Do you have a love-hate relationship with soccer? As fans of the beautiful game, we have plenty to be passionate about and enough to take issue with, too. The domestic leagues, continental competitions and international tournaments all elicit strong opinions, some of which are more drastic than others.
On the positive side, we have the anticipation around the World Cup final, a manager celebrating with his players or a player returning from the struggles of injury which might warm our hearts, but there's also the unpleasant side: a player cynically diving to draw an unearned foul, a team's season ending or, even worse, instances of referee abuse and the like. Despite (or in some cases, because of) it all, soccer energizes the lives of billions around the world who are engrossed by everything it has to offer.
That's why, from big money flooding into the game to the last-minute winners, our writers Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden and Sid Lowe share their vexations and appreciations when it comes to the most popular sport in the world.
What do we love about soccer?
The big-game atmosphere. It doesn't matter if it's a Champions League semifinal second-leg under lights in the Santiago Bernabeu or Anfield, or a local derby between Rochdale and Stockport in EFL League 2 -- when you go to a big game with a sense of anticipation and meaning, the atmosphere is energising and one of the reasons why you love the game. It basically comes down to being a game that is too close to call, with implications for the winners and losers. Some games can be close to meaningless, with apathy in the crowd and on the pitch, but nothing beats a crackling atmosphere.
The Champions League anthem. Sorry Manchester City fans, this one isn't for you. We know you prefer to boo the Champions League anthem because of a long-standing dislike of UEFA. But when the anthem rings out at Celtic Park, Old Trafford or the San Siro, you can feel the sense of occasion and know that you are about to watch elite football at the very highest level. Other competitions also have an anthem -- the Premier League, the Europa League -- but nothing comes close to the Champions League anthem.
Last-minute winners. Not great when you are working at a game and need to file a match report on the final whistle, but there is nothing quite like the drama of a last-minute winner, not just in a big game, but in any game. They are a mark of persistence, belief and endurance and also a reward for those supporters who stay right until the end. The flip side is those -- and it has happened to me on many occasions -- who decide to leave early and then hear a huge roar as they head toward the car park or train station. It is a mixture of joy and annoyance at having missed a big moment, but those inside only have the joy. -- Ogden
The people. In the end, this is the point. The noise, the fun, the people. The excuse, because in a way that's what football really is: something around which to articulate and exaggerate life. Life in 90 minutes, as one Spanish commentator liked to define it, and that's about the people. Few things create community like football does. Or even family. A recommendation: Galder Reguera's book "Hijos del Futbol," which is all about how a father and his son build a relationship through the game.
Floodlights. Proper floodlights. Of all sorts of shapes, or sort of, but they have to be huge, not just towering over the ground but over the town, like beacons. Like lighthouses, almost, that you can navigate by -- although these guide you in rather than guiding you away. Which way to the ground? There's the lights. There's still something special about that first glimpse of them.
Entering the stadium. While we're on floodlights, here's something similar: that moment when you come up the stairs at a ground and step into the light, the stadium on the other side, the pitch there all green and glorious. That first glimpse, which always feels like the first time even when it's the millionth. It's magic, you know. -- Lowe
Football is universal. OK, not everybody is a fan, but most people in most parts of the world have some common sense of what it is and why it matters. I remember during the first Gulf War an Italian pilot was shot down and taken captive by Iraqis. The way he told the story, he was spared because he started talking about the 1990 World Cup and Salvatore Schillaci. They ended up commiserating over the penalty shootout defeat against Diego Maradona's Argentina. No clue if it actually happened like that, but I like to think it did.
Football is unscripted opera. Twenty-two players, a round ball and a rectangular pitch. Just about anything can happen and, if you're engaged, the drama is ever-present. Yes, even in late season nil-nil-written-all-over-it games between midtable sides, there's individual drama or, at least, the potential for it. And that is why we're hooked. Every kickoff whistle is a signal that something incredible could be about to happen.
The tribalism of fandom. It's a chance to be part of a greater whole, to engage in a community with people you've never met (some of whom you probably don't want to meet) but with whom you share a bond. It allows us to be biased, to express some of our basest, most visceral (but no less genuine) emotions and to escape the quotidian monotony we inhabit most days. That's powerful stuff. And it's irrational. Which in a world that prizes rationality makes for a nice break. -- Marcotti
What do we dislike about the game?
