The spiritual forces aligned just so for me in the televised sports world this annum when I somehow found myself with access to Fox Soccer Channel and the promised land of the English Premier League--home to Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, and (ultimately) Chelsea.
Heretofore I knew next to nothing about football beyond the imminence of the World Cup in June and an occasional brush with the Premiership. I had played just enough soccer in high school to know the real thing when I saw it: the occasional glimpse of Man U or Arsenal--replete with announcers speaking the Queen's English--was enough to make me salivate for full-contact, long-ball soccer with stars from around the world.
I've always favored Man U, but I made the command decision to focus on the foursome at the top of the table, as we football fans say, meaning I would follow Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea with equal alacrity. I had no idea the season stretched on for nine months, but the campaign was unspeakably entertaining, right down to the very last day, with Man U toasting Stoke City 4-0 to come up a point short simply because Chelsea simultaneously rousted Wigan 8-0. Nor is the party quite over for Chelsea, the prohibitive favorite this weekend in the F.A. Cup against Portsmouth.
Worth noting: my interest in the Premiership completely eclipsed any interest in the NBA Playoffs, which continue to stretch on and on endlessly. In the Premier League the regular season really does matter: finish in the top four and you qualify for the Champions League the following year against the best teams on the continent. More to the point: every game seems to matter, with ancient rivalries often front and center.
What I can't forget Man U's laconic coach Alex Ferguson chomping on his gum, with Wayne Rooney of England leaving every corpuscle behind on the pitch at Old Trafford; or the unyielding intransigence of the two American goalies, Tim Howard of Everton and Brad Freidel of Aston Villa; or the explosive exploits of Arsenal's Arshavin, "the little Russian" as he was inevitably called; or the time Wayne Bridge of Manchester City refused to shake the hand of John Terry simply because Terry had indulged in a dalliance with Bridge's wife.
The banner on the upper deck for Chelsea's final game read: "JT: captain, leader, legend"--but he is captain no more of the English side en route to South Africa after his fall from grace.
My favorite? That's easy: Frank Lampard, better known as Frankie, the striking midfielder from Chelsea who ended the year with a best-ever 22 goals in the Premiership--Lampard like a destroyer in a sea of tugboats and sidewheelers, or maybe like a shark ever-ready to feed upon a lesser species.
All the while I have been wondering why I can't get into the NBA Playoffs, why not even the NCAA basketball tournament barely held my interest. Now I know the reason: I was watching real football. I was seeing the real thing. The rest is statistics.