Sunday, September 19, 2010

Arsenal Fandom Update: 20,000 Leagues to Play In

If you remember, a few weeks ago I officially pledged my support of Arsenal FC in the English Premiere League.  Not that this was a momentous occasion for everyone, but I view it as a perfect opportunity to learn about the essence of what it means to be a sports fan.  It's also a chance to immerse myself in a world that until now was completely foreign to me, in the literal sense.

First, an update on the team.  Through 5 weeks of play, the Gunners are sitting solidly in second place in the Premiere League standings, only four points behind defending champion Chelsea.  An opening round draw with Liverpool, gifted to Arsenal by a late flub by Liverpool's goalkeeper, was cause for minor concern for exactly one week.  Three straight wins followed--an utter dismantling of Blackpool (6 goals to none) was followed by solid, if less brutal, victories over Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers.  Yesterday's match with mediocre Sunderland ended in a 1-1 draw, which has seemed to bring back some of the earlier worries.  On the upside, earlier in the week the team won an impressive 6-0 victory over Portugal's Braga in the Champions League.  Which brings me to the question of soccer leagues.

In the U.S., pro sports leagues are more or less segregated and insulated.  All 32 NFL teams play only other members of the league.  You don't see them playing Canadian teams or UFL teams or Euro League teams.  That's probably a bad example, since we're really the only ones in the world who play American-style football with any real commitment.  So let's look at Major League Baseball.  Lots of other countries have baseball leagues, with high levels of play.  Japan, Taiwan, Cuba, Venezuela, and a number of others have professional baseball leagues, with large fan bases and a high level of talent.  And baseball, like soccer, is an inclusive sport economically and athletically:  equipment costs are relatively low compared to American football, and the physical aspect of the sport is somewhat reduced in favor of skill and craft.  And yet, MLB teams never, ever, play Japanese teams.  The skill level is on average pretty evenly matched, which is testified for by the presence of so many Japanese players entering MLB over the last 10 years or so.  The playing philosophies are quite a bit different, for sure, but that would only make head-to-head play more interesting. 

European soccer has embraced this idea pretty much throughout its history.  The current English Premiere League is comparable to the Majors in American baseball.  There is a regular season schedule for all the teams to play each other, followed by an EPL tournament, and eventually, a champion.  The European Champions League is a round-robin tournament featuring several teams from each of the major European national leagues (England, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany have the largest and most prestigious leagues, but there are teams from everywhere in Europe).  The tournament meshes with national league schedules, so you'll see the leagues take a week off from each other now and then to play some other European team. 

Now, add to this the Carling Cup, which is essentially a knockout tournament of all 92 professional English soccer clubs in the top four divisions (I'll discuss English football divisions in the next installment--it's crazy).  And the FA Cup, which is open, at least in theory, to 762 (!) English and Welsh clubs.  And the UEFA Europa Cup, not to be confused with the European Champions League, which is yet another tournament open to many European teams.  All of these leagues and tournaments are played in parallel throughout the soccer season in Europe, which runs essentially from August to May.  In addition, national teams must also find time to practice and play for World Cup competition, basically participating in national all-star games every couple of months.  Obviously there is some disparity in the competition with these leagues:  for example, Chelsea's payroll probably equals the entire fifth division's payroll, and yet they get to play some of these teams head-to-head in the FA Cup.  But soccer is such a precise game that any club can win given the right conditions--and a bad day by somebody.  And there are obvious financial benefits for the lower-division teams to play first division teams, win or lose.

As an American professional sports fan, I find this parallelism daunting to the point of insanity.  How in hell do you keep track of all this, Europe-at-large?  This would be like the Cincinnati Reds playing a 162 game season with the rest of MLB, playing a round-robin tournament with all the best teams in Latin America, and playing in a huge knockout tournament with every minor league club from AAA on down to rookie ball, all overlapped in the same stretch of time from April to October.  Do English fans have loyalties to multiple teams in different divisions?  If so, how do they react when these teams must play each other?  I hate to end a long post on an open if there are any UK soccer fans out there reading, chime in.

Check back for more updates as the season progresses.  Next time:  "Promotion and Relegation" (or "The Thing That Would Fix American Baseball").

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