(Check here for Part II of this post, and click here for Part III.)
This time a year ago, I couldn't have told you that it's a sleepy time of the year for soccer/football fans. I would have only the vaguest idea that the English Premier League – arguably the best domestic football league in the world – had wrapped up its games for the year. I probably couldn't have told you that there won't be many games until the domestic leagues start back up in August (this being a non-World Cup year).
You see, I'd been Tivoing the occasional English Premier League ("EPL") game for the past 4 years, but I didn't really care. Kind of like having a baseball game idly playing on the TV or radio during the summer, I found these games to be pleasant background noise while fussing about the house, doing chores. When I'd hear the fans roar as I was taking out the recycling, I'd come back to the living room to replay the goal.
Something changed this season and I became vastly more interested in English soccer than previously. I'm not sure what prompted this bout of johnny-come-lately fandom. Perhaps this phenomenon is merely the flourishing of my long-budding Anglophilia, a condition nurtured by law school's frequent reference to the English heritage underlying our legal system. Whatever the cause, I'd Tivo all 5 live games available on the straightforwardly named Fox Soccer Channel, hyperwatching them on fast-forward later. I battled a restless night or two by perusing Wikipedia, learning about the various teams and traditions.
Halfway through this past season, I determined that this diffuse interest in the entire English top league would not do, and that I'd need to actively root for one team above all others to enjoy the sport more fully. A friend referred me to a piece written by the popular and silver-penned sportswriter Bill Simmons, who guided his readers on a similar journey at the start of last season (I won't spoil it by revealing his choice). Simmons (whose column on ESPN.com is probably the most widely read sportswriting in the US) prompted other web denizens to offer their odes to the EPL. This is my ode.
Yet, before I advance the argument made clear by this post's title, let me explain for a minute why you, probably-a-Yankee blog reader...
- This sport is the most popular sport in the world. Occasionally you'll hear that the Super Bowl is the most watched event globally, or that such-and-such cricket match is where it's at. These are silly distractions. Soccer/football is the mama of all sports. Billions and billions of Elvis fans can't be wrong. Give it a chance.
Of the domestic leagues, the EPL is globally the most popular and uniformly attracts the best players from the top of the table to the bottom. An Anglophobe? France's Ligue 1, Germany's Bundesliga, Italy's Serie A, and Spain's La Liga are also quite good, but I can't help you much with any of these.
- The winner of the regular season wins the league, unlike US sport leagues, where the winner of a season-end tournament wins the league. No tournament = no lucky team to win the league at the end of the year after a forgettable season. You're rewarded for consistent play all season long. Somehow that seems more fair.
The downside of lacking a year-end tournament? Sometimes a lopsided league winner will be determined a few weekends or a month before the end of the season. Combating the ennui of a long-determined winner is...
- The Wonder of Relegation. Relegation is the awesome Shiva of sports, destroyer and transformer.
England (like many a soccer-addled country) has multiple professional soccer leagues. Relegation means that the bottom 3 EPL teams are sent to the 2nd flight league, the Championship, and the top Championship teams rise to the EPL. This happens serially, with each league sending their best teams up and their worst teams down.
The result is something like Darwinism for sports. Good teams are rewarded, bad teams are punished. You don't have the Milwaukee Brewers — a profitable team that will never, ever do anything meaningful in the top US baseball league. Since team owners are not monopolistically locked into their leagues, and since the lower league teams aren't farm teams, owners of EPL teams simply cannot field a mediocre product year-in-and-year-out and count on reaping profits from an over-loyal fanbase.
Winning the league – as Manchester United did this year – is great, but a string of victories resulting in a league cup lacks the life-or-death urgency of those clubs locked in a struggle to stay afloat in the league. This year, the final relegation slot came down to a duel between two bottom teams on the last weekend, exacting such an emotional toll that both the winning and the losing managers quit after the game. That's crazy, tense, exciting stuff. Compare that to the games at the bottom in US leagues once teams have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Those games are so boring and lifeless that admission should be free.