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A Fan of "The Beautiful Game"

by John Bishop / Boston Bruins - While hockey season is almost over, hockey fans (and, let's face it, just about every  other human being on the planet) have switched -- albeit temporarily -- to soccer.

Ference played soccer with children in Africa as part of Right to Play.
Boston Bruins blueliner Andrew Ference is no different.

"Well I think it’s kind of like the Olympics for hockey," said Ference early Friday  afternoon. "The best players are on the biggest stage. You’re going to see the best product possible.

"It’s obviously the biggest sport in the world and the following of it is crazy."

For those of us in North America, hockey (baseball/basketball/American football) fanaticism out-distances soccer's popularity. That's absolutely not the case outside of the provinces of Canada and the United States.

"Hockey fans are definitely good fans and good sports, but soccer is a whole different level," said Ference. "Even compared to Canada, people think that it doesn’t get much bigger support  than Canadians [give to] hockey, but I don’t think it even touches a lot of the soccer and the fanaticism and the importance I think a lot of countries put on it."

Ference, as open-minded and observant an athlete can be, has his own theory as to why  soccer remains the most important sport around the planet.

"Sport is one of those great equalizers," said Ference. "It doesn’t matter what country you’re from. [A small] country has just as good of a chance as winning as a rich superpower. Sport is good for that.

"It’s an equalizing thing and soccer is the ultimate sport for that because it’s such a simple game."

This morning's game, a 1-1 tie between South Africa and Mexico proves just that as the hosts took a perennial soccer powerhouse to the brink. That's just one of the reasons that Ference thinks that hockey fans would enjoy soccer too.

"The games are actually quite similar I think," said Ference, "They’re both very reliant on  team play and generally no one player can totally change a result and stuff like that.

"It’s very rare for a single player to take over a hockey game or to take over a soccer game.
"The defensive aspect -- obviously I'm a defenseman, so I appreciate how hard it is to play  defense in soccer with some of those guys coming at you. I gotten to go over [to Europe] and  watch a game live and see the speed of it.

"In person is very similar to hockey where if you watch it on TV it’s a decent sport and it’s  fun to watch, but when you go in person that whole appreciation for the speed and power and  quickness of the players in the two sports are very similar in the same way," explained  Ference. "It’s the same in Canada as it is here. There’s a ton of people who play the sport  but it just hasn’t caught on as a massive sport but I'm not really sure why.

"It’s hard to explain."

Not so hard to explain, but perhaps a mystery to most hockey fans is the underlying subculture  of soccer in nearly every hockey locker room.

For instance, many Bruins players from North American and beyond warm up for games and even  some practices by playing soccer.

"Yeah, well definitely more so with Europeans," said Ference of soccer's influence. "Almost  all of them played soccer growing up as youths, so that was more of the off-season sport. Over  here it’s more of the lacrosse or baseball or sports like that.

"So the European guys definitely bring that element to the field; supporting soccer, warming  up with a game of soccer. And they’re usually way better than  all the North American guys  because we didn’t grow up playing the sport so we just kind of hack the game apart and they  usually have all the skills."

But gamesmanship has its place across the board.

"We usually try to fix the rules so it doesn’t turn into a game of skill but a game of just  trying to mess up the other guy," said Andy with a laugh.

And "The Beautiful Game's" influence doesn't stop there, either. But you might have to be an  insider to see or hear it.

"It’s not one of those sports that is talked about before a game," said Ference. "I don’t  think guys talk about the [English] Premier League or any of the leagues going on in Europe.

"But if there's a game on before we play or if there's a game on when we’re getting ready to  practice or something like that there will always be four or five guys that gather around to  watch it and are very knowledgeable.

"Guys are probably more of a fan than they’ll admit to."

So, as a veteran soccer-watcher, what does Ference recommend to the novice?

"Well definitely [watch what happens] away from the ball," said Ference. "One of the best  parts of the game to watch are the set pieces, whether it’s a corner kick or a free kick  that’s going to go into the box or close to the goalie.

"If you’re going to watch away from the ball, those moments when there’s all the jostling in  front of the net and there's guys fighting for position and grabbing each other. It gets to be  a pretty physical sport in those parts and I enjoy watching those parts because it’s a set up  piece, it’s a set play, it’s something that they’ve probably practiced thousands of times.  There’s a lot of leniency from the referees in those as far as physical contact. So that’s the  fun part to watch.

"And away from the ball, like I said, when you’re watching the play develop, the guy is coming  down the wing you have to see where your support is and who he’s looking to pass to. Because  like I said before it’s very hard for one player to grab a ball and deke out four guys and  score a goal. Those goals are so rare, they’re going to be a highlight for a decade if he does  it. So, much like hockey, you have to watch who he’s looking to pass to and who’s supporting  him and how the play is developing. It’s very fun to watch."

No so fun to watch -- especially to those of us who are, shall we say, more adept at watching  sports -- is the amount of running that goes into a 90-minute soccer match. Even Ference who known for his level of physical fitness is impressed with the level of conditioning and  athleticsm necessary for a top-level soccer player.

"They run like six or seven miles a game, I think," said Ference. "It’s ridiculous.

"I mean their fitness level is crazy so they can’t carry around extra weight and stuff like  that. I think they’re obviously both different than us.

"They have to have everything in the legs and they don’t really need a whole lot up top.  They're definitely smaller than us. But to be able to be in the 90th minute of a game and  you’ve already ran 5.5 miles and be able to sprint at top speed to try to get a goal at the  end.

"And they don’t get any breaks like we do. They don’t come off and get a shift change. So it’s  pretty impressive to do that night in and night out."

In the end, Ference remains a hockey player at heart. Asked if he gets any inspiration from  soccer or any other sport, Andrew let his true colors show.

"Well my inspiration came the other day when I saw the Blackhawks lift the Cup," said Ference  in a bittersweet tone. "I don’t really watch a ton of playoffs after we’re eliminated but if  there’s a chance a team could win the Cup, I watch that game.

"It never gets old to see the excitement when hockey players do it.

"I can't really relate to when a team wins a World Cup or something like that because it’s not  really my sport and you don’t personally know any of the players.

"So, I get [inspiration] from hockey, but I just enjoy watching soccer," he said.
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