The Best of Two Worlds – One Can Dream!Posted: August 5, 2013
In 1961, I watched my first “real” soccer game. ABC had started a sports anthology program called The ABC Wide World of Sports. It quickly became a popular item on TV, showcasing many sports that normally got little or no tv coverage and changing our sports cultural language forever with its famous intro each week , touting sports with their “joy of victory and agony of defeat”. The game I saw was the English FA Cup final between Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City. The game was notable for being the first international sporting event shown on the Wide World of Sports and for the fact that Len Chalmers, a Leicester defender, broke his leg after 20 minutes and because no substitutes were allowed in those days, he hobbled around the field until only 10 minutes remained in the contest. It was also notable because by winning, Tottenham accomplished the first “double ” in 64 years as they had already won the First Division League Championship. For me, an American teenager raised on American sports and American sports organization, the constant reference to the “double” by the commentators during the game was very confusing. Was this the championship game or not? Obviously the teams had defeated a number of rivals to get to the final and obviously this was BIG stuff in England. After all, there were 100,000 fans in attendance. I surmised, at first, that this was the culmination of a playoff type of system. I thought that these two teams had reached the tournament through some form of qualification and therefore this was THE championship game. As the game went on , I learned differently and by the end it dawned on me that , by gosh- the crazy English had more than one championship! What were they thinking? How does one know who is the best team if different teams win the different competitions- as had happened for 64 consecutive years?
What I didn’t consider at that time, was that 100,000 people and many more on television, were watching the culmination of an alternate competition to the regular league contests. Which meant that LOTS of money was being spent by fans of teams that were eliminated from possible league glory but were advancing in the cup tournament. What a stroke of marketing genius! If a team cannot win one competition…well perhaps they can win the other!
Today there are many more than two competitions for good soccer teams in Europe and other continents who follow similar setups to that of Europe. As an example,top English Premier organizations are entered in these competitions this year:
Premier League- 38 games played from August 2013 to May 2014
FA CUP- almost every team in England (758) plays in this single elimination tournament
League Cup- 92 professional teams from the top 4 divisions play in this tournament which is single elimination except for the semifinal which is played in two legs.
Champions league or Europa League depending on prior year results, better teams enter the Champions League – European competitions with group play moving into home and away elimination games until the single game final. The Europa championship is considered a nice win but the Champions League winner is considered the European club champion!
This is 4 – count’em- FOUR- competitions! ALL Premier League teams play in the first three of these. So, if a fan’s chosen team isn’t doing well in the league….well, there is always the cups! Compare this to our American single competition sports system in which teams which aren’t doing well are finished in the league for all practical purposes somewhere between halfway and 2/3 of the way through the season and just play out the remaining games. Sometimes our lower teams are even accused of throwing late season contests in order to improve their draft position. And the difference between European Soccer and American sports is even greater than this. NOBODY accuses poor performing European soccer teams of throwing late season games. Quite the contrary!
European countries of any significant size have enough professional soccer teams to fill more than one division. Of course, the top division is considered to be the “major league” and any lesser divisions are like “minor leagues”. At the end of each season the bottom teams from each division are relegated to the lower division the following year. The top teams in each division move up to the next higher division the next season. This promotion/relegation system creates intense competition among the lower teams as the season progresses to a conclusion. There is no thought of dropping games to get a better draft choice ( actually European soccer has no draft choice system). In England, the top two second division teams automatically qualify for promotion to the Premier League while the next 4 teams enter a playoff with the winner joining the top two in getting promoted. This means that 6 teams have a chance of joining the top division each year. Meanwhile the bottom 3 Premier league teams drop to the second division. AND the top 5 Premier League teams qualify for European tournaments the next year. Add it all up and 8 out of 20 teams in the Premier League have accomplished or failed to accomplish a goal at the seasons end. Given the closeness of the league results, usually 13/14 teams out of 20 are still engaged in VERY meaningful competition as the season winds down. In the USA ,by the seasons end of our sports many teams are simply playing out the schedule, especially the bottom teams. BTW, even though we have more than one level of pro soccer leagues, the worst MLS teams do not drop down to the minors. The reason for the failure to adopt the promotion/relegation system in the US is the control that owners have over their respective sports. Even though the public interest and corresponding attendance and TV viewing numbers are huge toward the end of each year, no group of American sports team owners is going to risk dropping out of the major league when their teams have bad years. Heck, in the NBA the best way to improve a team is to trash it completely, finish at the bottom for a couple years and make sure to get good players in the college draft. The competition in pro basketball is not only to be the best but to be the worst!
Even though the system of league movement and cup tournaments makes for great competition and high hopes for supporters during most of each year, all is not perfect with professional world soccer. Yes, American sports could use a dose of “something to play for” toward the end of each season ( ok, I know about “playoff position” but the number of teams fighting for those spots at seasons end is far smaller than the number of soccer teams in each country fighting for promotion/relegation and cup titles). BUT, world soccer has no draft of younger players nor any salary caps. Therefore, in a system like baseball but far worse, the rich teams get richer while the rest have little chance of consistent glory. A rich owner who is willing to spend crazy money is far more the prerequisite for success than a know-how to pick young talent and the ability to develop younger players into stars. Even Barcelona, who has been the poster club for youth development, joined the “buy-our-way-to-championships” movement with it’s huge outlay of funds to acquire new world star Neymar. Poorer teams that do develop top talent frequently sell their best to richer teams for money to help them survive. World soccer could use some lessens from yankee ( and I certainly don’t mean New York Yankee!) sports in regard to creating equal-opportunity-to-succeed leagues. In a way, the various cup tournaments are the only way many middle-of-the-road team supporters can hope for accomplishments from their beloved clubs because those organizations don’t have the money for consistent wins. But anything can happen in a single elimination tournament and hope always springs up when the cups are being competed.
In the hope of the Soccer Yoda- in some future dream world- soccer clubs of all types will have a chance for championships due to the equal spending rules of soccer leagues to come. And American sports will offer more than one avenue for teams to accomplish great things each year. I know this dream seems like science fiction but then, whoever dreamt that 41,000 Americans would stream into Dodger Stadium to watch a meaningless soccer game between an American team and an Italian team? Yep, happened just last week!