When I went to study abroad last spring, I was worried. So many sporting events would be taking place while I was in South Africa, and I would not be able to watch any of them. March Madness, the NBA playoffs, Opening Day, and the terminally underappreciated NHL playoffs. How would a sports junkie like me survive in a country that did not broadcast these events, most of which took place at the unlived hours between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. local time? Life was going to be impossibly difficult for me, or so I thought.
Instead, I found myself embroiled in a mad passion over European soccer, notably the English Premier League (EPL). European soccer throws some of the best and worst attributes of American sports into a blender, and out pops something better. The fan’s passion is the enthusiasm of college basketball fans multiplied by the craziness of NFL fan bases like Oakland, minus the stupid spiked shoulder pads. Throw in a bit of dry British humor and a tradition older than the oldest MLB clubs, and you have the greatest fans in the world.
Unfortunately, as with the MLB, the influence of money on the game of soccer has been detrimental to competition. The Yankees and the Red Sox outspend everybody, and this gives them a distinct advantage in baseball. In the EPL, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, and – to a lesser extent – Liverpool and Arsenal, outspend everyone else and nearly always finish at the top of the standings, or, as those crazy Brits call it, the table. While this makes victories like that of Burnley over Manchester United earlier this season so much sweeter, just like those Marlins’ World Series, the odds are stacked against the minnows of the EPL even more than in American baseball.
A perfect example of this disparity was seen last weekend in the Manchester City-Burnley fixture. After getting off to a great start following their promotion, Burnley has stumbled into the relegation zone recently. Their game on Saturday did nothing to stop their increasingly likely return to the second tier. Seven minutes into the game, Manchester City’s array of stars had netted three goals. The difference between the two sides is best demonstrated by the following fact. Over the summer, Manchester City gave Blackburn Rovers more money for the rights to Roque Santa Cruz, a striker who has spent most of the season on the bench, than Burnley has spent on player wages this entire season.
What is best about the EPL and other soccer leagues throughout Europe is that almost every team is engaged in meaningful games every week. There are currently three story lines running through the EPL, encapsulating more than half of the teams: who will win the title (Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal), who will get the coveted fourth place and qualify for Champions League next year (Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Aston Villa) and who will avoid relegation (Wolves, Bolton, Wigan, West Ham, Hull City, and Burnley). For those counting, that’s 13 of 20 teams who are still playing for something, and you know the other seven want to do everything in their power to ruin their opponents’ season. What’s great is that these battles are fought every year until the last weeks, unless a team is truly dominant and wraps up the title early.
Perhaps my favorite of these battles is the relegation battle. Anyone who is a fan of March Madness would love the relegation scraps near the end of the season. These players may not be the greatest in the world, but they certainly are skilled and they are trying as hard as Tyler Hansbrough, or Luke Harangody. These games are the antithesis of the NBA tanking phenomenon, and something that should be seriously considered by the NBA to stop teams from sitting their best players to improve their draft position. How funny would it be if the top two teams in the NBA Development League replaced the two worst teams in the NBA? Can you imagine seeing the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Iowa Energy next year instead of the New Jersey Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves? There is already a team in Oklahoma City, and they have pretty great crowds. The entire state of Iowa would probably cheer on the Energy if they were allowed into the NBA, even if it only lasted a year.
Finally, for those of you who hate the NCAA tournament: you think it’s just a bunch of players who wouldn’t last two seconds on an NBA court? You’d rather watch any of the leagues’ All-Star games, where the best in the world compete against each other? I present the Champions League. While the teams involved aren’t exactly all-star teams, they might as well be. On teams like Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Real Madrid, every player on the field also plays for his national team. The best club teams throughout Europe compete to determine the continent’s best every year. The second legs of the quarterfinals were played after I wrote this, but I’m certain that they were highly entertaining and set up exciting matches for the semifinals. Champions League soccer is simply the best expression of talent you can watch, no matter the sport. The second half of the first leg between Arsenal and Barcelona was one of the most exciting sports events I have watched, and this type of entertainment seems to happen every year. (Like last year’s Chelsea-Liverpool quarterfinal ending 4-4, look up the highlights.) After being dominant in the first half but having nothing to show for it, Barcelona went up 2-0 as Zlatan Ibrahimovic exorcised the demons that had kept him scoreless against English opposition previously. It seemed that Arsenal had no chance and would submit meekly to the Catalan giant. However, the introduction of Theo Walcott sparked Arsenal back to life, resulting in a final score of 2-2. This sets up a highly intriguing encounter at Nou Camp. With both of Barcelona’s first choice central defenders suspended, Arsenal’s flowing attack certainly has a chance to do damage, but the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, certainly will have something to say at the other end.