What The 'Brexit' Means For The Pro Soccer World

Originally published on June 25, 2016 8:48 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And it's time for sports.

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SIMON: The final score - 17 million-16 million, that is, British votes to leave the EU. And don't think that life's toy department, sports, will be left untouched. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Scott.

SIMON: Let's - before we get to the nitty-gritty of that, let's talk about what used to be the most divisive event on the European continent. (Laughter) That's the European soccer championships. At least a couple matches ended 0-0. But let's talk about Iceland and Austria.

GOLDMAN: Well, let's talk about Iceland, in particular. Iceland won that game. This is a really fun team to root for. It's the smallest country ever to play in the Euro championships. And it's making a splash. In its first international tournament, made it to the knockout round, the final 16, after that last-second win against Austria this week.

And the way Iceland did it - there were an estimated 10,000 Icelanders at the match in France. There were about 330,000 people in all of Iceland.

SIMON: That - about to say, that's 50 percent of the country, yeah.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Right. And as midfielder Arnor Ingvi Traustason knocked in the winning goal, the only thing crazier than 10,000 delirious Icelanders was one delirious Icelander, TV play-by-play man Gudmundur Benediktsson.

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GUDMUNDUR BENEDIKTSSON: (Shouting in Icelandic).

SIMON: (Laughter) You know, I hear that out in our newsroom all the time when you and I are on the air. But go ahead, yeah.

GOLDMAN: The actual translation of some of what he said - we are winning this. We are in the round of 16. Never, ever, ever have I felt as good. Now, that's saying something Scott because a study 10 years ago found Iceland was the fourth happiest country in the world. So feeling good is a common thing there.

GOLDMAN: Now we might get a - what's the man's name again?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: The screamer.

GOLDMAN: You're going to make me do it again?

SIMON: Oh, all right. Not again? OK. Well, we might get...

GOLDMAN: Gudmundur Benediktsson.

SIMON: Oh, Benediktsson. We might get to hear him scream again. Iceland plays England in Nice, France, on Monday. And I wonder if the Brits are going to get the same kind of reaction the Russian team usually gets.

GOLDMAN: Well, not that exciting, you know. They'll get some razzing, perhaps, for that vote on Thursday. But this has the chance to be a great match, a real David-and-Goliath contest, even though tiny Iceland making it this far is not a fluke. The country has been building its soccer program for a number of years, thanks in large part to building some quality indoor facilities so players could still play when the weather's miserable.

On Monday, Iceland's going against an English team that's one of the best in the world. It's had some flat performances in the tournament. Iceland is playing on a lot of emotion. It has nothing to lose. And England has everything to lose.

SIMON: Yeah. Well - and which brings us to the Brexit vote because big-time international soccer, as I don't have to tell you, it's a big business that employs hundreds of millionaires who wear shorts. And I wonder - is it going to have any effect on, say, the British Premier League.

GOLDMAN: It may. It may stop the flow of European players to the U.K. or make it harder to transfer. And, you know, there's also the idea that several American sports entrepreneurs who own Premier League teams like John Henry and the Fenway Sports Group with Liverpool and the Glazer family with Manchester United. If Brexit causes the pound to plunge, it means those owners' assets value in England will go down. I was told this by economist Andrew Zimbalist. Will that affect the American sports? Does that mean those owners will spend less money on their teams in the U.S.? Zimbalist doesn't think so. But like everything else right now with Brexit, there's uncertainty about the sports angle as well.

SIMON: I talk to Andy Zimbalist all the time, too. He's an economist who knows sports.

GOLDMAN: Very smart guy.

SIMON: You notice how long I refrained from saying Cleveland rocks (laughter)?

GOLDMAN: Amazing self-control, Scott.

SIMON: Isn't it? So, I mean, what an amazing game and series. Now that Cleveland's won a world championship, what North American metropolis has limped along the longest without a title?

GOLDMAN: Well, you'd think Chicago with its Cubs. But in reality...

SIMON: Well, but the Bulls and the Blackhawks have won...

GOLDMAN: Exactly.

SIMON: ...And the White Sox, yeah.

GOLDMAN: Exactly, yeah. According to Bill Barnwell of ESPN, the metropolis poised to take the torch that Cleveland is so happy to pass - it's San Diego. Last pro sports title in that city was the AFL championship in 1964 won by the Chargers. Hard to feel sorry for sports fans in a city with gorgeous weather and beaches, but hey, San Diego sports fans are still sports fans, Scott. And they're hurting.

SIMON: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: They're tan, but they're hurting.

SIMON: (Laughter) All right. Go to the beach. Put on SP-something. Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

SIMON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.