Soccer is a global sport. It is played in almost every country in the world, and soccer competitions have global viewing numbers that blow all other sports (and even the Olympics) out of the water. The 2014 FIFA World Cup Final has been by far the most viewed sports event in recent times, with over 700 million viewers. Next was the 2012 UEFA Euro Cup Final, which attracted somewhere in the region of 250 million viewers. Third was the UEFA Champions League Final, with over 200 million viewers. It is not until the fourth spot that a non-soccer event is on the graph, with the American NFL Super Bowl attracting approximately 150 million views, just one fourth of that of the World Cup Final.
(Photo: Sporting Intelligence)
Soccer is the most watched and the most played sport in the world, and thus it makes sense that it’s top professional leagues are different and superior in structure than those of any other sport in the world. In my opinion, European soccer is more competitive than any American sports league because of the format of the leagues, the multiple competitions that soccer clubs must partake in, and the intense rivalry between not only each team, but each league. Diehard NFL, NBA, and MLB fans, now might be a good time to stop reading.
The Format of the Domestic Leagues
The first major point I would like to address is the format of European soccer leagues in comparison to American sports leagues. There are two glaring differences in this department, and the first is relegation. In every top European league, the bottom three teams in the table each year are relegated to the lower division. Most significantly, this means that the worst teams in the league have something to fight for for the entire season. In the Premier League, one of the most exciting stories at the end of the year is always whether or not relegation-threatened teams can make what is called a “great escape.” This means that the team is in horrible shape towards the end of the season, probably sitting at the very bottom of the table, but then they suddenly win many of their final games and barely escape the drop. An excellent example of this phenomenon is the 2014-15 Leicester City team. They were in last place from November until April, but then they sensationally won seven of their last nine games, including an emphatic 5-1 victory on the last day of the season, and earned their place in the league for the next season. If you look at the table right now, you will see Leicester City in first place, on the verge of completing the greatest cinderella story in sports history.
(Photo: The Express)
This kind of excitement is unmatched in American Sports. Towards the end of the year, all that matters is who is doing the best and who will make the playoffs. No one cares about the teams at the bottom because they no longer have anything to fight for.
If Leicester had been relegated, however, then they would have had to go down to the Sky Bet Championship, essentially the “B League” in American terms, and they would not be able to get back up to the Premier League until they finish in the top 3 in the Championship. However, there is much less money in the Championship, and this means that the club has to cut back spending on everything from player wages to the amount of staff they employ to the quality of gear that they can purchase for their players. Additionally, skilled and well known players will often refuse to play in the Championship, and teams from the Premier League will swoop in and buy them, so the relegated teams often lose most of their best players to add insult to injury.
Being relegated can completely shatter a club if it is not handled well. A good example of this phenomenon is Portsmouth FC. In the 2007-08 season, Portsmouth finished 8th in the Premier League and won the FA Cup. They had well-known manager Harry Redknapp at the helm and renowned players such as Glen Johnson, Sol Campbell, and Peter Crouch in their ranks. In 2014, however, they found themselves languishing in England’s 4th division and were just finishing paying off all of their financial debts after a torrid couple of years. Johnson, Campbell, Crouch, and Redknapp were all long gone.
The fear of relegation also fuels yet another difference between American sports and European soccer: The incentive for owners of the clubs to invest profits back into the team. In American sports, owners can afford to pocket much of the profit that the club makes, because there is not a scenario that will very drastically reduce their income. In soccer, however, relegation is a huge financial problem, and owners often reinvest as much money as possible back into the team to ensure that they maintain their status in the top flight.
The point is, in European soccer, finishing at the bottom of the table has serious negative implications for a club from every perspective, especially with new television deals for the Premier League meaning that even lower status teams in the Premier League will still make exponentially more money from television viewership than the best teams in the Championship. In American sports, and yes the MLS too, obviously finishing in last place is not good, but there are no real consequences. In fact, in many American sports, the worst teams receive the best draft picks for the next year. Instead of losing their best players like relegated European soccer teams do, they have the opportunity to sign the best young players available!
(Photo: The Sports Banks)
The other facet of European club soccer that is different from American sports is the fact that there are no playoffs. In American sports leagues, where you finish during the regular season does not matter that much as long as you make the playoffs. Yes, the higher you finish the worse the team you play first will be, but if your goal is to win the playoffs then you would have to play the best teams at some point anyways. In my own college soccer season this year, we finished in 8th place in our league and went into the playoffs as the worst seed. We then beat the #1 and #2 seeds and advanced to the playoff finals. In my opinion, we should not have had this opportunity, because it does not reflect the results we got over the course of the entire season. If there were no playoffs, we would have finished 8th and would have had no notion of even coming close to winning the league.
In European soccer, however, how well you finish the year is not determined by a few games at the end of the season, but instead by your performance throughout the year. If a team loses their first game of the season and then finishes in second place one point behind the title winners, their failure to win the league could be traced back to the very first game of the season. This means that winning a European soccer league requires a higher level of consistency and focus than any other sports league. You are judged and remembered based upon your performance over a period of nine months instead of a period of several games at the end of the season.
Finally, it is not just about who wins the league and who gets relegated. The top 4 teams in England, for example, qualify for the Champions League and the 5th placed team qualifies for the Europa League. So even if a club cannot realistically win the title, it can still set its sights on qualifying for a major European competition for the next year and compete heavily in an attempt to finish several spots below 1st place. In American sports, it is all about who wins. No one remembers the second placed team, let alone the third, fourth and fifth. I already forget who the Broncos beat this year in the Super Bowl!
