Thoughts on the Champions League Final

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Will

Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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30 Responses

  1. Will, I think you’re kind of over-emphasizing any recent dominance by a select number of teams. The Euro leagues have always had far, far less parity than any of the American sports leagues.

    The Premiership has always (i.e., for the last quarter decade) been dominated by Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man U (with Chelsea jumping in as Johnny-come-latelies due to an influx of Russian Petro dollars/gangster funds). And the Continent has similarly had dominant franchises: Juventus, AC Milan, Barca, etc. I don’t pay too much attention to the Bundesliga, but I imagine it’s the same. And I tend to see a fair amount of overlap from year to year in the Champions League from the Turkish league.

    I think it’s something the people of Europe have come to live with. When I lived in England, I resided in a small town outside of Ipswich. Everyone cheered for Ipswich township — who was in the league below the Premiership at the time, whatever that was called at the time — but we also picked one of the “Big 3” to cheer for. It was kind of funny, actually: when I first moved there someone explained it to me. “Everyone loves Ipswich, but who do you REALLY cheer for,” the “REALLY” meaning “Liverpool, Man. U., or Arsenal.” (I chose Liverpool, largely because of John Barnes. I chose poorly.) I think parity is an oddly American institution…and not a bad one! The NFL is better than ever because of it. I just don’t thin that’s what the Euros are going for…Report

  2. A secondary point: Newcastle was just relegated in 1989, so it’s not quite as rare as you make out. The only guys who are absolutely safe are those big four. Everyone else exists at a notch below…Report

  3. Avatar Will says:

    Sonny –

    I cheer for Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool, so I hear what you’re saying, but I think soccer would be a lot more interesting if the big national leagues were a bit less top-heavy. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but the thought of all these grand old clubs losing fans and revenue to franchises run by Arab sheiks and Russian petrocrats is almost too much to bear.

    I think the trend towards top-heavy competition is especially noticeable on the continent. The only elite team left in the Bundesliga is Bayern Munich, and I think they’re going to lose a few good players this off-season. The Dutch league has dropped off the map entirely. French clubs like Lyon or Paris St. Germaine used to be pretty good – now, not so much.

    Maybe Europeans prefer a few elite clubs battling it out year after year, but a more “egalitarian” system sounds a lot more interesting.

    PS – I think you’re right about Newcastle – I probably shouldn’t have compared them to the New York Knicks. That said, they were pretty nasty in the mid-90s, and it’s a shame to see them relegated.Report

  4. I wonder how much of the complacency about Euro top-heavyness has to do with a desire for some consistency in the Champions League/UEFA Cup. Think about it: if the top three (well, I guess, four now, right?) teams make the Champions League, and everyone cares more about the Champions League than the national league championships (as many of the international coaches **coughRafacough** seem to), then doesn’t it make sense that there would be some complacency about the static quality of the top Euro leagues? Wouldn’t you rather see the same great teams play year after year instead of seeing some random squad sneak in? I kind of would…Report

  5. Avatar Will says:

    To be honest, I like the idea of injecting a little uncertainty into soccer. I mean, the media tried to portray Barca as a freakin’ underdog leading up to the championship. Talk about a sport in need of some drama.

    It’s also worth noting that salary-capped leagues still produce some dominant teams, as well as the occasional dynasty. The NBA seems to have the best of both worlds in this respect.Report

  6. I think I’m with Sonny on this one, although I’ll ‘fess up to not watching European football much the last three or four years, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the game and everything to do with a lack of opportunity.

    Anywho, while there may not be much parity in the national leagues, there is plenty of parity within the Champions League. Maybe the better way to look at it would be to think of the Champions League as sort of the NFL of Europe, with the national leagues as professional-caliber college football conferences. It’s not as if we have that much parity in college football, yet there are more than a few people who find it far more interesting than the NFL. To be sure, the analogy isn’t exact – NFL teams don’t play in college conferences on Saturday and NFL games on Sunday. Still, maybe it’s helpful to view Man U. as equivalent to the Texas Longhorns when they play domestic matches, and then as the Dallas Cowboys when they play in Europe.Report

