The Champions League is the greatest annual sporting spectacle in the world. It has everything we love about the NCAA basketball tournament but weeds out the first two rounds of overmatched blowouts people watch because they gambled on speculative upsets or want to get out of work. It doesn't have any of the self-congratulatory, poppin'-bottles-and-indoor-Ray-Bans glitz of the Super Bowl or BCS Championship Game that force you constantly remind yourself it's a sporting event, not a cause for self-loathing.
No, it isn't any of those things. Instead, the best teams in the world -- featuring the very greatest soccer players -- are put on the global stage over a nine-month period to crown a total champion. It is sport at its absolute purest and greatest. It kicks off on Tuesday and Wednesday, so don't argue, just enjoy it.
Except that, from the U.S., it's really hard to do just that. Between Fox Sports being its normal terrible selves and all matches airing in the middle of the day during the work week, normal people with normal jobs and normal cable subscriptions often can't watch.
Have no fear. I used to struggle with the same conundrum, working a full-time, non-sports job and trying to watch soccer at the same time. My meddlesome boss would schedule 3 p.m. meetings on Wednesdays during Champions League weeks -- unaware of my day's goal of not working and watching soccer -- and I would be faced with the kind of angst that is normally reserved for millenial stereotypes. But I overcame those stereotypes by coming up with creative solutions that didn't include avoiding the Internet or soccer-aware coworkers.
I am here to help you watch the Champions League and keep your job. (Note: You cannot sue me if you get fired for watching soccer instead of doing your job. It's in the Constitution. Somewhere toward the back.)
We're not in glorious NBC-topia anymore; we're in FOXhell
The first thing to accept is that you cannot watch every game live. Unlike the EPL -- where NBC has made America perhaps the best country in the world for following the EPL -- FOX owns the rights to the Champions League, and they're ready to extract every dollar and cent from you possible. Unless you want to spend $20 per month or $150 for the year to watch the Champions League on Fox Soccer 2 Go, you're stuck watching whatever matches they air on TV. It looks like they will air matches on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. (They will also be airing a match on FOX Soccer Plus as well, but if you're willing to pay extra per month to watch the Champions League, you might as well just buy FOX Soccer 2 Go.)
Two matches may sound more than adequate, considering you are only one person with one set of eyeballs and one brain to process what those set of eyeballs reflect. But, the Champions League features the best teams in the world, which means there are often several intriguing games for one reason or another. For example, Tuesday features Manchester United with Robin Van Persie, Juventus with Carlos Tevez and Andrea Pirlo, Real Madrid with Gareth Bale and tanner Gareth Bale, Paris Saint-Germain with the most underappreciated superhuman in the world Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Manchester City and their mind-altering stacked lineup, all playing in separate games. Oh, and Bayern Munich. I heard Bayern is pretty good at the ball-kicking. Anyways, you will only get to watch two games on TV live, one of which is the United match, a team we get to see every weekend anyways, which is somewhat infuriating.
So what games are on TV? Tuesday you get to choose between Manchester United vs. Leverkusen or Galatasaray vs. Real Madrid. Wednesday features Barcelona vs. Ajax or Chelsea vs. Basel. What matches do you miss? Oh, only the good ones.
There will be tradeoffs
This leads to the first rule of watching the Champions League at work: There will be tradeoffs. Since, for a majority of the tournament, there are matches on Tuesday and Wednesday (as there are this week), it's unlikely you can sloth out of work for multiple hours unnoticed (if you can, kudos to you). Meetings will likely be scheduled, you will have things to do, people may ask for your whereabouts, etc. It is unlikely your company employs you with little to no expectation for you to actually do any work for two days (if they do, enjoy it while it lasts). As such, you will want to prioritize which day makes sense for you to watch. Some things to consider:
Which matches do you want to see the most (which are available to be seen)?
Scour the local bar scene near the office. See if any of them have satellite feeds that allow them to view all Champion League games. Steady Wi-Fi at a bar can be an invaluable resource to be doing some "heads-down" work out of the office, so see if they have WIFI, or see if your phone can act as a Wi-Fi hotspot. Here's a guide for tethering your phone if you're not familiar. It'll be like you're at the office!
