Thoughts on the Champions League Final
After an unbearably over-hyped build-up, Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Manchester United was pretty darn anti-climactic. Adding insult to injury, the match forced casual or otherwise unaffiliated fans to choose the lesser of two (great) evils. Barcelona has gradually become the Iberian equivalent of Steinbrenner’s Yankees, and not since the Vandals crossed the Pyrenees has a side so thoroughly ravaged Spain. Lead by the grim Scott Sir Alex Ferguson and flopper-in-chief Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United isn’t much better, though at least the Premiership remains a bit more competitive than its Spanish counterpart.
The triumph of unbridled capitalism over European football has left the continent’s leagues incredibly top-heavy, with a few elite clubs absolutely dominating the rest of the competition. Not only has this contributed to the downfall of many storied older franchises (Newcastle United was just exiled from the Premiership, which would be roughly equivalent to the New York Knicks getting sent to the D-league after a few rough seasons), but any nouveau riche competitor can now buy its way into contention (I’m looking at you, Manchester City).
As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, Western Europe’s national leagues enjoyed a certain amount of parity. Top players like Zinedine Zidane or Jürgen Klinsmann could (and would) play a substantial portion of their careers in their respective national leagues without suffering the indignity of competing in a professional backwater. Now, however, the financial lure of big contracts from the Premiership or the Spanish or Italian leagues have hollowed out many of the older powerhouses, and the result has left the sport much worse for wear. The once-proud Dutch, German and French national leagues are shadows of their former selves. A few global franchises have created a football oligarchy.
Am I exaggerating for effect? Absolutely. But I think it’s undeniable that European football has become a lot more top-heavy over the past several years, and I lament the fact that so many older clubs are being left behind. I don’t have an answer to soccer’s current woes, but the sport’s plight does raise a few interesting questions.
First, has any European league seriously considered instituting a salary cap? It would be nice, for once, to find a Premiership champion outside the “Big Four”. However, I don’t know if the top clubs would agree to a salary cap, and I also suspect that any proposal would have to overcome a collective action problem. Namely, if one national league implements a limit on total compensation, elite players would still be able to skip across the border to command top dollar. As the de facto headquarters of (American) football, baseball and basketball, the United States’ domestic leagues have never faced a similar problem when structuring players’ salaries (though that may be changing).
Second, are European soccer analysts developing their own brand of sabermetrics? The logical response to being grossly outspent by one’s competitors would be to maximize resources through better player evaluation, which is precisely what small-market baseball franchises have done over the past several years. Soccer is presumably more difficult to analyze because unlike baseball, play can’t be broken down into discrete individual events. Despite facing a similar problem, basketball stat gurus seem to be catching up, so I wonder if soccer is far behind.
I admit I’ve drifted away from the beautiful game of late, so perhaps I’m simply ignorant of recent football-related developments. Anyone out there got answers for me?