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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Toronto loses CONCACAF Champions League in PKs

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Chivas Guadalajara scored on all of its penalty kicks to clinch a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League Final, breaking the hearts of Toronto FC in Mexico on Wednesday and earning a berth in the 2018 Club World Cup.

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore scored in regulation as Toronto FC picked up a 2-1 win to reverse their first leg loss and push it to kicks.

Orbelin Pineda scored Chivas’ goal.

Hometown kid Jonathan Osorio hit the cross bar on Toronto’s second PK and Michael Bradley sent the fifth offering into outer space.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Toronto flew out of the gates, and Rodolfo Cota came flying off his line to deny Altidore a 10th minute chance.

Alex Bono collected a header off a Chivas corner kick earned by a counterattack.

Pineda then made Toronto’s task even harder with a 19th minute goal, cooking Auro’s mark to reach a through ball and dancing around Bono for 1-0.

But Altidore was somehow unmarked for Nic Hasler’s pass despite five Chivas defenders and Cota inside the six-yard box, and TFC leveled the second leg at 1.

And TFC got the next goal through Giovinco, slipped through by Marky Delgado and taking advantage of a yard of space and a second to shoot with his fourth goal of the CCL knockout rounds.

The Reds kept coming in the second half, with Delgado winning a big 50-50 ball deep in Chivas territory and Victor Vasquez ripping a shot that Cota dove to smother.

Chivas found its footing in 58th minute, sending a shot over the bar before Jesus Godinez hit the post in the 61st (though his dive seemingly had the near post covered). Bono the next knocked a free kick over the bar from a similar position as the ball that beat him in the first leg.

Javier Lopez curled a vicious attempt just over the goal in the 72nd. He’d have the next best chances moments after Altidore subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury, but dribbled onto Bono’s lap and fired off the keeper.

Giovinco worked a 1-2 with Osorio and cruised a shot just wide of the far post in the 87th minute. Delgado then mailed a sitter over the bar in the first minute of stoppage time.

Premier League Power Rankings: In tiers

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Liverpool has knocked Manchester City from the Champions League, but sits 19 points behind the leaders and City has a match-in-hand.

Manchester United beat City just weeks ago, but was bounced from the UCL even earlier. The Red Devils also took four of six points from Liverpool.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Spurs are fourth in the table but also took four of six from Liverpool and could be level on points with the Reds by winning its match-in-hand.

So the question remains, who’s the best team in the Premier League right now? That’s why we’re revisiting our Premier League Power Rankings for the first time in a while, since City was the unquestioned No. 1 for months.

Will it change anything? Spoiler alert: Probably not.

Spots 20-14: Not safe yet

20. West Bromwich Albion: The Baggies are going down, but Darren Moore has at least instilled some life into a moribund bunch which was saddled with the dour and unsuccessful tactics of Tony Pulis before moving onto the peppy and hard-to-understand tactics of Alan Pardew.

19. Stoke City — The Paul Lambert jump has faded, and the Potters’ inferior goal differential and one more match played than both Southampton and Swansea City feel like a death knell.

18. Southampton — Yes, the Bottom Three is the same as the table, but Saints are a New South Coast Derby win away from sitting three points back of pulling Palace and perhaps Huddersfield Town and West Ham United back into the picture.

17. Huddersfield Town — If David Wagner cannot lead the Terriers past Everton this weekend, his side finishes at Man City, at Chelsea, and home to Arsenal. That’s a recipe for watching a six-point advantage on the drop zone melt away.

16. Swansea City — Still four points clear of the drop zone, Swans have the cup half-full of facing Saints and Stoke City. The two sides aren’t very good, but also the only teams to worry about when it comes to their Premier League lives.

15. Crystal Palace — Given their turnaround from the beginning of the season, it feels dirty to have them so low. But of the three clubs sitting six points clear of 18th, the Eagles are the one to have three matches left and not four.

14. West Ham United — A brutal schedule featuring two of David Moyes‘ old sides — Everton and Manchester United — means the Irons cannot breathe safely yet (especially with Swans, Saints, and Stoke set to take points off each other).


Spots 13-11: Foot off the gas (and is there any gas in the tank?)

13. Watford — Javi Gracia may have Watford safe, and that was his charge, but the Hornets look like the same team they did under previous bosses. The Hornets have two points from their last six, and would be much further down the table if they weren’t essentially safe.

12. Bournemouth — Eddie Howe is probably wondering how that Arsenal chair would feel right about now, as the Cherries have probably reached a glass ceiling. Now a derby against Saints can define the run-in to the season.

