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Boxing Day: One of English soccer’s greatest traditions

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“Boxing Day… what the heck is that all about?”

Going back to my college days in Pennsylvania, that question was often thrown my way. So, as a proud Englishman, here it goes, this is what it’s all about.

First and foremost, it’s about a full slate of 10 Premier League games all taking place on the same day. That doesn’t happen often, New Years Day and the final day of the season are the only other times, so that special feeling of non-stop soccer really gets the juices flowing. The eyes of the world are on the Premier League on Boxing Day, it is the one day of the year when only games in the UK dominate global soccer coverage and bumper crowds draw in millions in revenue for the clubs on a special day for everyone involved.

For many soccer fans in England, including myself, this day is perhaps the most sacred on the sporting calendar for a number of reasons. For instance, you have to understand that Boxing Day is pretty much treated the same as Christmas Day in England… Just 24 hours later, but without the presents.

Families get together on Boxing Day to celebrate yet another Yuletide feast consisting mostly of leftovers, as they nurse hangovers communally and most importantly: watch soccer. This year, like every year, is no different as every PL team will be in action on this joyous occasion. I love it.

WATCH EVERY BOXING DAY GAME LIVE ONLINE, VIA NBC SPORTS LIVE EXTRA

The atmosphere buzzes with excitement, as the season of perpetual hope springs fountains of unrealistic optimism within fans. Families gather around the TV to watch the games throughout the day, much like family feasts on Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. are centered around ‘What time are the football games on?’

To many people, Boxing Day in England is their favorite holiday. For many, it provides an escape of the rigors of Christmas.

Travel distances for Boxing Day

193 miles, Stoke to Newcastle
188 miles, Swansea to Chelsea
172 miles, Sunderland to Everton
139 miles, Southampton to Cardiff
133 miles, Crystal Palace to Aston Villa
125 miles, Fulham to Norwich
123 miles, West Brom to Tottenham
103 miles, Manchester United to Hull
35. 6 miles, Liverpool to Man City
9.4 miles, Arsenal to West Ham

The endless meals of stodgy stuffing and dry meat, mixing with relatives and in-laws, watching boring black and white movies and pretending to get excited about the pair of socks Aunt Barbara bought you… Boxing Day is a haven away from all that. The matches are usually set up so away fans don’t have to travel far away from their families to see their team play, but this season for whatever reason that really hasn’t happened. Look at the table on the left which shows how far each set of away fans will have to travel on this sacred day. Respect to those traveling fans on Boxing Day.

As a player and a fan, the crackling atmosphere on December 26th can perhaps only be rivaled by the opening and final days of the season, in terms of the excitement levels inside the stadiums. With thousands of new sweaters adorning the terraces across England, there’s no secret that this is often the most attended weekend of PL action in the entire season.

Tickets for Boxing Day matches are snapped up like gold dust as families unite to attend the matches and cheer on their team as one. The spirit, even between opposing sets of fans, is usually quite cordial around this special holiday fixture. And let me tell you, that’s something that doesn’t happen often. Friendly and non-offensive banter is a rare thing in and around PL stadiums.

There’s just something about being huddle together on a cold winter’s day cheering on your side with the memory of Christmas Day fresh in your mind. There’s definitely been games I’ve played in that should’ve never have gone ahead as the pitches were waterlogged or frozen, but rarely are they cancelled. Players are excepted to perform, despite seeing their festive season completely overlooked but when they signed a deal, they knew what they were getting into.

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Festive spirits switches from the dining rooms to the football stadiums on Boxing Day, creating a special atmosphere.

It’s Boxing Day, there has to be soccer. Just like on Thanksgiving, when there has to be football.

Boxing Day matches go back to as far as I can remember, and sporting tradition runs deep on Dec. 26. The famous horse race, the King George VI Chase is run on Boxing Day, as well as rugby matches and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish soccer leagues in the U.K.

