"The Brits are better sports fans than us

I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping football these last few weeks and it’s been one of the most exciting sports experiences in a lifetime of watching grown men kick, throw and shoot balls into targets.

I’m not talking about crappy American football, although I did applaud Michael Vick’s flipping off the home crowd in Atlanta on Sunday and I await, with an ever-increasing sense of dread, the Indianapolis Colts’ upcoming annihilation in the playoffs.

I’ve become addicted to soccer in a way I never thought possible. Until this year, I haven’t had much interest in it except for when Brandi Chastain stripped off her jersey after the American women’s team won the World Cup back in 1999.

That’s the kind of gesture I encourage. But after that moment, I forgot about the sport until the World Cup this summer. Suddenly, I began to appreciate the “Beautiful Game” and its nuances, subtleties and majesty.

Watching an American football game, with its snail’s pace and its frequent commercial timeouts, seems positively archaic now. In soccer, they start the clock, stop it at 45 minutes, take a break for 15 minutes and then play for 45 more. No promos for prime-time shows crawling across the screen, no elaborate Telestrator presentations, no John Madden.

Instead, you get bone-crushing action, working-class fans who can actually afford tickets to see their hometown teams play, weekly barroom brawls involving players and more sex-and-drug scandals than all U.S. sports combined.

The match of the season was held on Sunday, when Manchester United and Chelsea, the two best teams in the English Premier League, battled to a 1-1 draw in front of 76,000 fans. It was an epic struggle with ebbs and flows and frantic moments of battle.

In the end, Wayne Rooney, Manchester’s $100 million man, couldn’t pull out the win but it was far superior entertainment than any of the NFL action that followed it later in the day.

One area that soccer definitely wins out over any American sport is the crowd singing. Every team has its own chant or song snippet, which is sung over and over during the match.

In America, the P.A. system blares commercials and music at the crowd constantly. Any attempt at singing anything, except for a drunken “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” in the style of Harry Caray, is forbidden.

In soccer, the P.A. announcer keeps his mouth shut and the fans create the special energy that comes with thousands of voices singing in unison.

Because I always root for the underdog, I’ve chosen a scruffy, scraggly British team to adopt as my own. They’re the Wolverhampton Wanderers from the second-tier league. Their uniforms are a lovely orange, their logo is a no-nonsense wolf that looks ready to devour your children and their fans have a long history of hooliganism and brawls.

Instead of singing something banal, like some teams, the Wolves’ best-known chant is as blunt and as straight-forward as their fans are.

Their bitter rival, West Brom Albion, wear blue-and-white striped uniforms that resemble the bags from British grocer Tesco. So whenever the Wolves play West Brom, their fans sing the refrain from the Monty Python song “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life,” except that the title becomes “Always Shit on a Tesco Carrier Bag.” They then whistle and sing the words again. It’s hilarious.

The other day, I turned on the Fox Soccer Channel and a full-scale soccer riot was going on. Cops were spraying fire hoses into the stands, fans were throwing bricks and stones at the cops, the players were running for their lives and even the TV commentators sounded scared.

It’s impossible to imagine such a scene here. At Pacers’ games, where the good seats are in the $150 range, the fans aren’t even usually watching the game. They’re talking on their cell phones or sitting in luxury boxes, drinking fine liquor.

I’d prefer a stadium where the tickets are cheap, where you smuggle in your own booze and where you’re at risk of getting sprayed with tear gas every time you enter.

I love this game and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Birthday wishes

My birthday is coming up on Sunday and because my new, older age won’t end in a zero or five, it’s not that big of a deal for me. I don’t plan on doing anything special; if I can scrounge enough change from between the cushions of my couch, I might go to the Taco Bell drive-through and get a beef combo burrito.

I’ll be just as glad as not to get it over with and I hope nobody I know makes a fuss about it, seriously. I hate surprise parties, I don’t need any gifts except cash and I’ll be very happy when the year 2006 finally departs.

Seven is my lucky number and my 2007 looks to be better than this year, even though some awesome things have happened during 2006. I’m optimistic that, if everyone I know survives the upcoming long winter, the springtime will be a good time for all.

There will finally be some sanity restored in Congress. Things should work themselves out. I’m looking forward to the new year.