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Who's Up? Who's Down? Who Cares?
by Paul Gardner, May 5th, 2008 6:30AM
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The English Premier League will be decided later this week and, as we all knew before the season even started, it will be either Chelsea or Manchester United that wins it. Maybe Arsenal could have won it, but, to no one's surprise, the Gunners didn't last the course.

So there's not much suspense or drama to be had from this situation. Anyway, one has to ask: how important is winning the EPL? From a strictly realist -- meaning financial -- point of view, it hardly matters at all these days.

What clearly does matter, big time, is making sure that you finish among the top four, so that you can play the following season in the European Champions League, and make oodles of money while doing so.
That thought will be regarded as sacrilege by the purists (I mean those who remain mulishly faithful to the traditional ways, regardless of whether they still have any value or meaning). But modern times are hostile ground for purists, simply because things change so rapidly these days.

Did I, as a boy, ever for one moment imagine a day when the FA Cup final would no longer be the greatest sporting event in the world? No, I sure didn't -- even though, when I was thinking that it was the greatest, it already wasn't.

And what of the FA Cup final today? Take a look at this year's version. I mean -- Portsmouth vs. Cardiff City? OK, it could turn out to be a great game, but that's not the point. What has happened to the FA Cup is that the big EPL clubs do not regard it as that important -- they're much more focused on winning the league. Or maybe not -- they're actually focused on finishing in the top four.

The FA Cup final has become a game with little soccer significance. An occasion, certainly, a moving one too. Do they still sing the hymn "Abide With Me" before the game? What on earth do they make of that famous line "Change and decay in all around I see?" Nothing no doubt, for the words convey nothing. The cup final makes for great television, a garish splash of schmaltzy showbiz -- but let's not kid ourselves that, in soccer terms, the cup final matters that much.

The same sort of declining importance can already be seen eating into the EPL. Not just the EPL - but all the other top European leagues -- the Italian Serie A, the Germany Bundesliga, the Spanish Liga.

Reason A is that these leagues are now dominated by a small group of rich clubs -- three or four, if that many -- that are the only possible winners. Reason B follows logically: that elite group from each national league is involved, during the domestic season, in Champions League games. That is where the interest and the money lies.

In other words, we now have a European League and -- exactly as its bitter opponents predicted -- it is already seriously overshadowing the domestic leagues. Take the situation with Chelsea and Man U. Rivals for the EPL title, and opponents in the Champions League final. One of them could win both, but let's suppose those two honors are shared ... it would be interesting to tap into the thinking -- the true thinking -- of the Chelsea and Manchester United people, the executives, the coaches, the players, the fans, to find out which title they would consider more important.

With the domestic leagues now being fought out among a small select group that really have their eyes on the Champions League, maybe the bottom ends of the leagues can provide a more competitive scene.

Possibly. Still looking at the EPL: Derby County is doomed, and it will be joined in the drop by two clubs from Birmingham, Reading, Fulham and Bolton. But one has to face up to an immediate problem here. That while the scrap at the top of the standings has elements of falsity because it is overshadowed by the superior importance of the Champions League, the struggle at the bottom is undermined by the total unworthiness of any of those teams to belong in the EPL (the same applies to the teams immediately above them, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Wigan).

All them are pretty dreadful -- so who cares who stays and who goes? I love the Cinderella story as much as anyone, but it wears mighty thin when, year after year, the have-nots fight worthily for promotion, then show us, with awful clarity, just why they were have-nots in the first place.

Will the teams coming up be any better? Of course not. I have a tremendous soft spot for Stoke City, as I attended some of my earliest pro games at their old Victoria Ground (gone, of course). For sentimental, for nostalgic, for localistic reasons, I wish them luck. But their chances of staying up, or even playing decent soccer, must be rated as slim.

The purists keep telling me that soccer will never make it here until we adopt promotion and relegation. I think they're dead wrong. I think it's much more likely that the rest of the world, this damned, abominably commercial world, will be forced to recognize the merits of the American franchise system.


  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst
    commented on: May 5, 2008 at 5:54 p.m.
    It would be impossible for me to agree with you more. I get the drama of relegation for the fans of those clubs, but for the neutral observer, watching a contest to determine you is the least biggest loser leaves something to be desired. It's like watching the 100m dash at the Olympics and getting excited for the guy who finishes 4th bottom; a guy no one will remember 10 minutes from that time. You are also right about pro/rel in this country. If we had pro/rel the league wouldn't have grown as much as it has already. In England, Spain, Germany & Italy there is already a de facto franchise system in place (especially in England) as the 3 teams that come up are invariably the teams that go straight back down and it looks like it's going to become more and more the case especially in England with the increasing disparity in revenue at the top compared to the bottom. It would be unique and interesting to have pro/rel here since it would set MLS apart from the other leagues, but I don't see how it would do anything to grow the league or do anything but create a system where 3 teams dominate and the rest of the country rots. A problem that is amplified in a country as large as the US. (look at Brazil, they care more about the state championships for that very reason. Or Russia where soccer struggles to be a no doubt about it #1 sport since the league is basically all about Moscow)

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