On the world’s most hateable game…

UdineseLast week at this time I was at the outlet mall in an attempt to find some shoes to fit my grotesquely wide feet comfortably (I failed) and enjoy a pretty nice day outside. But thanks to the absolute miracle of technology, I was also watching a soccer game taking place 7000 miles away, essentially right where Italy’s boot is kicking Sicily’s ass if we follow that time-tested analogy. On my phone. I don’t know what deal with Satan we had to make to accomplish things like this, but if Faust had gotten this kind of deal perhaps he wouldn’t have needed the Eternal Feminine and could have just lived a tasteful bachelor lifestyle (although this “miracle” also brought us the 24-hour news cycle and people’s annoying Facebook updates, so perhaps I need to think this through a bit more).

A few years ago I made the conscious decision to try and get into soccer. The people I knew who were fans of the game were incredibly passionate about it, and as someone who’s always been passionate about his sports fanhood, I thought it might be a good fit for me. The next task was to pick a team to follow. Internationally, this wasn’t a big deal – I really can’t be anything other than a United States supporter, can I? But for club soccer, the decision was much more interesting. Should I pull for a team in America’s soccer league, the MLS? And if so, would it be the team from Kansas City? I wanted to think bigger, especially because the whole point of the exercise was to understand the freaky devotion to the European clubs that I’ve seen from those people I knew as well as from movies and various riot footage after wins or losses throughout England over the years. I could randomly pick a team from the Premier League in England, the best league in the world, but I didn’t feel much of a connection to it and the only teams that would have made any sense for me to root for would have been Leeds or Sheffield (Gramma was from Yorkshire but left before she was even a year old), and let’s face it, no one should root for Leeds or Sheffield.

I turned my attention to the Italian Serie A and found what I was looking for: Udinese Calcio. Grampa was from a village in the Friuli Venezia-Giulia region of northeastern Italy called Roveredo, about half an hour or so southwest of the famed city of Udine. I’m just kidding about that famed part – in truth it’s a city of 100,000 people whose only real claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Bruno Sacco, one of the great automobile designers of all-time and head of Mercedes for 25 years. But everything was in place for Udinese to be my team: they were in Serie A and generally competitive enough to avoid relegation for the immediate future, they weren’t an obvious choice like either of the Milan teams or Juventus (or even Napoli or Roma), and most importantly they had that “little engine that could” quality to them that appeals to my inner underdog complex. No one calls them the bianconeri (black and white) like they do with most clubs, because Juventus wears the same jersey, and THEY’RE the bianconeri (though Udinese is the older of the two). They’re called the zebrette, which is cute and cuddly (the little zebras) in deference to Juventus’ normal zebras, even though Juventus already has the awesome nickname La Vecchia Signora (the old lady). Is it obvious that I kind of hate Juventus for all this?

Now is a good time to explain that European soccer is an inherently unfair system where money drives EVERYTHING. Like baseball in America, there is no limit to the money a team can spend, so the rich clubs stock their teams beyond a point that is even remotely reasonable. This is why people go apeshit over every meeting between Real Madrid and Barcelona – it’s hardly two club teams playing one another, it’s more like two all-star teams who happen to play each other 4 or 5 times every year. Serie A is no different. AC Milan, Internazionale, and Juventus all have money to burn and they spend it freely. Consequently, those three teams have won the Serie A title for the last 20 years, save two anomalous years where two SLIGHTLY lesser giants with SLIGHTLY lesser budgets (the two Roman teams, Roma and Lazio) captured the prize.

In some way, I suppose this makes me a glutton for punishment. It’s hard to imagine a world in which Udinese will ever win the Serie A. The last two years have been among the best in the club’s history, and they still finished 20 points behind champion Juventus this season. But third place is third place, and that means that for the second year in a row, they’re playing in the Champions League, which Chelsea won yesterday in one of the oddest runs of success (and luck) I’ve ever seen. This past year, they lost to Premier League power Arsenal in the playoff round, but I’m hoping for better things this go round.

The problem for a small club like Udinese is that the bigger clubs come calling for their best players and one of the only ways to stay competitive is to rake in absurd profits by selling players you bought on the cheap thanks to your incredible scouting to teams who have the resources to not have to give a shit about scouting. Last season’s loss to Arsenal came after the departure of three of the team’s best players to larger squads around Europe (it’s been maddening to watch Alexis Sanchez come off the bench for Barcelona when he could have been a star for Udinese, or at least as much of a star as one can be for Udinese). But the truth is, there’s no reason to assume that it’ll be any different this season. Manchester United is already after Kwadwo Asamoah, rumors have been around for two years that goalkeeper Samir Handanovic is going to be called to a bigger stage, and Mauricio Isla has been linked to several larger squads ever since his buddy Sanchez left. At this point, all I’m hoping is that they can keep Pablo Armero, and only because I like him the most.

But to bring this post to an end 500 words after it should have already done so, the passion for soccer is simply too real to deny. Dig this video of the team returning to Udine after their defeat of Catania last week. People are completely losing their shit when captain Antonio di Natale, Handanovic, Armero, and coach Francesco Guidolin are walking through the insanity. It’s awesome.

I’ve never been that excited about a team, although I’ve come close. What the fuck is not to love about a game that can inspire people to this? Yes, they don’t score enough, and they act like pussies every time someone even looks at them, but there’s something about the simple history and link between the city and their team that soccer has over everything else. It’s worth it to suffer through a 0-0 draw for those rare 5-4 wins, and it’s worth it to be tormented by the fact that your team doesn’t have enough money to truly compete for championships because the hope exists that maybe just once it could happen. And even if Juventus wins 100 titles in a row, if Udinese were to win just 1, it would be much bigger. I’m holding out for it, even if it never comes.

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