Why European Soccer is so Successful- Part One

Posted: 01/18/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

European Football in general (from the English Premier League to La Liga in Spain to the Bundesliga in Germany to Serie A in Italy) is probably the most well-run, successful branch of leagues in sports. There are a variety of reasons for the success. One is just the vast number of teams in Europe. Among the universally recognized top four leagues mentioned above, there are 80 teams. And that’s just the best league in each of the four most soccer-centric teams in Europe. Truthfully, there are a countless number of professional teams in Europe, from the monsters (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, etc.) to teams that are barely better than neighborhood teams. Everyone has a team that they are fond of, and most people are intense about their teams, which explains the many brawls and “Football Hooligans” at games and events. European Football has excited fans, and excited fans lead to good leagues.

Another reason that professional soccer is so successful is that teams aren’t limited to playing against their league brethren, thanks to the tournaments that go on outside of league soccer. In the EPL, for example, each of the 20 teams play each other twice, leading to 38 games. But each Premier League team, no matter how good or poor, gets to play in two other tournaments. There is the League Cup, which starts early in the season, and the FA Cup, which starts a little later and is a lot more complicated (there are 737 teams involved and six qualifying rounds before the upper tier teams get involved). The League Cup is composed of 92 teams: the 20 Premier League teams, and all 72 teams in the Football League (the Championship, League One, and League Two). This is a great way of getting the theoretically worse teams involved (another way is the Relegation System, the main purpose of this article). In the League and FA Cup, the top teams generally rest some of their key players, as they are more concerned with the Premier League (either winning the league or staying in it) than they are with these lesser competitions. As a result, the lesser teams, which see these competitions as their best way to make an impression among fans, analysts, and higher teams, stand a good chance of winning some games. Players who want to move to a bigger team have their chance of impressing England’s giants. The occurrence of a player shining against a top team and subsequently moving to that team seems far-fetched, but isn’t. An example of this is the story of Cristiano Ronaldo moving to Manchester United. United played the Portuguese team Sporting in an exhibition and could not stop Ronaldo. United’s legendary manager Alex Ferguson immediately started conversation with the Sporting brass, and the rest is history. Ronaldo is now playing for Real Madrid, perhaps the most iconic club in soccer’s illustrious history, and is the best player in the world. The current holder of the FA Cup is Wigan Athletic, who are currently in the Football Championship, England’s second tier. Wigan beat Manchester City, the best team in the Premier League over the past three years, in the final. Swansea City, the reigning winner of the League Cup, sits in 14th place in the Premier League. Teams that don’t have great success in the main competition can often take solace in their performances in the League or FA Cup.

The best teams in European Leagues can also play teams from other countries in the Champions or Europa League. The Champions League is a 32-team competition that pits the best European teams against each other. What we see in this competition is the best of the best playing their best lineups against each other. The 16 teams in the knockout phase this year (half of the 32 advance from the group stages) include the best team in the world (Bayern Munich) as well as the rest of the best teams in the world: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, AC Milan, Athletico Madrid, Schalke, Leverkson, and Borussia Dortmund all come from the top four leagues, and the other four feature the best teams in some of the next best leagues in Europe- Paris Saint-Germain from France, Zenit from Russia, Olympiacos from Greece, and Galatasaray from Turkey. Anyway, the whole point of all that is that it can be argued that the 16 best teams in Europe are still playing in the Champions League. Unlike in some of the smaller competitions, the best teams move on, so this is a true gauge of talent. Teams can see how they stack up with the best in other countries, and the Champions League is the goal for many top-tier teams in Europe. This year in England, teams like Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton, and Manchester United are desperately trying to secure a top four spot (the top four in Germany, Spain, and England- the top three leagues- all qualify). The Champions League could be the difference between Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, arguably the best striker in the world, being happy and staying and being unhappy and requesting a transfer.

The Europa League is where all the next-best teams in Europe go. It features teams like Tottenham and Napoli who finish just behind the top teams or are knocked out of the Champions League early. And that’s another interesting dynamic: the third place team in each Champions League group is knocked out of the top competition, but still has a spot in the Europa League. Napoli, who had a tough draw in the Champions League with Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, might be disappointed that a team with their quality did not advance, but they can still go on and win the Europa League.

Another reason that European Football is so successful is because of their transfer system. A 20-year old Brazilian, for example, can transfer to one of the best teams in the world (Neymar to Barcelona is my example). The transfer system is made possible because of tremendous, extensive scouting. Scouts are on hand for a frightening number of games. They are sure to be at top competitions, but are also likely to be at smaller games if a talented player is involved. The transfer system allows teams to get players they want while not having to give anything away. In American sports, you rarely, if ever, see a trade with a top player moving for just money. Instead, players are traded for other players, and trades are sometimes sideways moves if not detrimental to both sides. Often, teams are better off just staying put, because you never know how replacing one player with another will impact your team. That problem is averted with the transfer system. When a player is unhappy, he can ask his team for a transfer. Depending on the team and the player’s caliber, the player may or may not be able to influence where he wants to go. The team that loses the player is also compensated for the loss of the player financially, rather than by taking a player back. But the financial gain can also go into replacing a lost player. Take Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham had a young player, Gareth Bale, who happened to be one of the best players in the world. However, Tottenham is not a top team, and didn’t have the money or the Champions League place to satisfy Bale. A top team, Real Madrid in this case, happened to want Bale, and were willing to play a record fee (91 million pounds, which is about 150 million US dollars) for him. Tottenham didn’t just sit back and accept the loss of a top player, though. They used the 91 million to buy other players. They spread that money over five players who have become key parts of their now deep rotation. Instances like this, albeit to a lesser extent, happen all over the world, and it’s a way that smaller teams are compensated by finding top players. By finding top players, they are financially compensated and then can spread the money out over a bunch of more attainable prospects. Then when someone else breaks out, they can do it again. Rinse and repeat.

There are some drawbacks to the transfer system, and a major one happens to be an issue that is also huge in American sports, particularly in baseball: the richer teams have an advantage. It’s true, and it’s a problem, both in baseball and in European soccer. Look at Manchester City. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and the first few years of the 2000s, Manchester City were not powerhouses, to say the least. In fact, they were often found in the second tier. Then, when the Abu Dhabi United Group became the new owners of MCFC in 2008, everything changed. They started spending, and then they started winning. In 2008, they signed Robinho for 32.5 million pounds, handily breaking their previous spending record. In 2010, they finished 5th in the Premier League, their best ever finish. In 2011, they won a big trophy (the FA Cup) for the first time since the 1970s. In 2012, they won the Premier League in the most amazing ending the League has seen, with a last second goal by Sergio Aguero (signed for 38 million pounds) against QPR pushing City ahead of their crosstown rivals in the last game of the season. Now, they are consistently one of the best teams in Europe. Funny how that happens, right? They have spent about 400 million on the transfer market since the start of the 2010 season, including high profile players like Aguero, Mario Balotelli, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri, Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, and Fernandinho for at least 20 million pounds. All but Balotelli, who has since moved on to AC Milan, are key parts of the current Manchester City team that is on a historic goal scoring pace. Money buys success. But again, that’s a problem that is a big part of American sports, and not just European soccer. There might not be a way to stop that, either in America or in Europe.

Unfortunately, a lot of these things, like the vast number of teams and the number of competitions, can not be implemented in the United States. But how about the transfer system? And how about the relegation system? Actually, the relegation system is the most intriguing of them all, and I’ll leave that for another post.

Part Two: The Relegation System- Can it be implemented in America?

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