Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wrapping your head around soccer – Part One

Yeah, I used the “s” word. I figure it’s my prerogative as an American. Feel free to do so yourself, and if any of those Brit expats get on your case, point out that it was one of their own who coined the term (coming from “association football”), and they have only themselves to blame if they don’t like it).

Digression aside, it’s time to discuss this seemingly simple, deceptively difficult game. Or, more specifically, the spectator side of the coin (as I would be the last person to recount any actual personal experience based soccer playing strategies or anecdotes). No, what we’re discussing here is getting into the sport via watching (maybe even rooting for) the “local” clubs. And by “local”, I mean European, in totem.

First off, know that there are a myriad of leagues in Europe. Too many to keep track of, realistically. So, let’s not try. Instead, we’ll just focus on the big boys. The top clubs in the top leagues. This task is already a little easier, as ESPN and Fox have upped the stateside ante soccer-wise in the last few years, showing Premier League and Champions League games quite regularly (I can’t describe how odd it was to be on the periphery, during my last visit to Kansas City, to sit in a pub and hear several locals arguing over which soccer team was better between Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea. One guy even had a tattoo showing his support. Surreal).

Okay then. Many countries, many leagues. And, to add to the confusion, many competitions taking place within those leagues. We are, however, going to stick with the big four: England, Spain, Germany and Italy. Some years, one is up and the others down, then the cycle swings back. But, to my mind, those are the top leagues in Europe. Naturally, they change names every now and again. Spain has recently gone from La Liga to Liga BBVA for its top tier, and England has only been the Premier League for the last couple of decades. But we’ll avoid most history-delving as unproductive here. You can get that stuff from anywhere on the internet. Just as we’ll avoid talking about the French Ligue 1, or the Austrian Bundesliga. You may find yourself living in the Netherlands, rooting on Ajax, or in Poland and enjoying the Wisla Krakow matches. But that doesn’t make them compelling soccer when we’re talking about high-level, international clubs. Most leagues have one or two decent teams who make it on to the Champions and or Europa Leagues every season, but that doesn’t make their domestic product worth discussing.

So let’s talk England. The birthplace of this great game. For well over a hundred years, the big English clubs have been battling it out on the pitch (their term for the field), fighting it out before a bunch of hooligans and vying for bragging rights in the home city (get over the notion that any club will maintain sole sway over an entire city, as any town of even middling size will have two or more. Not sure if anyone knows how many are in the London area, but I believe it to be about 753.) These clubs don’t up and move (well, one did, but they’ve been vilified throughout the isles ever since). Don’t call them franchises, either, if you don’t want an earful. And nicknames are unofficial. Liverpool may be called “The Reds”, but it’s not the “Liverpool Reds” as it would be the “Boston Red Sox”, and they won’t be limited to just one nickname.

The teams are all slotted into a league, but movement occurs between these leagues every season. The top tier is currently named the Premier League (or Barclay’s Premier League – Soccer is a bit like motor sports over here what with the integrated advertising. Wonder how long it is before MLB and NFL join in that gravy train and put adverts on the uniforms…?). Before that it was the same format, but called the Premiership, and before that it was part of the larger Football League and… but wait, I said that this would be no history lesson. Today, it’s the Premier League. ‘Nuff said. The best performing teams in this league get invites to the next season’s Champions League or the Europa League, both of which set up a tournament with top sides (another Brit term – think “team” or “squad”) from leagues around Europe. The worst performing are “relegated” to the next level, currently called the “English Championship League”. Likewise, the best teams from that league are “promoted” to the Premier League for the following season. Below that is the “English League 1” and “English League 2” and so on. Many teams seem to spend their entire existence bouncing back and forth, hoping to hang on to fourth place and avoid relegation, while others battle it out at the top and travel about the continent every year.

It’s the Premier League that we’re interested in, naturally. It consists of 20 teams, each of which plays a home and away at each of the other 19 teams. A win earns a team three points in the standings, a draw earns one point for both teams and nothing comes from a loss. They also keep track of teams’ goal differentials as a means of tie-breaking (Oops, used the word tie. Here a “tie” is a match, while the preferred term for two teams with the same score is “draw”). At the end of the season, the team with the most points is the winner. No muss, no fuss, no playoffs. Makes for a good “the best team won it” system, but certainly doesn’t allow for that end of the season payoff that we as Americans are used to. Certainly, many seasons play out so that the winner is known well in advance and the last month’s worth of games are irrelevant in that regard. Of course, to many teams the real excitement is around making the European cut. The money that flows into a club from yearly appearances in the big tournaments is vital, and a team which falls from grace back into the rank and file (see: Liverpool) can find serious repercussions in subsequent campaigns.

Meanwhile, other games are going on all the time. For a lucky few, there are the European Cups that I’ve already mentioned (and will discuss in more detail next time out.) Then there are the FA Cup (Wikipedia info: Entry is open to all teams who compete in the Premier League, the Football League and in steps one to five of the FA National League System. This means that clubs of all standards compete, from the largest clubs in England and Wales down to amateur village teams. The tournament has become known for the possibility for "minnows" from the lower divisions to become "giant-killers" by eliminating top clubs from the tournament and even theoretically win the Cup) and the Carling Cup (also known as the “League Cup”) which is similar but not as inclusive as the FA Cup. The problem with these competitions, from an outside fan perspective, is that the big clubs don’t seem to take them seriously, often fielding second or third-string players in the competition. Still, it provides another chance for your favorite club to snag some hardware, which never hurts! There are also a number of smaller competitions that take place throughout the year, one off numbers that I have yet to really get into, so I won’t detail them here.

Which clubs are worth paying attention to in the Premier League? Well, they’re the ones that you’ve likely heard of as even a casual sports fan. Manchester United are the big bullies on the block, having dominated since the league’s inception. Chelsea are right up there with them with three titles in the last six years along with a boatload of Russian money being funneled in to keep them competitive no matter what. Liverpool are a bit down at the moment, but always seem to bounce back and stay in the mix. Arsenal continue to remain relevant despite spending less on big names than the other top clubs, but they haven’t hoisted any hardware in the last five seasons. Manchester City now have the backing of big oil and are likely to break through and win something soon. Tottenham Hotspur (or just “Spurs” as they are usually coined) broke into the top four last season and are threatening again this year. Aston Villa also have some big backers, but so far have not been able to put it all together. Blackburn Rovers aren’t particularly dangerous at the moment, but are one of the few teams to win a Premier League title (in 94-95) and are rarely relegated. Likewise with Everton (the team which Landon Donovan has occasionally played well for), West Ham (the Hammers), and Newcastle United, each of which has spent at least 16 of 19 possible seasons in the top league since its inaugural 92-93 season. There are some others in the lower divisions who have big names and big histories, such as Leeds United, but we can worry about them if and when they regain their footing and return to “The Show” (had to work a little baseball talk in there. It’s spring training time!).

And that seems like a good place to break. The next installment will focus on Spain and Italy. Until then, sports fans…

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