If you’ve never heard of the Champions League before, then you are missing out big time.
Now hear me out. I know that I’m talking about soccer here, and I assure you I understand that the “other football” doesn’t exactly interest most Americans. In fact, even mentioning that I like soccer often brings out some pretty negative reactions from the true patriots around me.
“Oh, you like soccer? It’s so boring.” “Soccer? Ugh, I hate soccer, it’s so European.” “Dude, just move to England already!” “Oh my God, could you stop talking about soccer for like three minutes, please?” “Why don’t you follow real football, man?” “Enough! We get it, you like soccer!”
Okay, maybe some of those are a bit personal.
There are plenty of Americans who do like and follow soccer, of course, but those who don’t tend to really dislike it. There are a lot of reasons why Americans generally find soccer disinteresting or annoying, some historical and some more particular. After all, why would such a simplistic and boring sport be the most popular one in the world when there are so many amazing American sports that nobody else seems to follow? I mean, seriously, why can’t all those French people just be normal and play baseball?
I don’t think I can change America’s sport preferences — though we could maybe do without our injury-ridden version of football — but I really want you to know that there’s a whole world out there full of spectacular sports stories, crazy comebacks and epic upsets you’re missing out on if you don’t care about soccer.
I’m writing this now because this week, for the first time since last May, the Champions League is back. Now, I’m not going to argue that you should (like me) waste who knows how many hours a week following domestic leagues across Europe. Frankly the fact that nobody cares about Burnley Football Club scoring a 91st-minute equalizer against Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club on Saturday in the English Premier League is really not a big deal. The Champions League, though, is something else entirely.
In case you don’t know, every country in Europe has their own soccer league, and every year the best teams from each league play each other in an international tournament. This epic league consists of the best teams in the world that you’ve probably heard of before: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Liverpool, but also some underdog teams you likely don’t know exist, such as Club Brugge, Red Star Belgrade, Olympiakos or Genk. Teams qualify for the Champions League by finishing at (or near, depending on the country) the top of their respective domestic league, which means that the cast of characters competing in the league changes year to year, making each season entirely different and fascinating, with its own amazing storylines.
To give you an idea of what I mean, let’s talk about last year — arguably one of the greatest Champions League seasons in history, and certainly in recent memory. The highlight was without question the Ajax Amsterdam’s success. Playing in the Dutch league, they had to not only win their own league, but survive three qualifying rounds just to make it into the first stage of the competition, the group stage.
However, after surviving behemoths Bayern Munich and managing to make it out of the group, they drew Real Madrid — the team that had won the coveted trophy every year for the past three years — in the Round of 16. Matthijs de Ligt, a 19-year-old defender, captained Ajax. Sergio Ramos, a World Cup winner who had been an integral part of those three European Cup victories, captained Madrid. He also helped them win several league titles, a much more difficult accomplishment in Spain than in the Netherlands.
The match, like all matches past the group stage, was played out over two legs, one in each team’s home stadium. Ajax managed to keep the first game tight, only losing by a score of 2-1 at home, a result that everyone agreed was more respectable than Amsterdam had any right to hope for. Then, in the return leg in Madrid, Ajax stunned the world by winning 4-1 and knocking out the reigning champs. They weren’t done yet, though. The next round, they took on Juventus, the best team in Italy and a team who are fronted by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo, who needs no introduction. Ajax beat them in Turin (on a de Ligt goal) and kept going. Eventually they did lose, though, but only in the semifinals when Tottenham Hotspur’s Lucas Moura scored a goal on the last kick of the game.
I was lucky enough to watch all of these games, and believe me when I say that there’s no drama in the sports world that compares. These games are worth tens of millions of dollars for the victorious team, so for a team like Ajax, with a budget around a tenth of their competition at best, winning can mean everything. I’m not talking about the final right now. Any sport can have an incredible final, and you can’t judge a competition based only on the game that means more than all the others. But when it comes to the Champions League, every game can have that feeling of pure, unadulterated excitement that normally comes from only the most important games of the year.
So this year, do yourself a favor and watch the Champions League. There’s no other way to see the best teams in the entire world take each other on in games that will define their seasons. Managers are hired or fired based on their success in this competition. Star players are judged more for their performance here than in any other game, and they show up to prove what they’re worth. It’s as good as soccer gets, and believe me, it gets really, really good.