Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Okay, since this is a big week of football ("soccer"), I have a couple thoughts about following a team in the English Premier League for a couple of years, especially compared to American sports (again, if I say something really dumb about football forgive me, I'm still a relative newbie).

In a lot of ways, the EPL is more like college sports, particularly college football than it is like American professional sports. The most obvious surface way this is true is that the EPL (and European domestic leagues in general) have no playoffs - the regular season winner wins the league - even starker than college football now, which at least has a championship game. The difference which makes EPL more fair than college football even without the playoff is that in EPL, every side plays every other side exactly twice, once home and once away, so the difficulty of schedule problems are far less. Sure, one squad may be lucky and face another one when a key player is injured or suspended, but for the most part it's fairer, and there's nothing really that can be done about that.

Now, the nice thing about the regular season championship being the league championship is that it's simply the fairest way - taking the team who has prevailed over a long season, rather than in the one-match randomness of playoffs. However, as TV ratings in the US always show, fans love playoffs, exactly for that random anything-can-happen do-or-die feeling that playoffs give off, even if it often does lead to the best team not winning. European football makes up for that by having "cups" - trophies that are won entirely independent of play in the regular season by way of giant tournaments amongst clubs. England has two of these, the FA Cup, which has been around for over 130 years, and basically allows any team to enter - any team in a sanctioned league or who has won certain entry competitions - to the tune of 731 entrants for the 2007-08 cup. Teams in the premiership and other higher levels get byes to avoid the first few rounds of the tournament. Despite this openness, a non-higher level team has not won since 1980 (and that was West Ham, who were in the next division down), and aside from this past year when Portsmouth won, a non "Big Four" (to be explained later) team had won it in 13 years. Remarkably though, aside from Portsmouth the other three semi-finalists were from outside the top flight, a rare occurrence. The second cup in England is the League Cup, also known by the name of its ever-changing sponsor (currently Carling, has in recent times been known as Worthington, Coca-Cola, and Rumbelows (which one of those names doesn't seem to belong?)). This cup only involves the 72 clubs in the football league. The advantage of having these cups separate from the regular season is it gives different goals for teams to achieve - despite already falling too far in the league standings, sides can still aim for a cup (more "silverware" as it seems to be known), and they achieve the randomness of playoffs.

The less superficial way in which the EPL is like college football has to do with the structure of the league. English football is absolutely and nearly completely dominated by the "Big Four" of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. Since the EPL started in 1992 (it was formerly simply known as Division One and broke away for television money), it has only been won by four teams (remarkably Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal but not Liverpool - my beloved Blackburn Rovers snuck in 13 years ago for one of the great freak titles of our time). Part of this has to do with the lack of playoffs - the best team will win more often without that randomness. But the reason the same teams are consistently the best has to do more with a vicious cycle of prestige and money. Like in college football, over time, though a team may go into a bad period, the best teams stay the same for the most part, unless there's that great once in a while cosmic shift in which a team either rises a rung or falls one. For example, teams like USC, Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan and Ohio State are all big enough, have the money and the prestige that, first, they'll generally be around the national championship picture, and second, that they can suffer through a time of bad management without falling out of the picture - no one thinks the currently down Notre Dame and Michigan will be down for too long, or certainly lose their status as juggernauts. Thus although a team like West Virginia may be temporarily better than Michigan, Coach Rich Rodriguez chooses to leave because Michigan's simply a bigger program, on the whole, even in spite of its current struggles. Similarly, if Manchester United struggled for a while, Now, good management is important - generally (not always) it's hard no matter how much talent is poured in to win without good management (and Sir Alex Ferguson has provided excellent management for Man U), but bad management just puts a team like this temporarily out, unless they find someone who works.

In say the NBA, or MLB, a team as lowly as the Atlanta Hawks can become good, and there's very little set in place, because the difference in talent is so much less than between college teams, or EPL sides. Sure, there are some premier teams in every league - the Yankees and Red Sox, the Cowboys, the Lakers - but chances are just as well as not that coaches and players from smaller teams that are temporarily successful will look to continue that success on their own team rather than bolt for a bigger spotlight at the more prestigious team. With college programs or EPL, coaches (in both) and players (in European football) outgrow their teams, and want to jump to bigger programs routinely. The difference in money between teams is so much greater than in American professional sports.

First example, my side, Blackburn Rovers, just lost their manager, Mark "Sparky" Hughes, who was a star player for many years for Manchester United, and whose only previous managing experience had been the Welsh national team. Hughes was a young, inexperienced, ambitious manager whose appointment had been a gamble, but once he was a success, which he was, most realistic Rovers fans knew it would only be a matter of time to move on. Many thought he would be a top choice for the Chelsea job that opened up earlier this summer (and ended up going to current Portugal national team manager "Big Phil" Luiz Felipe Scolari), but he ended up signing with Manchester City, a team which finished below us in the table (standings), but is simply, regardless of that a bigger program. Blackburn supporters are worried that after experiencing a few years playing above our heads by having the luck to have picked a young manager on his way up, depending on our next choice in manager, we may be in for a stern dose of realism at the best, and a race to avoid relegation at the least. There is much debate amongst supporters whether we should try to pluck up the next Hughes, an inexperienced manager who could be a huge success or a huge disappointment, and if a success would nearly inevitably leave us in a few years himself (Paul Ince) or a veteran manager who has experience managing successful mid-level squads, and might stay with the team for years, but who doesn't give fans any optimism of playing exciting football, or moving up in the world (Sam Allardyce), certainly a choice many college programs make all the time. The board is due to name Hughes' replacement any day now, and we'll see how it comes down, but this is just one of the many frustrations of rooting for a mid-tier side.

Anyway, I realize I have enough to say about football for another post or two later on, so we'll see, and I'll probably comment when the managing choice does come down.

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