Tuesday, May 22, 2012

London Calling

Forget the Olympics.  For sporting drama, last weekend in London was unmatchable.  On Saturday, the Chelsea Football Club defied the odds and became the first soccer team from London to win the European Championship, beating Bayern Munich.   It was a victory as dramatic as it was improbable.   Improbable because:

  • Chelsea looked terrible this year.   In the English Premier League they finished in 6th place, their worst finish in 11 years.
  • Their road to the European championship was daunting.  In the round of 16, they lost a first leg match to Napoli 3-1.  They not only reversed that result, they went on to beat Benfica and mighty Barcelona to reach the final.
  • They fired their manager just two months ago.
  • The final against Bayern Munich came down to penalty kicks.  And as everyone knows, when it comes to penalty kicks, the Germans are terrific and Chelsea is terrible.
Chelsea has come close before.  When Russian business tycoon Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and spent gobs of cash on top players, Chelsea’s status as a perennial contender was assured.  Football traditionalists sneered at the nouveau riche from West London but you couldn’t argue with the results – 3 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups and 2 League Cups.  But the greatest prize, the UEFA European Championship, eluded their ambition.  They came excruciatingly close in 2008 when they reached the finals and lost to Manchester United in a penalty shootout.  The following year, they lost in heartbreaking fashion to Barcelona in the semi-finals.   Chelsea’s nucleus of core players – Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Peter Cech – were aging and this year it looked as if the window was finally closed.  And then, magically, thanks largely to Drogba’s heroics, it wasn’t.

Not only was Chelsea outplayed for nearly the whole game, but their opponents, Bayern Munich, enjoyed home field advantage.  The site was selected over a year ago – it was played in Munich’s Allianz Arena before 62,000 fans.  And even though the Champion’s League final is the biggest event in international sports, there was another soccer match played in London earlier in the day,  a match with even greater stakes played before 90,000 fans at Wembley.  The English Championship playoff final saw another London club, West Ham defeat Blackpool 2-1, earning promotion to England’s Premiership, the world’s leading domestic football league.

For uninitiated American soccer fans, there are two puzzling features of the European game.   The first is the way teams play in multiple tournaments at the same time during the same season.   Imagine if the NCAA basketball tournament wasn’t played in March.  Instead, teams merely qualify in March for the next season. Then, the following winter, tournament games are played on weekdays while ordinary conference games in the Big East and SEC  are played on weekends. That’s why a team like Chelsea can win the European championship while finishing in 6th place in the domestic league.  Additionally, there are various cup tournaments, such as the FA Cup which was also won by Chelsea in this magically bizarre season.

The other curious aspect of the European game is the system of relegation and promotion.  The three teams that finish at the bottom of the standings don’t merely suffer the insult and indignity of losing - they get kicked out of the league and are forced to play in a lower league the following season.   Their places in the league are taken by the top 3 teams in the lower division.  Imagine the worst major league baseball teams being demoted to the minor leagues and replaced by the top Triple A squads.  It’s ruthless, cruel and very exciting.  Below the Premiership is England’s Championship Division.  (It would be like baseball's Triple A if the teams were independent, rather than farm teams).  The top two teams from that division, Reading and Southampton already qualified for promotion.  On Saturday, Blackpool battled West Ham in a playoff for that third promotion spot.  The financial stakes for the club and the emotional stakes for the fans are enormous.    By virtue of winning the match, West Ham will receive over $ 70 million dollars in added revenue, attract new talent and play some of the best teams in the world.  Blackpool will languish another season in the limbo of the minor leagues. There’s jubilation in East London and agony on the Blackpool seaside.

If it was the best of times for Chelsea and West Ham, it was the worst of times for another London club, Tottenham.  Ordinarily, if a team finishes in 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th in the English Premier League, they qualify for the biggest of tournaments, the UEFA Champion’s League, which crowns a European champion.   Playing in Europe means revenue and glory for the club and excitement for the fans.  It means you’ve reached the big time.  Tottenham finished fourth.  They should be playing in Europe next year.  But here’s the rub.   Even though Chelsea finished in 6th, because they won the Champion’s League, they automatically qualify for the Champion’s League.   They take Tottenham’s spot. Tough luck Spurs.

For Tottenham’s north London rivals, Arsenal, the weekend was a mixed bag. The Gunners finished in 3rd and can breathe easy because they will be playing in Europe next year while their arch-rivals won't.  But another rival, Chelsea, now has the ultimate prize, a shiny trophy that painfully eludes Arsenal.   Jealously and resentment make for rivalry.  And rivalry is what it’s all about.

There are 20 clubs in England’s Premier League.   Next season, six of them will be from London.  In addition to Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham, there are Fulham and Queens Park Rangers, clubs with more modest ambitions.   But every year, there is something to fight for.  Sometimes it’s a trophy.  Sometimes it’s survival in the league.

It should be an interesting August.  Enjoy the Summer Olympics in London.  After that, the real fun begins.


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