Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why European Football sucks

Well, another 10-month season has passed and the most popular league in the world continues to bore me to tears. Not the games, but the standings. Yet again in the English Premier League, the top 4 teams are Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal in some permutation. It's been four years since another team finished in the top 4 (Everton finished 4th in 2004/05). By finishing in the top 4, these teams guarantee their place in next year's Champions League, and with it, tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship revenue. This is money the other 16 teams in the EPL will not receive, and obviously the best teams simply get better by spending the windfall on the best players available during the transfer window. The only way to improve is to find an owner with bottomless pockets who starts spending his money on the top players, which is how Chelsea moved up under Roman Abramovich

I cheer for West Ham (they were the home team in my only EPL visit) and know that they will never contend for a championship. The best they can hope for is a position in the newly-named Europa League. Don't get me wrong, the games themselves can be thrilling and the league boasts the top players in the world. But in North American sports, the goal for each franchise is a championship, and even terrible teams can build a winner (witness the Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago Blackhawks or Denver Nuggets) through smart drafting, shrewd trading, and a timely free agent or two. In the EPL, the goal is simply to avoid relegation (the bottom 3 teams in the league are demoted to the league below and lose millions of dollars in revenue, according to this article from CNN).

It's not just England that suffers this dreary consistency. Spain's title has been contested between Real Madrid and Barcelona 4 out of the past 5 seasons. Italy sees AC Milan, Juventus, Inter, or AS Roma competing for the championship, although sometimes other teams make a run for it as Fiorentina did last year. In Scotland, Celtic and Rangers always make up the top 2 (unfortunately, the supporters of these two clubs are divided along religious lines and tragedy sometimes strikes). France has seen Olympique Lyonnais win 7 titles in a row, a streak that has finally ended this year. Germany's Bayern Munich is the dominant team there, but the title this year was won by VfL Wolfsburg, their first league title in history. I'll be interested to see how they compete in next year's Champions League.

All of the top teams in these major European leagues receive their Champions League cash and all are able to maintain their dominance because of it. Interestingly, the other leagues complain that the English teams get too much of the money (about 25% of total Champions League revenues in 2008) which has allowed the EPL to become the premier league in the world. I find it hypocritical that these teams benefit from unbalanced payouts in their own leagues, but have the nerve to complain when they suffer under the exact same system.

There are tournaments such as the FA Cup where a lesser team might go on a run and get to the semi-finals or even finals, as Portsmouth did last year. But their victory was the first in 12 years by a club other than the big 4. West Ham came close in 2006, losing to Liverpool on penalties in a classic encounter. Some argue that the Carling Cup is a chance for smaller clubs to grab a trophy, but this is often because the big teams choose to play their second-stringers for these matches, lest their stars become overtired or injured. Even then, Manchester United won it this year.

This problem will not easily be solved. As long as the top teams continue to receive such large sums of money for playing in the Champions League, they will always be able to afford the best players, and the cycle will continue. There is no draft to give the lesser teams a chance to develop and star players on weaker teams usually move to the top teams, usually because they want Champions League exposure. There is really no hope for long-term fans of the have-nots. This is why European football, despite all of its beauty and drama, cannot compete with North American sports for overall interest - when 80% of your teams are eliminated before the first game of the season, there's something wrong with your game.



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