CHICAGO – Last year at Christmas, I was sitting in a park in Mayfair, London. Everything was closed. The tube was set to go on strike the next day, foiling anyone who wanted to see Arsenal play. Our meal was a bottle of shady-looking plonk, a loaf of bread and a brick of cheese and a chocolate bar.
That week, we had taped interviews with Clint Dempsey and Brad Friedel. We had seen a half-dozen soccer games across London, many of which reminded us that there is no place colder than England in December. The night before last, we had involuntarily walked back from Leyton Orient's Matchroom Stadium to our hotel on Hyde Park because we foolishly assumed the trains would still be running at 5 PM. That's a ten mile walk. We learned our lesson.
So, on a park bench, with a bottle of wine: that was Christmas, as Big Ben struck in the distance. It would be the first of many picnics, many more walks and more soccer games than I can count in 2012. Over the course of the year, we would see games across ten nations, in some two dozen cities, on three continents. And as a bonus, that bottle of wine wasn't half bad - though you do look rather uncouth if you just swill it from the neck.
We saw Manchester City win the Premier League title on the final day, Chelsea stun Bayern in Munich and Spain lift the European crown in Kiev. We would learn the parks of Munich, the hills of Helsinki, and the alleys of Brussels. Less glamorous, we also would be caught in a riot on a Warsaw bridge, subsequently breaking bread with the far-right hooligans who organized it. (Hint: when looking for guys who organize riots, look for the prison tattoos.)
Much of 2012 I spent living out of a suitcase. At first, it was a blue suitcase, but after I bounced it up a brick lane in Belgium and got it soaking wet in Krakow, Shanna got me a nice bright orange hardshell on the grounds that I could not as easily destroy it. I would live out of that one from July until the present day. It got me to Mexico City, where I saw the USA beat Mexico for the first time at the Azetca; back this way to Kansas City to see the USA squeak into the Hex, and all the way back out to Carson, where the Los Angeles Galaxy would lift the MLS Cup.
This was a lot of good stuff, but three moments really stand out for me from all the noise and the glare:
The first was the walk home from the new National Stadium in Warsaw after the opening match. The Poles were quite nervous about the tournament, without reason: they proved to be glorious hosts and the city itself is a jewel. But what Warsaw was not able to handle was the emptying of the entire city into the streets after the game.
The police were forced to shut down the spine of public transport system, the streetcars, for safety reasons. So, hundreds of thousands of people walked back across the bridge from the stadium, into the old city, a red and white pack with a limitless appetite for alcohol. Every few feet someone would break into Poland's chant: "Polska bialo czerwoni" and the pack would echo it back at damaging volume. It was raucous, it was real - and it was transporting. This is what a soccer match feels like at its very best, a communal experience that sums up a nation.
The second was in Manchester, where City completed one of the most glorious and improbable comebacks ever to raise the Premier League title. When Kun Aguero scored, some unlucky folks had already left the Etihad, despondent. Those that remained rushed the field, a giddy celebration that was perhaps the most cathartic I've ever witnessed.
I was worried about what would happen in the center of the city after the game, however, having long memories of many years of soccer violence in England. Instead, the celebrations were not only joyful, but civil, with even the United fans giving credit where credit was due. People hung off the street lamps, crowded into the warrens of alleys and gave Queen Victoria's statue a sky blue makeover. Absolutely magic.
The third and final one involved a team that isn't in the same ballpark. In July, I somehow managed to con Shanna into going to see a friendly between Dundee United and their arch-rivals Dundee when time in Scotland might be better spent, say, doing anything else. Even worse, this game was a "transfer kitty fundraiser." In other words, both teams are broke, and both cannot afford to buy players.
So was this match so important to me? Because I grew up as a Dundee United fan, and games between the two clubs were what I lived for as a child. Dundee was and remains a very tough working class town, and there wasn't much for kids to do except see the sports or get into trouble. I'm not going to lie: the soccer was pathetic. Dens Park is indeed of some serious work, and so is neighboring Tannadice. But my Arabs won 3-0. I'm still smiling to this day.
There were some games I had to miss. I would have been delighted to see Zambia lift the African Nations Cup in person. I wouldn't have minded sitting on the edge of the velodrome in Kingston to see Jamaica upset the Americans. And I certainly wish I had been at Parkhead to see Celtic knock off Barcelona . But there's a whole year to come, and many, many more games ahead for me.
If you'll allow a final personal note, this year has also been very special due to the people I have had the pleasure to work with. Last February, I stepped into the hot seat here at FOX Soccer to become just the third editor-in-chief in the site's long history. Thanks to my great staff, our partners at FOXSports.com and our diligent and talented TV folks, we finish the year as the most visited and best-read soccer site in the USA. Thank you for all your support.