I don't know about you, but personally I can't wait for the start of the English Premier League this Saturday. In fact, I'm so excited that I've almost forgotten that 2013 marks 20 years since Nottingham Forest, the team I grew up supporting, crashed out of the Premiership under the controversial management of Brian Clough. Every Brit, it seems, has an opinion about the Beautiful Game; here are some of my thoughts on the eve of the Premier League's 22nd season.
It's not very easy to choose Britain's best invention, especially when you consider that television, the steam locomotive, the World Wide Web and the English language itself are all in the running. But I would definitely put soccer -- or 'football' as we Brits, and much of the rest of the world, call it -- near the top of my list. The sport's first formal rulebook was drawn up by the Football Association, founded in England, 150 years ago this year.
Today, the Beautiful Game remains Britain's national pastime: millions play and watch every weekend. It has also long been the world's most popular sport. Yet for many years, soccer was neglected in the U.S. in favour of indigenous American sports like baseball and basketball -- a trait that Jason Sudeikis expertly skewers in a promo video.
Nowadays, soccer is rapidly gaining in popularity over here. It is also big business. NBC recently paid a quarter of a billion dollars for the U.S. broadcasting rights to the Premiership for this season and the next two -- that's almost $220,000 per game. The network will show all 380 games of the 2013-14 season, screening in total some 1,600 hours of EPL-related programming. Clearly, NBC believes there is a ready American audience for the matches, even though some, like the opening encounter between Liverpool and Stoke City, kick off at 7:45 am Eastern Time -- or 4:45 am Pacific!
Soccer's power to bring people together extends far beyond terraces, televisions and Twitter. Earlier this year, I was privileged to represent the UK government at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new community pitch at an elementary school here in Washington DC. The pitch comes complete with an after-school coaching programme for local youngsters, all courtesy of Manchester City FC's City Soccer in the Community project and the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. They have also come together to sponsor similar initiatives in deprived areas of several other U.S. cities.
Further afield, the Premier League has teamed up with the British Council to create Premier Skills, a programme that trains football coaches to improve their coaching skills and become leaders in their communities. Since 2007, Premier Skills has brought top-flight coaches and referees to 20 countries around the world. In all of them, they have found a deep-rooted passion for soccer. Afghans, for example, are as footy-mad as anyone -- 12 million of them watch Afghan Premier League matches online or on TV. There, as elsewhere, the programme is giving coaches the skills they need to help young people deal with the most pressing challenges in their communities, from gang culture in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to violence against women in Kolkata.
Ingeniously, Premier Skills is also helping people around the world to learn the "other" universal language, English, with Premier Skills English, an initiative that has trained some 6,000 English teachers and offers on its website a collection of football-themed teaching aids designed to improve students' vocabulary, grammar and comprehension. The fact that these materials have received 3.5 million unique views further underlines football's global appeal.
Something to ponder on Saturday morning as you try to figure out the offside rule!