Monday, March 14, 2011

Wrapping your head around soccer – Part Two

So, in the first installment (which you really should read before delving into this one) we talked about European soccer/football in general, then focused on the English system. For part two, let’s move it on over to Spain and Italy!

Spanish soccer is paradoxically both the best and somehow least climactic at this time. It is so top-heavy that there is practically no drama whatsoever in the Liga BBVA (or La Liga, or whatever it’s called today). Not at the top, at least. Hell, even the supposed showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid has fizzled as Barca collects every point in sight and wins the head-to-head to boot (their culture-clash games are billed as “El Classico”, and are certainly worth the price of admission, whatever one thinks of the overall state of La Liga). Those two clubs play some of the best, most exciting football in Europe, making the league impossible to ignore.

The Spanish leagues are similar to those in England, if a bit less pervasive. They too have a tournament running in conjunction with the season (the Copa del Rey, the final of which will be played this season between… you guessed it, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Big surprise there). In La Liga, as in the Premier League, it’s 20 teams, home and away matchups, 3 and 1 points for wins and ties respectively. They too have multiple levels and relegation/promotion within them. And year in and out, their top clubs are in the running for the Champions League title.

Besides the big two, whose lineups sound more like national teams than club level (C. Ronaldo, Messi, Xavi, David Villa, Ozil, Kaka, etc), there are several other clubs in La Liga who are dangerous on any given night. Valencia is a solid third at the moment, and has won two league titles in the last decade. Villarreal always seems to field a solid side. Atletico Madrid have a great team history to fall back on, but haven’t won the league since the mid-90s. Deportivo de la Coruna has only won the league title once, but were in the running yearly at the turn of the millennium. Athletic Bilbao seems to pull off a big upset every season. At the moment, though, it’s all smoke and mirrors for those squads. In reality, it’s Barca’s title to lose, and Madrid will be the benefactor if they drop off a bit (not just this season, but for the foreseeable future). The big question is, how will they perform against Europe’s best?

Speaking of, last season the best side on the continent didn’t come from Spain or England, but Italy. The Italian Serie A, down a bit in recent seasons due to massive overspending in the early part of the last decade, came back with a vengeance. Or, to be more correct, one team did. Inter Milan not only won the Serie A title, but also the Champions League, and in doing so knocked off Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, each of whom won their respective home leagues. It was an impressive run, but as this year has unfolded it becomes clear that it was a bit of an aberration, due as much to the machinations of their former coach Jose Mourinho and his familiarity with many of those sides (Jose jumped ship this offseason to… Real Madrid, naturally. And the rich get richer…).

Still, Inter heads a list of impressive teams that make up a rich history of club football in Italy. Cross-town rivals AC Milan were just as star-studded as Barcelona a few short years ago, and are back on top of the Serie A table this year. Roma, Juventus (the alltime top Italian club with 27 league titles), Fiorentina, Lazio – all clubs that have been in the top league for the majority of its 80 or so seasons and all are sitting in the top ten slots today. Naturally they’ve had other big time clubs fall by the wayside in that extensive period, but by and large the cream sticks around near the top.

Italy’s setup is also similar to England and Spain (20 teams, 3 point wins, multiple leagues, relegation – to Serie B – of course, yadda yadda yadda). Their big in-season tournament is called the “Coppa Italia” (with a matchup of previous season champions in a one-off Super Coppa Italia as a pre-season specialty). Italian soccer may not have the plethora of international stars in their prime that they boasted recently, but the overall health of the league seems to be coming back in a big way. And when it does, watch out!

Next time out, I’ll pen a few words about the German Bundesliga and a bit more about the Champions League… Stay tuned!

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