11. Brighton and Hove Albion — Perhaps satiated by a five-match unbeaten run that featured a win over Arsenal and beat downs of Swansea and West Ham, Chris Hughton‘s Gulls have two points in five matches including a derby loss to Palace.

10. Everton — Sam Allardyce‘s men nicked a win off of Newcastle last weekend, and it was about as satisfying as moribund draws against Liverpool’s B Team and Swansea City. There’s a lot of unrest at Goodison Park, and Sam Allardyce has to go. Because of the relative positive vibes at lower table sides Leicester and Newcastle, Everton sinks beneath them.

9. Leicester City — A fun team which has had infuriating lapses at the back. Jamie Vardy‘s as reliable as ever, and there’s a real question what they’ll do without Riyad Mahrez (allegedly) in the future. Wilfred Ndidi, Demarai Gray, and Fousseni Diabate look a big part of said future, but it’s a bit alarming that the Foxes haven’t been able to take advantage of the relatively open door to seventh since Claude Puel righted Craig Shakespeare‘s sinking ship.

8. Newcastle United — The Magpies saw their win streak snapped by Everton, but Rafa Benitez is playing with house money after coaxed a midtable season out of a Championship squad. A healthy Islam Slimani has moved Dwight Gayle to his rightful role as a spark plug off the bench, but don’t sleep on the wonders Benitez has worked in turning Mo Diame, DeAndre Yedlin, and Paul Dummett into serviceable Premier League players. The future is bright if Mike Ashley sells the team or at least opens his purse strings to make one of the longest road trips in the PL even harder for visitors to St. James’ Park.


Spot 7: One of the best stories in Premier League history

7. Burnley — A loss to Chelsea and draw with Stoke has sunk Sean Dyche‘s excitement, we’re sure, but Southampton’s departure from the FA Cup means seventh place means Europa League. It’s Burnley in Europe: Yes, for real!


Spots 6-4: The bargaining stage of grief

6. Chelsea — The Blues have won two-straight in the league and reached an FA Cup Final against old pal Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, but there’s as much uncertainty at Stamford Bridge as there is at the Emirates. The difference? We know Roman Abramovich will spend more to try to fix it.

5. Arsenal — The danger of slipping behind Burnley and into seventh on the table has passed, but the Arsene Wenger goodbye tour is focused firmly on the Gunners’ fate versus Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Europa League and the quite decent form of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as a resurgent and healthy Aaron Ramsey. Defenders need improving in a big way and there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding Wenger’s replacement. Don’t know what you’ve got til its gone?

4. Spurs — No trophy again this season, and there’s a very good chance Tottenham will miss out on third place by virtue of goal difference when all is said and done; When all’s said and done, Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will have drawn 1-1 or 0-0 against West Brom, Swansea, Watford, West Ham, Saints, and Brighton. That’ll render a decent record against top foes less impressive.


Spots 3-1: Power trio

3. Manchester United — The Red Devils are better than almost everyone thinks despite precious few standout seasons from its players (David De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard are among the pardoned). When it comes to talking progress, however, second place won’t cut it: Mourinho needs that FA Cup win over Chelsea, a trophy United hasn’t won since (checks his notes) oh, two seasons ago.

2. Liverpool — The Reds looked incredible in dicing up Roma for 80 minutes, but allowed Roma a sliver of hope. Moreover, the last four goals Liverpool has allowed have come in the 79th, 88th, 81st, and 85th minutes. Why won’t we put them ahead of City? Well, let me clarify: it’s not PST, it’s me. I’ll own this: As brilliant as Liverpool was against City, they were out-chanced 31-14 over two legs. Give me that scenario 100 times, and I’m betting on the 31 about 85-90 times. The Reds are almost there, and Naby Keita over Jordan Henderson would be a huge upgrade (especially if this success convinces Emre Can to stick around). Next year, yeah. This year, just no.

  1. Manchester City — The records continue to fall, and it’s funny to consider that should City had lost the first Manchester Derby and been knocked out of the UCL a round earlier — yes, even by Liverpool in the same manner — no one would be arguing for anyone other than City at No. 1.

WATCH: Giovinco levels CONCACAF Champions League Final

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A trademark Sebastian Giovinco goal snapped a 1-1 first half tie and put Toronto FC in the driver’s seat for Major League Soccer’s first title in the CONCACAF Champions League era.

Jozy Altidore scored the first goal after Orbelin Pineda put Chivas Guadalajara ahead early in Mexico, and the tie is level at 3-3 after 135 minutes.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Toronto needs to score once more and stay ahead by one, or win in penalty kicks.

The winner goes to the Club World Cup in December.

Look at this quick work from Giovinco after Marky Delgado slipped him into his office.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

AP Photo/Julia Chestnova
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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.