In European soccer, every team is also competing in multiple competitions that are happening at the same time as their domestic league campaign. The top teams can be simultaneously involved in up to five competitions. Some of them are against only teams from their own country, some are against teams from all over Europe, and some are against teams from all over the world. Additionally, the best players from each country also have to play for their country’s national side both during the regular season and in the off season.
This multi-faceted schedule holds a degree of complexity that is not replicated in the slightest in any American sport. Let’s take the recent schedule of Manchester City as an example.
They lost to Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur in early February in the Premier League, and then lost an away FA Cup tie to Chelsea on February 21st. Just three days later, they had an away game in UKRAINE for the UEFA Champions League knockout stage. Four days after playing in Kiev, they had to go to Liverpool to play a Capital One Cup final, and then they returned to Liverpool again on March 2nd for a Premier League match, which was followed three days later by another Premier League match against Aston Villa.
From February 21st to March 5th, they played five games (four of which were away), participated in four different competitions, and had to travel to Ukraine. In general, European soccer teams are given a week between league games, but the presence of other competitions means that instead of taking a week off, Manchester City had to fly to Ukraine and play two games per week for three weeks in a row.
This grueling schedule also has other implications. One group of eleven players could not have played every game in this period without getting injured, or being extremely tired at the very least. This requires Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City’s manager, to have incredible squad depth, meaning that he has players on the bench who do not usually play, but are good enough to come in and win games when the normal starters are too tired to play.
When assessing squad depth, managers must also take into account that some of their players will inevitably be injured. In this particular case, Pellegrini’s team was plagued with injuries, and with so many games in so little time, Pellegrini essentially had to sacrifice one game by playing bad players so that his normal starters could rest. We can see evidence of this in the FA Cup tie against Chelsea, which they lost 5-1. Pellegrini knew that he had a match in Kiev just three days after the FA Cup game, so he played six players who had never played for the first team before. The consequence of the tight schedule and the unluckiness of injuries in this particular case was that Manchester City were eliminated from the FA Cup, England’s most prominent domestic cup, by an embarrassing scoreline of 5-1.
(Photo: Manchester Evening News)
There is not really anything like this in American sports. NBA, NFL, and MLB players play a set schedule of strictly league games with reasonable and usually unchanging amounts of rest in between each game, and the only other major competition some of the players are involved in is the Olympics, which only happens every four years.
Multiple Leagues Competing to Buy Players
Not only does each European soccer team have to compete with other teams for trophies, but each league has to compete with other leagues for world dominance. The first thing the leagues compete for is the best players. Let’s return to the NBA players in the Olympics conversation to establish a comparison. The USA has won gold at 5 of the last 6 Olympics in basketball. Not only does no other league in the world come close to the NBA, but no other nation comes close to the USA. There are no players outside of the NBA that are comparable to Stephen Curry and LeBron James.
In soccer, however, the best players in the world are distributed across Europe. World class players can be found from Spain to England to Germany to Italy to France. The 2015 FIFA World Team of the Year contained players from all of these five nations, except for England. These leagues are all constantly competing with each other for the best players. We see astronomical transfer fees every year for the best players to go abroad to other countries, but a far more interesting facet of the struggle to attract the best players is how the big teams find relatively unknown players. Leicester City, who are currently in first place in the most competitive league in the world (England’s Premier League), have players from all over the world in their 25-man squad list. Their roster includes an Australian, a Dane, a Jamaican, a German, an Irishman, two Cameroonians, one Algerian, one Argentine, and players from Japan, France, Wales, Switzerland, Austria, and Poland.
The fact that Leicester City’s squad contains such a diverse array of players suggests that scouting for top European soccer teams reaches all over the world. One of the best center backs in the Premier League this year is from Jamaica, and my choice for player of the year, Riyad Mahrez, is Algerian. Mahrez and N’Golo Kante, another key member of Leicester’s success this year, were both found playing in the second division of France by Leicester’s scouting team. The fact that players playing at such a low level are now on top of the best league in the world and being linked with moves to Real Madrid and Barcelona suggests that the next star could potentially be found anywhere. This means that the top clubs must scour the world, going to insane lengths and scrutinizing minute details in order to find the best young talents.
(Photo: The Independent)
In American sports, this is not the case. The top players are all pretty well known, for the most part, and it is not a matter of finding them, but rather who will pick them up. In fact, there is a draft in every major American sport, the MLS included, where all the best young prospects are conveniently in one room for teams to just snatch up. Sure, a lot of research goes into which player teams decide to draft, but they did not have to send scouts to obscure corners of the world to find them, they are simply mostly coming out of American colleges playing on nationally televised and heavily watched teams.
In conclusion, the format of European soccer leagues makes it so that every team has something to fight for, and success is judged on a long term scale, which requires consistency throughout an entire year instead of a short spurt of high performances to win the playoffs. Soccer teams have to fight on multiple fronts, staving off competition in the league, in domestic cups, and in European competitions with little rest in between. And finally, many different leagues are all competing to buy the best players in the world, and also to find the talent that they believe can grow into the stars of the future.
For these reasons, I believe that European soccer is a more complex, more competitive, higher form of sports competition than any American sports league. If you agree, disagree, or have comments, questions, or arguments against my own, please leave a comment below. We would love to hear what you have to say.
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