  7. Avatar Roberto says:

    I have nothing to add to these comments save that I can’t believe that the words “Real Madrid” haven’t appeared here yet. Not that I’m a Real fan — shudder.
    As a long-time sabermetrics fan, it’s hard to imagine how you could apply these principles to football — there’s not enough scoring. In basketball you can create measures such as offensive efficiency because, with a few notable exceptions such as Ben Wallace in his prime, everyone is expected to contribute offensively and even the Wallaces’ performance can be measured statistically, i.e., rebounds, blocked shots, steals, etc.Report

  8. Avatar rob says:

    It might’ve been overhyped in the sense that (since I read mostly the English press on soccer) pundits expected it to be either (a) a titantic clash between two equally matched teams or (b) a brutal affair in which cutthroat United suffocate Barca while taking advantage of Barca’s “weak” backline, but Barca certainly weren’t overhyped. If anything, they were better than I’ve heard (this is the first full game I’ve watched them play season) — absolutely dominant in the midfield, eerily calm and patient with the ball, and defensively much better than the pregame chatter suggested (Puyol completely owned Ronaldo, while Pique and Toure were dominant in the middle and Silvinho found more space to attack down the left than he gave up).Report

  9. Avatar rob says:

    And while I don’t follow La Liga, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Barca are similar to the Red Sox and Real Madrid are the Yankees? (The latter I am pretty sure about, the former not so sure)Report

  10. Avatar Will says:

    Roberto –

    Scoring isn’t the only thing sports analysts look at. Perhaps soccer managers could record tackles attempted/tackles won, the accuracy of players’ passes, or the likelihood of a certain player incurring a penalty. That sort of information strikes me as pretty useful to any manager.

    Mark –

    Fair point, but even the NFL has a salary cap to preserve some inter-league parity. That doesn’t stop dominant teams from emerging, but at least it does something to help perennial bottom-feeders.Report

  11. Avatar Will says:

    rob –

    Good point, though Real wasn’t very competitive this year. I hear they’re going after Ronaldo in the off-season, though.Report

  12. Avatar rob says:

    Ok, one more comment — this article might be of interest as it describes the differences in ownership and management philosophy between Barcelona and United. Probably does more to reinforce Will’s original point than not, though I find the drama created by the un-egalitarian structure of European soccer quite entertaining (and perhaps a more accurate stand-in for the rest of life than the salary-capped American leagues).Report

  13. Avatar Will says:

    Rob –

    Great article. Maybe I was too hard on Barca above.Report

  14. Avatar rob says:

    I’m not sure that you were, in that I suspect that if I followed a team in La Liga, I would despise a financial structure that favors the big teams so heavily, much as I’ve developed a healthy distaste for the big four in England through following Everton (who were doing much more poorly when I started following them than they are of late).

    On the other hand, I don’t despise Arsenal like I do Chelsea or Manchester United, and surely that’s because Arsenal and Arsene subscribe to a certain aesthetic of football which appeals to the neutral and even the rival? Which is what Barcelona do as well (even better than Arsenal). Moreover, both teams have managed to achieve their successes, in large part, by playing graduates from their youth teams rather than buying their best players.

    But I still think there’s a lot of truth to the general thrust of your argument. The general feeling among the punditocracy has been that the German league has been by far the most exciting this season, as there was a genuine title race between both the likely candidates (Bayern, Schalke) and the unlikely (Hertha Berlin, Hoffenheim). The structural problems you describe are certainly responsible for the lack of that excitement in England and Spain, though it might be that the German league’s example suggest that more chaos (Hoffenheim, for instance, had never before been in the top league, if I recall correctly) is as good an antidote to a stale climate at the top as more parity.

    All this might suggest we should hope that MLS (with its salary cap and nearly absurd level of parity) emerges as a true competitor to the Euro leagues, so that the two models can go head to head for players and spectators.Report

  15. Avatar sidereal says:


    Second, are European soccer analysts developing their own brand of sabermetrics?

