Friday, November 16, 2007

Celebration of a Single Table

Over the last couple years, domestic football in Europe has suffered from an overabundance of non-competition. Too frequently, the title races has been decided only halfway or two-thirds of the way through the season. The most egregious example would be in France, where Lyon has won the title seven years in a row and has done so in most of those cases going away, leaving everybody else fighting for a distant second spot.

Last year brought us a little sign that things could be different -- even as Lyon and Inter bulldozed their way to the French and Italian titles, the German, Dutch and Spanish titles all came down to the final match-day, with back-and-forth results in all cases. Even the English league, which had been extremely straight-forward for a number of years, had something approximating a dash down the homestretch as the double-champion Chelsea bowed out to a resurgent Manchester United.

This year, at least so far, looks like it will be the best year for competition in a long time. Arsenal and Manchester United are neck-and-neck in the Premier League and I'm certainly not writing off Chelsea or even Liverpool, who are still only 6 points back (although Arsenal has a game in hand). Real Madrid, Villareal, Valencia and Barcelona are all grouped together at the top of La Liga, with no team looking truly convincing. In Italy, it's Inter, Juventus, Fiorentina and Roma. Even in Germany, where everybody expected the rejuvenated Bayern Munich to run the table, a recent patch of poor form has left the Bavarians only a point ahead of Hamburg and Bremen, two teams with an excellent core of players themselves. The Dutch league features the traditional Big Three all grouped together, doubtless snarling like dogs.

While Lyon are only 3 points ahead of Nancy with the second-place team having a game in hand, it seems likely at this point that they are starting to pull away from the pack. To be in first even after an extremely choppy start is an excellent position, especially considering that there doesn't seem to be a real challenger among the chasing teams. And this is going to be the next phase in the season for all the leagues, the point in time where fatigue and injuries separate the wheat from the chaff, the squads who have been riding a good run of form finding goals hard to come by, the player list getting threateningly short, finding out that the backup keeper maybe isn't quite as good as everybody thought.

And this is the beauty of the format used across Europe, where you play everybody home-and-away and the season ends with the team with the most points crowned champions. For a sport such as soccer, where luck and fate (not the same thing) play so much of a role in any individual result, it doesn't make sense to have the domestic title rest upon any single result (although it must be said that it does make sense for the World Cup to do so). The system rewards consistent success and makes each game more significant.

More importantly, it creates a larger sense of continuity across the length of the season as the momentum and emotions from a single game or series of games becomes this undercurrent of feeling that affects the players and the fans alike, each team carrying with them the narrative of performance. There is no reset button of the playoffs, no rescue for a team waiting to turn it on, it's a long haul death-march towards validation, for a season can be a success without a championship, depending on the context of the team. All it can take is results against your enemies, results against teams that are "bigger" than you, results that resonate higher than the meaningless regular-season contexts of a league with playoffs, results that are the reason why Blackburn still has followers, not because they expect Rovers to win the league; instead, those fans are there because of identity, a self-assigned tribal association that strikes deeper ground than where the team finishes at the end of the year.

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