What does your work schedule look like for those days?
Do you have meetings? No? Good. Block that calendar off. Not just for this week, either. Check out that schedule, and get blocking. Get out ahead of your managers. They are your enemies. Don't just block it off and write "Soccer! Woooooo!" either. Think of a real, semi-solid excuse. You have a dentist/doctor appointment. You need to pick up the wife/girlfriend/best friend/man you met on Craigslist at the airport. Your dog needs to see a dog specialist far away for his special dog problem (don't worry, the dog specialist will fix everything).
Oh, you have a real job that doesn't allow you to leave the office because you need to do real, actual work?
First off, congratulations on being a big, important person. Now that you're done patting yourself on the back -- but not for too long, you're a busy person! -- here's Slingbox, the answer to your problem. Slingbox allows you to stream what you watch on TV a home on your tablet or computer. Buy it, hook it up at home, install the software on your work computer or a laptop you can bring into the office, and then fire that bad boy up when the games are on. It's incredibly useful in general life, not just for the Champions League.
There are a few possible roadblocks to this plan: you do not have cable at home, your work has some type of preventative firewall because you work for The Man, or you don't want to spend any money watching the Champions League. I can't help you with any of these problems. Like I said, there will be tradeoffs to trying to watch a sporting event occurring on another continent within milliseconds of it occurring.
If you choose to go the Slingbox route, which is something I regularly did at my former job -- hi, old boss! -- here are a few general tips to make it through the workday with your superiors none the wiser:
- Alt-Tab (or Command-Tab for Mac) is your friend: This changes windows. From my experience, it helps to alternate between full-screen windows. Although having soccer full-screen is damning if you're caught, you can alt-tab out of that quite quickly, and you're back to being Productive Employee in Sector 7G. If you make the Slingbox window a portion of the screen to keep the distraction minimal, it will be harder to hide when a supervisor walks by. Plus, Alt-Tabbing out of a partial window is trickier, since you might alt-tab to a window that doesn't cover it up, which accomplishes nothing. Go for the safe bet.
- Make sure your Alt-Tab window is actual work: Back in 2010, NBC Sports debuted the Boss Button for their Vancouver Winter Olympics coverage, which you could click to hide the Olympics and bring up a screen that would, supposedly, look like work. NBC doesn't think much of worker productivity, because it brought up a window displaying a blank Excel spreadsheet. Your boss would probably rather see you watching soccer than see you working on a blank spreadsheet for two hours. At least soccer would mean you're distracted; a blank spreadsheet would mean you're brain-dead.
- Use multiple monitors if possible: The easiest way to execute the soccer-at-work maneuver is with multiple monitors. You can have a dedicated soccer monitor and a work monitor, then a window set up for alt-tabbing if someone important comes by. Then you're not only being productive, but you're being double-productive!
OK, all that stupid logistical stuff is over. Let's get to the soccers!
Yes, let's begin with the best group: Group F. It's going to be an absolute dogfight; think 25,000 feet over 1940 England. Both the Dortmund-Napoli and Arsenal-Marseille matches should be fascinating affairs. Dortmund somehow managed to not sell Robert Lewandowski to Bayern Munich even though everyone assumed the deal was done for some reason, which still gives them a fighter's chance -- and not just a fighter punching air, as manager Jürgen Klopp has been known to do.
Napoli, who purchased Gonzalo Higuaín and hope midfielder Marek Hamsik continues his prime form, already scoring four goals this campaign, present an interesting challenge for the attacking-minded Dortmund.
The other Group F match, featuring Arsenal against Marseille, is another intriguing fixture. Two weeks ago, this would have been a completely different conversation, but with Arsenal's purchase of Mesut Özil, the question is no longer if Arsenal can compete, but how far they can go. Marseille, on the other hand, is easily the choice to finish last in the group, but is still capable of getting a result, especially with the recent acquisition of midfielder Florian Thauvin. Both of these matches should be worth your while. Oh, wait, neither of their matches this week will be on Fox Sports?