Officially the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Malta celebrate the day, with many other commonwealth countries also observing it. But why is it called Boxing Day? Well, traditionally this is when tradesmen would go to the houses of the people they worked for to receive gifts in boxes, as congratulations for a year of hard graft.

Today the Boxing Day sales get in the way of PL crowds slightly, as retailers slash their prices to attract the punters in their droves. Oxford Street in London on Boxing Day makes Black Friday at the Mall of America seem like a cake walk. Soccer is an escape from all that nonsense too.

For foreigners looking at the madness of 40 PL games being wedged into 12 days in and around the Christmas and New Year period, it must look like absolute madness. Every other major European league takes a winter break at this time of year. In the much more moderate climates of Italy, Spain and France, players are given two weeks off to spend with their families and recharge the batteries for a grueling second half of the season. That’s particularly helpful when national teams compete in massive tournaments in summer months.

source: Getty Images
The big game on Boxing Day sees Man City welcome Liverpool to the Etihad Stadium.

In England, the attitude is “get stuck in son, slog it out on that wet, muddy pitch.” The quality of play doesn’t matter, as long as it’s on offer. I recently spoke with Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino about his first-ever time managing in England during Boxing Day and the busy festive period.

“Me and my staff are really looking forward to this [the Christmas period]. It’s going to be crazy with many games in a short period of time but I think it’s a very good time for [people] to get together, come to the stadium and come together as a family. It’s something that the people and many families enjoy doing in this country, we as well. We want to enjoy. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Another foreigner who enjoys Boxing Day is Jose Mourinho. Following Chelsea’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal on Monday, he had this to say about no winter break in England, and the aura around Boxing Day.

“I love it,” Mourinho said. “I don’t play of course, so for the players it is more difficult than for me but it is a fantastic occasion. I feel proud of working on Boxing Day and giving the people what they want.”

No matter how much resistance there is for change over the festive season and to give PL players a winter break, (there are some out there, scrooges we call them, who think it should be stopped) it will simply never happen.

This revered day in English soccer is a joy for all the reasons I’ve listed and more. Long may it continue.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the festive feast set to unravel before your eyes the morning after Christmas in America. You won’t regret it.

Reports: Man City to trigger $60 million Laporte release clause

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: Luis Suarez (L) of FC Barcelona kicks the ball next to Aymeric Laporte (C) of Athletic Club during the Spanish Super Cup second leg match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club at Camp Nou on August 17, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola isn’t in Manchester yet, but he’s already making plans for his side.

According to reports in Spain, Manchester City is ready to bring Aymeric Laporte to the Etihad, one of the most highly-rated defenders in Europe.

[ MORE: Burnley clinch PL promotion ]

The 21-year-old center-back has already made more than 100 appearances for Athletic Bilbao in La Liga, and City would need to pay nearly $60 million to trigger his release clause.

Guardiola has coached against Laporte while in charge of Barcelona, and it is believed he is Pep’s top defensive target to move in for the likes of Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis.

Named to the La Liga Team of the Year as a teenager in 2013-14, Laporte has been on the radar of all the major clubs around Europe. However, he saw his season cut short in March after suffering a terrible leg break on international duty with the France U21 side, ruling him out until August.

[ MORE: UEFA Champions League semifinal preview ]

Although he could miss the beginning of next season while still recovering from injury, bringing Laporte to Manchester would be a move that could set up the club defensively for years to come. Should City meet Bilbao’s massive release clause, Laporte would add to the magnificently expensive City back-line, joining Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi to form a trio of center-backs worth more than $150 million.

VIDEO: Post-match melee breaks out between Spurs and Chelsea

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Tensions boiled over on the touchline after Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham as players had to be separated while heading down the tunnel.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Leicester City coverage ]

A testy match that saw referee Mark Clattenburg issue 12 yellow cards, the battle continued after the final whistle as a melee erupted in front of the benches.

It is unclear as to what caused the disruption, but it was not the first skirmish of the night. Earlier in the match, Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino found himself on the pitch in the middle of a shoving match between players.