    Football is much harder to analyze statistically because it’s so continuous. Baseball is relatively easy, since it’s mostly a serious of discrete events. A left-hander is up against a right-hander with men on first and second down 3-2 in the 8th. I can analyze that situation all night long, because the data has easy hooks. American Football comes close, with its series of discrete plays. Basketball is harder, because it’s continuous, but the shooting events can be analyzed reasonably easily. Hockey is harder. Soccer is hugely difficult. Giggs knocks a pass into the corner and Ronaldo picks it up. That’s good, but how do you describe it? Successful pass? Sure, but so is a 10-foot knockback to the keeper and they aren’t the same value. Successful long pass? What’s long? Does it matter if Ronaldo scores later? Does it matter if he got closed down on by 2 guys but Rooney over in the other corner had nobody marking him, so it was actually a bad pass?

    All that said, yes, that analysis is being doneReport

  16. Avatar Will says:

    Informative stuff. Thanks, sidereal!Report

  17. Will:
    I agree with you. I remember a time(15 to 20 years ago) when teams like PSV Eindhoven used to be really good. When was the last time you heard a peep from the Dutch League? I can’t remember. The thing that struck me about the game Wednesday was how ManU controlled the game the first ten minutes until Barca scored, and they never recovered after that. The balloon was popped.Report

  18. Avatar Nav says:

    i suspect, that much like the myth of american social mobility, this notion that soccer is less competitive than american sports is as a perception as it is based in reality.

    to begin with, the very fact that the analogy of choice for a behemoth team that dominates from year to year is the new york yankees, should give one pause when declaring baseball to be a sport where the underdog can triumph.

    secondly, while the leagues are relatively stable in european soccer, the outcomes of tournement-style comeptitions are not (neither nationally nor across europe).

    third, one can not simultaneously lament the fact the same teams win each year and that many previously very successful teams are no longer heard from. these are not mutually consistent. in a similar vein, many of the most reent european success stories, are coming off somewhat quieter periods, barcelona included.

    fourthly, and most importantly, what does less competative mean in this context. it seems that you’re using the correlation between the change in measures of success (say league position) and the time passed, as a proxy for competitiveness. that seems reasonable, but i’d want an actually comparison with data between sports and countries before i was convinced that the euro soccer is less competitive (strongly correlated league positions from year to year).

    furthermore, i’m not entirely whether correlations across time give the best measure of competitiveness – i’d have to do the math to be certain, but i think that even a weak correlation between year-to-year success would lead to long runs at the top. and trying to eliminate such a relationship could lead to other problems with competitiveness (in particular, i would worry about the change in incentives changing the approach of managers to tactics of games and strategies of seasons).Report

  19. Avatar Will says:

    Nav –

    I’m not arguing that soccer is less competitive than American sports. I’m arguing that soccer is more top-heavy than it was 10-15 years ago, which is a bad thing. I only mention baseball because small market franchises (who do get massively outspent by teams like the Yankees) have developed advanced statistical methods for player evaluation in an effort to compete with the behemoths. I’m curious to see if smaller soccer clubs follow suit.

    As for the rest of your arguments, I don’t really have any detailed analysis of soccer competitiveness over the past decade or so on hand, but I think it’s undeniable that previously competitive clubs (Newcastle, Paris St. Germaine etc.) are no longer relevant at the top tier of European soccer, and that elite players are increasingly concentrated at a few powerhouse clubs.Report

  20. Random thought – I’m not entirely sold on the idea of Europe as a whole being more top heavy than in the past (although it seems like a correct assertion). But, and I’m really just speculating here, is it possible that some of this is the result of the EU and the resulting open borders policies? This would seem to make interleague transfers a lot easier, and also allow more bidders on a given player (thereby driving the price of transfers for good players on middling teams way up).Report

  21. I started to respond to Nav here, and realized it was going to be a 500 word comment, so I made it a post over at my joint. Here’s a link:

    http://americasfuture.org/conventionalfolly/2009/05/29/parity-in-soccer-versus-parity-in-american-sports/

    Short version: The American sports leagues have far, far more parity (in terms of number of teams who have won titles) than any of the European soccer leagues, especially over the last decade (though the Premiership has never had much in the way of parity: only four teams have ever won the Premiership).Report

  22. Avatar Will says:

    Mark –

    Interesting hypothesis. I think social and economic mobility definitely allows rich clubs to pluck good players from obscurity, but I’m not sure the EU is a proximate cause of this (though its policies probably helped create the conditions that allow for greater cultural and economic interaction).

