Monday, February 05, 2007

Tottenham Hotspur will never make the Champions League

It's pretty well established that the MLS is regarded in soccer circles around the world as something of a joke. As noble as the intent is, trying to popularize soccer in a place where it's drastically overshadowed by four other sports, those silly Americans still just don't know what they're doing.

The main point of contention from critics abroad seems to stem from the fact that most people in Europe can't get their heads around the playoff system. The arguement is that the playoffs are too much of a crapshoot, essentially rendering the regular season mostly meaningless. The way they see it, the clubs spend six months battling just to get into a virtually separate competition that lasts only a few weeks at the most. The team that has the best overall performance over the course of a full season isn't rewarded unless they win their games in November, when the MLS playoffs take place. This doesn't make sense, to them.

After following Tottenham Hotspur for five years, and most recently, watching their heartbreaking 3-1, extra-time defeat to Arsenal in the League Cup semifinal and their humiliating 4-0 drubbing at home at the hands of Manchester United, I am finally fully realizing the value of a playoff system.

When I first got into Spurs, it was because they were a middle of the table team at the time amidst a long run of mediocrity, but a team that research showed had been at the top before, and was one of the few strugglers to possess the resources to ever have a chance of getting there again. Or so I thought.

During the first few years of my Spurs fandom, the excuses were mismanagement and no clear plan. Then, Martin Jol took over, and rapid, tangible improvement could be seen. Young English players were brought into the squad and began to flourish. Last season, when Spurs spent November through April in the 4th spot in the EPL table - the last qualifying spot for the highly coveted and hallowed UEFA Champions League - the optimism knew no bounds. Even though Spurs lost out on 4th place on the very last matchday of the season, everyone was eager to proclaim that the club was right around the corner from being regular contenders in Europe.

As this season has unfolded, however, it's become more and more clear that Spurs, no matter what they do, short of a takeover by a foreign billionaire, will never ever be able to crack the top four. Spurs are talented, sure, but only just talented enough to compete with the "big four" of Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool on their day. Over the course of a full season, they simply aren't talented enough to show the type of consistency that any of the "big four" are able to show. And let's face it: no one is.

Soccer in England has gotten to the point where the "big four" have such a monopoly that all the rest of the teams can do is pray for a miracle. And even then, there's not much short of a plane crash that would do much to knock one of those front-running teams off its stride enough to create an opening in the Champions League. A key injury? No such thing, given the absurd depth of quality the drawing power and deep wallets of those teams are able to attract. They're all at least two or three quality players deep at every position.

It's a depressing point of view, but it's the truth. While the rest of the minnows beat up on each other, the "big four" will continue to cement the Champions League as an exclusive club that only they are permitted to take part in. Occasionally, another team will make a run at glory, like Spurs last year or Bolton this year, but in the end, the sheer depth and talent of those four clubs will shine through.

So what do those other clubs have to hope for? Well, not much. In soccer, success is measured solely by trophies won. With the Premiership title simply not an option and the Champions League almost completely out of the question, that leaves the domestic cups and the UEFA Cup. It's even difficult for the non-"big four" clubs to take home a domestic cup, though. Last year, the League Cup went to Manchester United and the FA Cup went to Liverpool. This season, Chelsea and Arsenal are squaring off in the League Cup final. A respectable run is all the rest of the clubs can hope for, and just reaching the quarterfinals or semifinals is no consolation to any of them.

That leaves the UEFA Cup, which is the underappreciated, underloved runt of a little brother to the Champions League. At one time, it carried much more prestige, but these days it's almost completely ignored except by those whose teams are participating in it. Those teams are the "short bus" of European contintental soccer. A win in the UEFA Cup final doesn't even get you anywhere except for an invite to the same competition the following year.

Basically, this is the future for a team like Spurs, talented but with nowhere near enough resources to be able to crash the "big four's" party: finish between 5th and 10th in the table, make deep runs in one or both domestic cups, compete regularly in the UEFA Cup. On the surface, that doesn't sound so bad, but like I said, the only way to measure glory in soccer is the amount of trophies won. A handful of UEFA Cups is not going to impress anyone, and on top of that it will start to become excedingly frustrating once everyone realizes that's basically the ceiling of what a team like Spurs is able to achieve.

It's a depressing notion, and it almost makes me think I'd rather support some middling Championship or League One team, where success can still be attained simply through promotion to the next level, or even a struggling EPL team, where just staying up is an accomplishment. Most of the teams in the EPL, though, are stuck in between. They have too much ambition and too much talent to get relegated, but not enough to ever make an impact.

Which brings me back to the whole playoff format vs. league format debate. The four major American sporting leagues, the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL, all have champions determined by a playoff system. And in each of those leagues, even the capless MLB, there's so much more parity than in European soccer leagues it's obscene.

What the playoffs do is not make the regular season meaningless, contrary to popular belief. They give more teams a chance to win. In the span of a year, we had the lowest-seeded AFC team win the Super Bowl, the MLB playoff team with the worst record end up capturing the World Series, and the lowest-seeded Western Conference team come within one victory of taking home the Stanley Cup.

It really says something that I'm more optimistic as a Pirates fan now than I am as a Spurs fan. In baseball, teams can get hot for a season or two even if they're as miserable as the Pirates are. No matter what Spurs do, there is, for all intents and purposes, a ceiling on what they're able to accomplish.

And for the teams that don't win, making it into the postseason is still a small token of victory. If a football team wins ten division titles in fifteen years, even if it only wins one Super Bowl, that's still pretty impressive. On the other hand, if a team finishes in the top half of the EPL table (but not the top 4) for ten consecutive years, and has a couple of UEFA Cups trophies to show for it, no one gives a shit.

In short, what American sports have that European soccer leagues only dream they could have is the factor of unpredictability. As beautiful and entertaining as the EPL is, it really could learn something from American sports.

This isn't the best piece of writing I've ever done, but it's something that I needed to get off my chest.

1 comment:

Jonnyray said...

I actually liked this a lot Will. Rather poignant for someone generally unfamiliar with the EPL and European, high level soccer. I'm just glad I don't have much invested in it, and can take simple pleasure in whatever meager success Fullham USA attain B-)