the nuances, rules, organizations, competitions, club-and-country and how they relate to each other … it’s tough for a lot of casual fans to process all of that. You almost have to do it in small doses, very gradually.

Case in point. When a friend asked me which the best soccer team in the world was, before I could just give a simple answer or my opinion, my other soccer-knowing colleague and I had a little debate in front of him, with me claiming Barcelona the best and him Real Madrid. [The El Clasico debate never seems to disappear, even in a small, western Massachusetts town.] My colleague capitulated when he remembered Barca won the Champions League title last year over Manchester United. This led to the initial inquirer to wonder what the Champions League was.

“For the most part, it’s the best in all the European country’s leagues competing in a super league.” I said to him.

His reply was filled with curiosity. “So, did any American teams make it?”

“No,” I replied. “This was for the UEFA Champions League – in Europe. American teams compete in the CONCACAF Champions League.”

“Well, what’s the CONCACAF?”

See what’s going on here?

I’ve heard that answers just lead to more questions, and in this case that phrase held true. The more and more I tried to get my friend interested in soccer by explaining to him what the different leagues were, the more and more he got confused because of the overwhelmingly long list of different cups and tournaments throughout the world. The conversation died down when I mentioned that there was the FIFA Club World Cup, which – though it doesn’t really live up to the lofty title, because most of the best clubs are European and only one of the entrants is from Europe, albeit their reigning champs – is the supposed showcase of the best teams in the world.

So it really could be tough explaining to a newbie in the USA the ins and outs of the enormous soccer world without them getting lost under piles of FA Cups, Champions Leagues, transfer fees, loans, caps, aggregate scores, Qualifiers, etc. Whew, that’s a staggeringly foreign list to the average fan from the United States. Dozens and dozens of leagues and tournaments compund in the brain, something which might turn a prospective soccer fan away from the beautiful game. Most Americans are used to 1 league and 1 team per city (with a few exceptions), regular season, playoffs, winners are “world champions”, done, next league, repeat. It is a lot smaller, easier to grasp and consumable. You don’t need a degree in geography, politics, sociology or sports management to process.

I believe this is one of the reasons why soccer didn’t catch on in America until very recently. In the past, sports fans would only have the option of watching one league for their favorite sports – and this still continues today with NFL and MLB fans. They have, for the most part, one league to watch, with each league showcasing the best players in the world for those sports. But with soccer, there are hundreds of other leagues to get involved in. If you don’t like America’s teams, there are a slew of others to watch with all different styles, tactics and soccer cultures of their own.

And with soccer’s expansion on American television and the internet, fans can now watch more and more of these games from around the world quite easily. That widespread 24/7 availability is helping for sure. Many casual American fans are beginning to make sense of it all, especially the young ones who grew up with FIFA on their gaming consoles. They know that Liverpool plays in the EPL and that Barcelona plays in Spain with Real Madrid. They know that David Beckham plays in America, even though he’s English. Somehow I still get asked why Beckham doesn’t start for our national team though, which always make me shake my head. Regardless, with the rise of internet and television, fans are increasingly exposed to different leagues and tournaments and can start to understand the macro sport of soccer a little bit better. Though they may struggle to point to these places on a map (sad fact here), they are starting to get the gist of it all.

Back to my original point. Soccer is one of the more difficult sports to get people interested in just by explaining it to them. You can’t map out all the tournaments and leagues in the world without losing them. It’ll provide nothing but confusion and even more layers of curiosity that the casual sports fan – that’s used to just going to ESPN.com and reading the top link – might be too lazy to look into.

Conversely, if you want someone to get interested in football, point them simply to the NFL. Hockey? Check out some NHL games, if you can find them.

For soccer though, it’s not so easy. Sure you could tell them to check out the MLS, which is all well and good, but for the most part the MLS isn’t going to attract most young fans with its beauty or passion – especially if watched through television. If you want to entrance someone with soccer, switch on an EPL game or a big U.S. Men’s National Team match. That’ll get them hooked. You can’t tell someone to go to MLSSoccer.com and expect them to covert to the game so easily. There’s too much going on in the world for that level of play to convince them this sport is the real deal and they need to be a part of it.

In Europe, South America, well most of the world really, people who aren’t into soccer at a young age but want to pick it up later have a much bigger advantage than an American. They likely were surrounded by it regardless, since birth, and are subconsciously a lot more aware of its structure and scope, than an American who likely has seasonal sporting interests and doesn’t weigh sport up to religion like most fans worldwide do with soccer solely. So if they decide later in life they are interested, it is a lot easier for them, as they have a basic understanding already built in through their culture and upbringing. Not the case in most of America.

Soccer is nearly unexplainable to the common American fan with no knowledge of it. There’s just too much to handle in one breath and too easy a chance to inundate on that initial viewing. That’s why the easiest way to get a new fan into soccer is either by having them watch a top-tier game or let them ride along fora live game in a packed stadium. Simple formula, but that’ll do it.

Herb SCRIBNER

Nationality:
USA
College:
UMass Amherst
Club Domestic:
NE Revolution
Club Foreign:
Bayern Munich
SN managing editor, award-winning journalist and recent college grad, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's been published by the Boston Globe and has experience with film production and novel writing.
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