    Sonny –

    I think that’s spot-on, which begs the question: what approach do you prefer? American sports seem to have the best of both worlds, mixing a few dominant franchises (Patriots, Spurs, Yankees etc.) with any number of surprise contenders. I tend to think that European football would be more enjoyable if there was more parity, but the balance of comments here suggests most fans are pretty comfortable with the status quo.Report

  23. Another random musing (about which I’ve mused before) – it’s pretty ironic to me that for all the perceptions – both Left and Right – that Europe is a socialist paradise, the European football league system – with its economic system plus the relegation system – is an exemplar of capitalist sensibilities, while the American professional sports system – with salary caps, revenue sharing, and often strong unions, not to mention publicly-financed stadiums – is almost the opposite. What’s even more interesting is that soccer is derided in certain circles as inherently un-American despite all this.

    Also -while the question was directed at Sonny, let me just weigh in that there are obvious pluses and minuses to both. Parity is good because it keeps fans’ interest with respect to more teams, but disparity is good because it means you get to watch some truly unbelievable teams. That said, I tend to wind up coming down on the side of the European system because it can mimic (or even improve upon) the positive effects of parity through the relegation/promotion system, which ensures that games are important for a huge number of teams right through the end of the year, even if not necessarily for a good reason. Plus, the European tournament qualification system adds yet another layer of interest (albeit one that is at least equalled and maybe improved upon by wild card playoff spots in the US).

    The other cool thing about the relegation system is that it gives fans of smaller clubs the opportunity to have seemingly low hopes for their team that nonetheless have real value. I can’t imagine there being much fun rooting for a bottom tier baseball team for whom success would be a .500 record that still misses the playoffs. On the other hand, I can imagine getting quite a bit of reward rooting for a newly-promoted team to win 25% of their games and thereby avoid relegation.

    And yes, I’m a proud advocate of introducing the relegation system to MLB, and possibly the NBA and NHL (though it probably couldn’t work in the NFL since there’s no minor league system and since the AFL and CFL are different games entirely).Report

  24. Here’s what I said about parity over at my place in the comments (this is getting complicated):

    I think the American system is just about perfect, because it sets up a nemesis (the Yankees, the Lakers, the Patriots) for the fans of other teams to cheer against when their team isn’t in the mix while simultaneously allowing for more parity (those teams don’t win every year) and more hope at moving up.

    I’ll add that I think the American quasi-socialist system of sports leagues (salary caps, redistribution of income, etc.) is kind of necessary since the leagues have monopolies on their various products. Should they be exempt from antitrust regulations? That’s a question for another day…Report

  25. Avatar rob says:

    Great thoughts, Mark.

    I was thinking about posting something similar about the value of the relegation system. It adds an element of risk to the season, which, while it can be terribly disappointing for the fan of the demoted team, is unlike anything in the major American sports. And so European league soccer has, beyond any debate about its aesthetic merit, a thrilling danger to it. Teams which once dominated their leagues — Wimbledon (winners of the FA Cup in 1988, yet dismantled a few years ago after falling several divisions) or Nottingham Forest (winners of back to back European Cups but relegated to the third division in 2005), for instance — can fall into obscurity, which infuses even (or perhaps especially) the direst of seasons with meaning.

    And I think its this structural difference — relegation — which is responsible for Newcastle’s downfall (mentioned by Will in the original post), not the financial disparity. Newcastle’s problem was that they spent poorly (Coloccini, Owen, Barton, etc.), not that they didn’t have the money to compete.Report

  26. Rob – very good point about Newcastle. Following your point, I managed to find this page: http://www.footballeconomy.com/stats2/eng_newcastle.htm

    It’s interesting, to say the least, even though it only measures through 2006. It looks like the classic case of a business trying to grow too fast for its own good and failing to give itself any room for error.Report

  27. Avatar Slim says:

    How can there be 26 comments about dominant teams without one mention of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Come on guys get your dynasties straight : PReport

  28. Avatar Nav says:

    will,

    fair game. you weren’t comparing american vs european competiveness, and i’m a lot more likely to be convinced that soccer may be less competitive than it used to be.

    having said that, i would reiterate here that small numbers are dangerous things. 10 or 15 years is not a long period in the history of european soccer, and you would have to do a lot more to convince me this is not a statistical fluctuation.

    much more in the comments at sonny’s place.Report

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