Changing kits for no reason. If I could control football for a day, one of the first things I'd do is introduce a rule which states that teams should play in their home colours AT ALL TIMES unless there is a clash that makes it impossible -- such as Liverpool playing in red away to Manchester United. Kit manufacturers have been given too much control over club colours in recent years and some of the away kits dreamt up by designers have been off-the-scale in terms of lacking class or taste. But because they need to sell their lurid second and third kits, you see teams such as Manchester City wearing a change strip at Liverpool -- no need -- or Newcastle playing in their Saudi Arabia-tribute kit at Wolves. Again, not necessary. Stick to tradition and wear the colours that the fans love and identify with.
Thursday night football. There is something distinctly inferior about football games played on a Thursday night. It's basically the night when the teams not good enough for the Champions League get to play in the competition that nobody wants to play in. The Europa League and Europa Conference League are a big deal to fans who want to see their team win a trophy, but players and coaches feel like the undercard when they play in either of those competitions. The atmosphere lacks edge on a Thursday -- the weekend can't come quickly enough and Thursday night football just feels like a clear-out day after the big event the night before.
International football. OK, we all love the World Cup and the continental championships, but everything in-between is a real effort in international football. Clubs don't want their highly paid players risking injury or fatigue while playing for their national teams, while the games outside the major tournaments lack edge and are often played at half-pace compared to the high-end quality in the top leagues. The UEFA Nations League has helped inject some meaning to games outside of tournaments, but as Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne said recently, he is bored with playing the same teams, specifically Wales, who he has faced nine times. The international game just lacks variety and depth. -- Ogden
The people. Ah, yeah, in truth this can be the people too, on occasion. Because while football can amplify the good, it can do the same with the bad. Thibaut Courtois put this eloquently recently when he said, "If you stand behind the goal and you hear what I hear in a game, it's not nice. There are kids who are 6, 7, 8, 9 years old and their parents are insulting me in the worst way. What education is that for your kids? It feels like you come to a stadium and you can shout whatever you want without any consequences. If I go with my kids and they say one bad thing like this in a stadium they're grounded for a month. But here it seems to be normal, in every stadium you go as a rival, sometimes I'm shocked at what I see and hear." But, make no mistake: it's not the people in the stands who are the worst or the most damaging, it's the people in power.
Attempts to change the game. Here's the thing: there's so much to like, so little to truly dislike about football, that one thing you really can get depressed at is -- yes, yes, at the risk of sounding like a dinosaur stuck in its ways -- the constant attempts to change the game, to "improve" it, usually by chasing money. It's really isn't bad, it really doesn't need endless expansion and constant changing. What it needs most of all is probably protection from those banging on about making it better. You want to help football? Here's an idea: leave it alone.
The World Cup going to Qatar. Reports of exploitation of migrant laborers, human rights violations and corruption in the build up to Qatar 2022 are worrying. LGBTQ+ groups are also vocal about the Gulf country's intolerance towards homosexuality and have called to boycott the tournament this year. Qataris will aim to project a positive image of their country, but they will face scrutiny over these conditions. -- Lowe
The tribalism of fandom. Yeah, so I'm contradicting myself. But I'm talking about the deep-in-the-weeds fans, the trolls who talk about Farmers' Leagues and players being crap (when they're the top 0.000001 percent, yes, even Aaron Wan-Bissaka, at what they do), the ones who see conspiracies from refs and media alike. Guess what? You can hate your opponent and still respect them. It works in reverse too: sure, by all means support your team, your coach, your owner. But remember, they too can sometimes be bad people. And, more importantly, one day they'll be gone. But the fan base and the crest will always be there. That's what a club is. That's all that matters.
The congested fixture list. I get it, We need to play more games so we can make more money so owners and players can earn more. That cycle is never-ending. And we keep going with it, even though it leads to injuries, lacklustre games, fatigue and so on. Cut the top leagues to 16 teams. Eliminate midweek league football. Make as many games meaningful as possible. Trust me, the players will thank you, the football will be better and you might find that revenue will stay the same or, at worst, drop just a little. But it will be worth it!
Inequality and the super club. A side-effect of globalisation is that the biggest clubs -- let's call them the one-percenters -- got richer and therefore better than everybody else to a degree the game has never seen. It's simply ridiculous that teams compete in the same league and one has 12 times or 20 times or sometimes 30 times the wage bill of the other. I don't want a salary cap, but I want a fair fight, not a 1990s WWE squash match. Nobody seems to care much about this, possibly because it happened gradually. It's like the story of the frog and the pan of water. Put a frog in a pan of boiling water, and he'll jump out. But stick him in a pan of cold water and raise the heat slowly and he'll sit there until he boils to death. We're the frogs. -- Marcotti