This summer's World Cup gave us another powerful reminder that soccer is the truly global team sport. Golf and tennis have strong cases on the individual side, but only basketball and maybe cricket even approach the international nature of "the beautiful game."
Many thousands of teams compete on six continents, and while the level of play may vary, in each corner of the world there are clubs who stand out for their history, fandom, style of play and famous players.
In his new book Club Soccer 101: The Essential Guide to the Stars, Stats, and Stories of 101 of the Greatest Teams in the World, Brit turned New Jerseyan Luke Dempsey, an unabashed Manchester United (and N.Y. Red Bulls) fan, has assembled what he considers the most storied 101 sides in the world. Not simply a ranking of the best clubs, Dempsey's work combines many elements of what makes them unique.
He took some time to discuss the book and his thoughts on soccer Stateside and across the globe.
SportsMediaReport: In no other sport can you have such an international team list represented. What were the challenges of trying to put those in context with each other?
Luke Dempsey: If you do step back, as your question does, and take into account that football is the truly most international sport, there are teams all over the world. There is a great disparity between, say, a Premier League in England and the Pohang Steelers in South Korea. Unlike in golf, there is no handicap system. It's 11 on 11 and may the best win. What I tried to do was look at within their own culture and own leagues, who had the most interesting stories and histories; how successful have they been? The second thing, when there was some parity, how did they do against international competition?
With the European and South American clubs, they have been playing each other for years; the Champions League, for example, started in the 1950s, so there's a kind of pecking order built over time. And Copa Libertadores in South America. It's tougher for games outside of those regions.
SMR: Where does MLS and the American game fit in?
LD: It's a little hard to tell. I remember Alexi Lalas, right after they rented Beckham for the L.A. Galaxy, a brilliant move, said he would put MLS against any Premier League team. I understand why he did it, but I think real fans knew that wasn't the case. But the only way to talk about it now is that from when MLS started in '96, the football is now great. The back office and front office have it together. I'm proud to say I'm a Red Bulls fan; the fans who sit with me in Section 129 know more about the game than me.
SMR: Other than the U.S., which has had a few fits and starts in trying to raise the sport's profile, in which countries is soccer/football expanding?
LD: Two come to mind. First, China, primarily because it's so huge. It's been so beset by corruption -- the essay in the book about the Chinese club details some of it -- there's always someone going to jail. But the sheer weight of the numbers make that league on the way to being dominant. The other place I love to watch is Australia. It's a country where cricket, rugby, Australian football, there is like MLS, some of the older European players, still brilliant footballers, go to play. And a lot of younger Australians.
SMR: Will the backing of the Yankees be enough to make FCNY a viable entity here or will there need to be much more involved?
LD: I have mixed feelings on that. Part of it is great that the N.Y. Metro area will have two teams. But they are years behind the Red Bulls and their strong fan base. The concern is where they will play and how they will play. They can't play soccer games in Yankee Stadium. It's not the right shape, they have to cover the infield with fake grass. And after a few games what will the right fielder say about how the field will be cut up? To my mind, it's more the Manchester City connection, they are behind it as well. They and the Yankees will put plenty of money behind it. Hopefully [playing there] is a temporary thing.
SMR: Do you think there is an audience for non-soccer fans for this book, and why?
LD: Yes, I wrote it first for those who know a little about the sport and want to know more. I didn't just want to write a soccer book, all the time on games, goals, tournaments, championships. I like stories about people, so I told some about the fandom. Who were these crazy characters who sailed to South America years ago and brought the game there? There's a crazy story of the goalkeeper for Panathinaikos of Greece in the 1971 European Cup final vs. Ajax. I was told that a Greek starlet actress promised him that if he had a clean sheet, that is, no goals allowed, that she would take him to a kind of hippy retreat and have a weekend with him. Of course, eight minutes in, he gave up a goal, but that makes it a much more interesting story than just the final score. Then there's the story of Herbert Kilpin, the founder of A.C. Milan. He didn't just found it, he was a player. They called him 'Il Lord,' and he used to have a bottle of whiskey behind the goal, to take away the pain of letting one in. Little stories like that.
SMR: If someone picks up the book, not having an allegiance to any particular club, which one do you think they would pick after reading it?
LD: I'm biased because I think all fans are Man U. fans, they just don't know it yet... But my true answer is Al Ahly, an Egyptian club. They have a long and storied history, the most successful in the history of African football. They were devastated by an awful attack in which many fans were killed, the Port Said massacre. They went out to watch soccer, and were attacked by fans of the other team. It was very political -- Al Ahly fans had supported the revolution, Port Said were more into the government, it was a terrible attack. There are too many of those stories of fans watching their team and died. I hope the essay about Al Ahly would make readers want to learn more in greater depth. That club has such a moving story.