With surprise starter Kingsley Coman’s 59th minute score against his old team, Bayern Munich defeated Paris St Germain 1-0 for their fifth UEFA Champions League trophy, their first since 2012/13. Thus the Covid-19 delayed 2019/20 season of European football was finally brought to a close, mere weeks before most of the various leagues start the 2020/21 campaign (France’s Ligue 1 is already underway.) The English Premier League will kick off September 12th, and thanks to NBC’s excellent coverage of the league, as well as the specter of an NFL season disrupted by our own COVID related troubles, the EPL might be the only show in town this fall and winter for sports fans. So I thought I’d throw together some primers on how the beautiful game is contested across the pond for any fellow Americans just discovering the sport. They do things a little differently over there. Most of the leagues governed under FIFA’s rules operate similarly, so this primer applies to the other European Leagues as well.
The Regular Season Matters
The biggest difference an American sports fan has to be the focus on the “regular season”. From first kick to last whistle, the Premier League teams will be competing to have their colors pinned to that fancy Barclay’s trophy, and they do that by getting the most points. That’s it, no divisions, no playoffs, no “Soccer Bowl.” Just a season of home and away matches against the other teams in the league. A win is worth three points, a tie is worth one point for each team, and a loss gets you bupkis. Ties in the final standings are broken first by goal differential (goals scored minus goals conceded,) then total goals scored, then a neutral pitch playoff. In the Premier League that means 38 games a season and the champion is declared when the math says so. Liverpool hoisted last year’s trophy on June 25th when Chelsea did then the favor of knocking off Man City 2-1in Matchweek 31. On the other hand, the 2018/19 season went down to the last day of the season, with Liverpool falling one point short of the Citizens in the end.
Promotion, Relegation and Tickets to Europe
Winning the league is just the top prize each season, there are also some achievements to strive for and/or against each year. The Premier League is the top flight in English Football, the pinnacle of a pyramid of leagues and 40,000 professional and semiprofessional clubs organized under the banner of the Football Association, the worlds oldest professional sports organization. If it sounds imposing… well it is. Here’s a handy graphic…
At the end of each season, the bottom three teams in the Premier League are sent back down to swap places with the top two teams in the Championship (who get automatic spots,) and the winner of the EFL Championship Playoffs between the teams finishing 3-6. The promotion tournament held a Wembley Stadium is one of the most exciting weekends of the season. Replicate this process at each level and you end up with a meritocratic system that rewards success on the field and punishes failure. Theoretically, the worst team in the EFL (Stevenage this year,) or even lower could claw their way to the pinnacle atop the Premier League, whilst Liverpool could collapse all the way out of the Football League.
At the other end of the spectrum, the top teams will be chasing after spots in the big EUFA club tournaments, the Champions and Europa Leagues. The Champions League is the big prize of course, contested between the champions of all of the top-flight leagues in Europe over the course of the season, along with a number of their compatriots based on a wickedly complex appraisal of league strength. For our purposes, the top four spots in the Premier League get spots in the Champions League and the next two spots go to the second-tier Europa League. The Europa League spots can sometimes come with a curse, as often a mid-table team will be rewarded for playing their guts out one season with a slate of extra matches and travels the next year that they are unprepared for, as befell Burnley after their surprising 6th place finish a couple of years ago.
But Wait There’s More, Cup Competitions and Derby’s
Champions and Europa League matches are contested during the season, which can be weird for US sports fans. But it gets weirder. Most leagues have some form of Cup tournament that is contested across the course of the season. For the Premier League, there are two such contests. The EFL Cup (or Carabao Cup,) is contested between the three leagues of the EFL and the Premier League. The Emirates FA Cup is the oldest professional sports tournament in the world and includes every team in the Football Association. As single elimination (or “knockout”) competitions there is ample opportunity for surprises, and every lower-tier team in England has a story of how they knocked off one of the big teams in what is dubbed a “Cupset” or “Giant Killings” The winners of these cups get fancy silverware and extra tickets to European competition.
Also adding spice to the season are local rivalries. English fans are notoriously boisterous. Although the hooliganism that plagued the game for decades has largely receded into memory, supporters still go all out for the big games against the folks from across the way. The Manchester Derby (pronounced Darby,) between the Red and Blue sides of Manchester is the most famous example. The North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur is another. The Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton is the longest continuous derby, contested twice a year since 1962/63. The clubs’ stadiums are about a mile apart! Some Derbies have long hiatus’s, The Black Country Derby between Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion, one of the fiercest rivalries in soccer, has been on hold since the 2011/12 Premier League season. But with Wolves firmly ensconced in the mid-table and my beloved Baggies bouncing back from a two-year exile in the Championship, West Midlands fans are circling January 21 and May 1st on their calendars.
The way sports leagues are structured is a product of time and place. European football began formalizing play in 1863, around the same time as baseball was becoming the National Pastime here in the States. The US was still a young country though, fresh off the hell of the Civil war and spread out across a swath of territory that dwarfed the UK even then. By the time the National and American Leagues had coalesced into stable institutions and begun their World Series rivalry in 1903, a worldwide governing body for Association Football, FIFA was only a year away. For all of its faults, the FA and FIFA prevented the kind of cartel practices that plagued early baseball leagues and eventually led to the parasitic relationship between the “Major Leagues,” and the “Minors.” If you are a fan of the Dayton Dragons cool, but your team will always have to prioritize the needs of its “parent club” (my beloved Reds,) over winning on the field. No self-respecting fan of even the most middling of semipro teams in England would stand for such a relationship.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve fallen for following the beautiful game around the world, the sense that each game counts in some fashion. American sports leagues chasing every dollar they can have devalued the regular season to near irrelevance. The NHL and NBA regular seasons were practically a formality even before the COVID 19 crisis. A buddy of mine developed a taste for the NBA a few years ago but he only watches the playoffs. “All the bast players are trying their hardest, plus I never have to watch the Washington Wizards,” was his advice. The NFL, despite having the shortest (and most brutal,) slate of games in its 16 game regular season is almost entirely focused on the Super Bowl, to the point that a team like the Buffalo Bills of 1990-93 could go to four straight Superbowls and be considered epic failures because they lost all four.
The most tragic folly in US sports has to be what has happened in baseball. Before the Major Leagues expanded to 24 teams in 1969, the World Series would be contested between the regular-season winners of each league. Winning a “pennant” was considered almost as big a deal as the series. The 154, then 162 game season was a marathon contest that separated the great from the good and the good from the mediocre. The four-division system that followed still preserved some of that magic, although one of the best seasons ever played, by the 2001 Mariners, is almost completely forgotten because they lost in the playoffs. Today, with six divisions, two wild card teams, three rounds of playoffs, the dream of the best two teams coming together to cap off the season is farther away than ever.
Well that was fun and I hope informative. I plan on churning out a few of these primers over the course of the season. Next week, a look a Loans and Transfers.
I looked down at my phone yesterday and realized that I had completely missed the FA Community Shield, the tilt between last season’s Premier League and FA Cup winners won by Arsenal on penalty kicks after they sides played to a 1-1 draw. The season is coming up fast!
“From our Haus to Yours”