If you like single-named athletes, then Shakhtar Donetsk in Group A is your club. They have Fred, Bernard, Ismaily, Taison, Eduardo and Fernando, saving them a lot of money with screen printing on kits. Shakhtar will play Real Sociedad on Tuesday, another game you cannot watch without spending money. This is too bad because Carlos Vela plays for Real Sociedad, and he's playing quite well for them, which is hilarious because he refuses to play for the offensively-challenged Mexican National team, despite scoring 14 goals last year and 2 so far this year. Being able to watch him live would provide extra fodder for our already-depressed friends to the south.
If you're a Chelsea fan who desperately misses seeing competent striker play and longs for the Didier Drogba days, he plays for Galatasaray, who will play and lose to Real Madrid on Tuesday in Group B. Juventus is the favorite to join Madrid into the knockout stage from Group B, but it's possible Galtasaray can give them a run for their money. It is not possible Copenhagen will advance. I hear it's a wonderful city, though.
Group C ought to be relatively straightforward, with Paris Saint-Germain making the other three teams look silly, and Benfica advancing behind them. I was going to say some nice things about how you can't sleep on Anderlecht, but their player page on their website must have been designed by Bleacher Report, featuring slideshow profile pictures for each player. So forget Anderlecht.
Bayern Munich and Manchester City will advance from Group D.
Oh, you want to have a conversation about Group D? Fine. Even though City hasn't made it out of the group stage the last two Champions League, they were in the Group of Death last year with Dortmund, Real Madrid and Ajax. City shouldn't have finished bottom of the group, but there was no shame in having Dortmund (who advanced to the finals) and Madrid advance above you. This year, City would have to finish below CSKA Moscow or Viktoria Plzen (bonus points to anyone who knows what country that team is from without Googling), which is a very different level of disappointment. Sure, it's possible -- particularly to the underrated Moscow -- but I wouldn't bet on it. Those City-Bayern fixtures, though, will be absolute must-watches (Oct. 2 and Dec. 10: Block off your work calendars now).
Chelsea ought to have no problem advancing from Group E, and one would think Schalke 04 won't have any difficulties taking the second spot. Schalke is always a good watch because their name constantly pops up as big-time sellers during the transfer window, so you know never know what young star you're peeking at, like Julian Draxler, one of Arsenal's legion of targets this past transfer window.
We already touched on Group F, but I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate how awesome Group F matches are going to be. (Thank you, Fox Sports, for not airing a single one live this week.) That being said, I don't blame you for selling your first-and-second-borns to watch every single match Dortmund play. Their fans are the best, this tifo is still trying to kill me in my sleep and their stadium has separate home and away fans jail cells. Oh, and they play gorgeous, attacking soccer.
Group G is a bit of a lightweight, but offers some intrigue nonetheless. FC Porto has a forward that goes by the name of Kelvin, so make all the obscure-units-of-measurement jokes you've been saving up over the years. They're also a solid squad and should fare decently in this group. Atletico Madrid also ought to advance, despite the loss of Radamel Falcao to Monaco. Zenit St. Petersburg is the goofiest club in the group -- and perhaps the entire tournament -- featuring Brazilian Hulk and the glorious return of Andrey Arshavin. (You forgot about him, didn't you!? How dare you forget about Andrey Arshavin!) I suggest having, at minimum, two bottles of Andre to celebrate the return of Andrey Arshavin. Vienna is a club that exists.
And finally, Group H. Poor, poor Celtic. This is how Celtic manager Neil Lennon reacted to being drawn with Barcelona, Milan and Ajax.
That reaction should tell you all you need to know about the group. Ajax could surprise Milan and finish in second, but they probably won't.
As for who you should root for, you should root for another network to buy the Champions League rights from Fox, and bestow the glory of the Champions League unto us for minimal cost as we rightly deserve as citizens of the planet. Godspeed in your watching adventures, and All Hail Our Fox Overlords!