Mid-season form

The European soccer season ended on Sunday with the finals of the European Championships, and began again yesterday with the beginning of preseason friendlies.

Arsenal played at Hibernian, and it was like the offseason never happened. Actually, because all of the players Arsenal loaned out were back in the fold, it almost felt like most of last season had never happened. There’s Ainsley-Maintland Niles. There’s Sead Kolasinac. There’s Willian, whanging passes that land twenty yards from anyone. I was expecting Mesüt Özil to stroll onto the field, arm-in-arm with Gunnersaurus, just to complete the whole group.

Proving that time is a flat circle, Arsenal gave up a comedy goal that came after a brain-dead back-pass and a goalkeeper air-kick, missed a penalty, and lost 2-1. It was all very familiar! I am very aware that pre-season friendlies mean absolutely nothing, that any reaction other than “huh” is silly given that pre-season training started about three days ago, but still.

The most amazing thing to me, though, was how I watched the game. For UK viewers, possibly across Europe, I read on one site or another that Arsenal members could email the club for free access to watch the game on the club’s website, but otherwise, those fans would have to purchase an outrageously-priced pass.

That’s not what I did! I clicked on ESPN, where the game was being broadcast both in English (on ESPN3, online) and Spanish (on ESPN Deportes, on actual TV).

Every so often, I remember to be amazed at the amount of soccer that I can watch, in America. It’s true that I subscribe to a near-embarrassing number of services and packages, including both old-fashioned cable and online, but even with basic cable, or only ESPN+, or only Paramount+, or only one of several other packages, it’d be a never-ending smorgasbord.

For the longest time, I was as caught up as anyone in the evangelistic nature of American soccer fandom, and I’ll admit to you it was purely selfish. I just wanted soccer to be popular enough that the games, especially the big games, were on TV so I could watch them (without paying $20 for pay-per-view, as I remember doing for big Premier League games back when I did not have $20 to be throwing around on such things). Now I can watch Arsenal play Hibs in a meaningless friendly in two different languages.

Fortress Wembley

“We run a stadium, not a fortress.” – Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham, quoted in The Athletic, upon being asked why Wembley Stadium didn’t have more security for the Euro 2020 final

Sunday, thousands of fans managed to force their way into Wembley Stadium to watch England play Italy in the Euro 2020 final. It was a throwback to the bad old days, in the sense that these stories were commonplace at one time in English soccer; there’s a chapter in Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” about going to Wembley, finding that people had broken into the stadium and stolen his seats, and being able to do absolutely nothing about it.

In another sense, of course, it wasn’t a throwback at all. The video footage of people rushing at barriers until they broke, of crowds stampeding where they weren’t supposed to be, of random acts of violence utterly not in keeping with the location and the occasion, is obviously fairly familiar to anyone who has watched American news at any point over the last year or so.

The same day as the Wembley incidents, the U.S. men’s national team played its own home game in a continental championship, taking on Haiti in Kansas City in the Gold Cup. The stands were maybe half full, because tickets were ridiculously expensive, as they always are for the national teams. The real shock was that anyone at all paid that kind of money to watch the USA’s B-squad struggle against Haiti in a game that most people will have forgotten by this time next week.

And so, I can’t quite come up with a good American soccer comparison, or even an American sports comparison, for England playing in its first major-tournament final in 55 years, at home. Maybe if the Dallas Cowboys played in the Super Bowl in their home stadium, except that it was also the last Super Bowl ever played, and also maybe they were playing a team of extra-terrestrials for control of Earth?

The experience of watching soccer in England has changed entirely from the old stories you read about, where fights and stampeding crowds and hooliganism were weekly occurrences. Every once in awhile, though, those stories break through, like a TV broadcast that bounced off a far-flung planet and was reflected back to Earth, fifty years later.

Messi isn’t coming to Miami

Every time Lionel Messi was rumored to want out of Barcelona, there would be rumors that what he really wanted was to play in Miami, where he could… be reunited with Gonzalo Higuain? Play for Phil Neville? Frankly I could not understand anything you put after “could” in that sentence, but it’s all moot now, as ESPN reports that Messi has signed a new five-year contract with Barcelona.

He also is said to have taken a “significant” pay cut, but given that his last deal paid him $149 million a year (according to that same article) (I can’t believe that’s not a typo), he may well be able to afford a few years of relative poverty. Especially since Barcelona are famously out of money and are currently trying to sell anything that’s not nailed down.

Inter Miami continues to be one of the most remarkable clubs in MLS history. Not for what they’ve done on the field, but even if they win the next six MLS Cups, it will never not be funny that in their first year, they secretly signed five designated players, got fined huge amounts for doing so once the very obvious fraud was discovered, and still finished in 19th place.