[ VIDEO: Leicester pubs erupt as Foxes clinch Premier League title ]

Seen in the video above, Spurs’ backup goalkeeper Michel Vorm seemed to be in the middle of things with who else but Diego Costa. Harry Kane and John Terry tried to quiet things down, but to little avail.

There are only two matches left in the Premier League season, but the FA will certainly be reviewing video of this incident and sanctions could come down on players or the clubs.

Emotional Ranieri thanks former club Chelsea; set for incredible return

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LONDON — Am emotional Claudio Ranieri called Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink after their 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday which sealed the title for Leicester City.

Ranieri, 64, was manager of Chelsea from 2000-4 and was a fan favorite at Stamford Bridge despite never winning a trophy. He was replaced by Jose Mourinho in 2004 but has remained in the hearts of Chelsea’s fans ever since.

[ MORE: Latest Leicester news after PL win ]  

On Monday that was clear.

The amiable Italian is a charming individual, a grandfather figure to most, and one Chelsea fan held up a sign which simply said: “Do it for Ranieri” and Chelsea fans sung his name and “Leicester, Champions!” as they reveled in Tottenham’s demise at the final whistle.

They won the league for Ranieri, as Chelsea rallied from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Eden Hazard‘s stunning late goal sealing the title for Leicester.

Chelsea’s old boss flew back to Italy on Monday to spend time with his 96-year-old mother and on his return to Leicester and England he will lauded as a hero. His team will go down in history and so will he. Calls continue for him to be knighted by the Queen of England. It is highly likely he will be. He deserved it after masterminding the greatest Cinderella story in sporting history.

[ VIDEO: Fans react in Leicester to winning the PL ]

Here’s what Hiddink had to say on his phone call with Ranieri.

“I got a call from Claudio Ranieri and he thanked us, especially for the second half,” Hiddink revealed. “I congratulated him on being champion. His voice was trembling.”

Ranieri is an emotional man who has been welling up after recent wins and as the momentum continued. The tears will be flowing in the coming days and weeks as what he and his team have achieved starts to sink in.

In his first season as Leicester manager he has turned a 5000-1 shot and heavy favorite for relegation into the champions of the Premier League. Ranieri was the bookies’ favorite to get be the first PL manager to be fired at the start of the season.

Now he’s the manager who delivered the PL trophy in the most remarkable fashion imaginable. With, of course, a little help from his old club.

Want to know what makes this even better? Ranieri returns to his old club Chelsea on the final day and the Foxes will receive a guard of honor from last seasons champions, Chelsea.

Chelsea let him go in 2004 as owner Roman Arbamovich didn’t believe he could win the west London club the title.

Yeah, about that…

From League One to PL champion: Andy King has seen it all

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 01: Andy King of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion at The King Power Stadium on March 1, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Andy King has been through it all, and now he’s a Premier League champion.

With more than 300 appearances for Leicester, King never could have imagined being champions of England when he was playing with the Foxes in the third division just a few years ago.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Leicester City coverage ]

King joined Leicester City’s academy as a 15-year-old, climbing the ladder from League One to the top of the Premier League.

Speaking to the BBC after clinching the title, an emotional King reflected on this achievement.

I thought I’d seen everything with this club, but I never thought I’d see this. It’s difficult to put into words. The players deserve it, the gaffer and the staff deserve it, and the fans deserve it. It’s been an unbelievable season.

The story of where this team has come from to get to this point has been all over the world recently and I think the lads deserve great credit for the way they’ve taken it in their stride, stayed focused and kept delivering results – especially with a great side like Spurs chasing us so hard. We’ve been so consistent and just determined not to let the opportunity pass us by. We deserve this.

King has only managed seven league starts this season, stuck behind standout performers N'Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater. However, he has been an important player off the bench and a veteran presence in the dressing room, despite still being just 27-years-old.

King is the first player to win the League One, Championship, and Premier League titles all with the same club.