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THE LEICESTER LESSON

Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win it all at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League campaign, pulled off the near-impossible when its closest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, came from ahead to tie host Chelsea, 2-2, allowing the Foxes to assume a seven-point lead with two matches remaining.

It was the first top-division championship in the 132-year history of Leicester, which had not finished higher than second in the then-English First Division since 1929.  A four-time loser in the English F.A. Cup final, its trophy case previously consisted of English League Cups won in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The Foxes–or Filberts, take your pick–were on the verge of relegation this time last year, but the unfashionable club from the English Midlands won seven of its last nine matches under then-coach Nigel Pearson.  It was an omen that this band of unknowns, with ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri hired to replace Pearson during the summer, had bigger things in store this season.  [May 2]

Comment I:  Leicester City, previously known on these shores only as the club for whom U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller once toiled in relative anonymity (1996-99), indeed took the EPL by surprise.  The Foxes were a true party crasher, finishing ahead of the usual suspects named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

So Leicester’s surprise climb to the top was amazing, fun, worth a headline or two even in the U.S. sports pages, and a refreshing break from the usual routine, which has seen previous EPL titles–since the Premier League was created in 1992–go to Manchester United 13 times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three, Manchester City twice and Blackburn Rovers once.  And it sent a wave of hope rolling across the country, lapping up against fans of clubs as pitiful as Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby County, Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth–for such a small country, the list is long.

But it serves as a lesson in America, where Major League Soccer, now at 20 teams, has designs on expanding soon to 28.  This isn’t about dilution of talent, it’s about dilution of interest.

The reason leagues like the EPL can hold their public’s interest with–usually–one of the same small cluster of clubs finishing first year after year is because of promotion/relegation.  No season is completely uninteresting for the fan of a mediocre-to-poor club as long as there’s the thrill of booing a perennial bully and the terror of dropping into the second division, or the generously named “Championship League.”

Without promotion/relegation, a bloated MLS runs the risk of being saddled with a dozen or more clubs that endure years–decades, even–in which they neither truly contend for a championship nor get punished for their mediocrity.  Death by boredom.

Will MLS ever adopt promotion/relegation?  No.  But perhaps it will reconsider its race to over-expansion, or at least try to publicly offer a justification for its “bigger is better” approach to running a soccer league.

Comment II:   The point was made in some quarters that outsider Leicester rolled to its 22-3-11 record and the league crown partly because it could keep its eyes on the prize while EPL royalty was wrung out by pesky midweek UEFA Champions League and Europa League commitments.

Or, in other words, the EPL’s top clubs sure are impressive, but they don’t win in Europe because winning the lucrative Premiership is Job One and they don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that’s dominated by one club (Germany, Bayern Munich) or two (Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).  Alas, they have to play one another on Saturdays, so the pursuit of Continental silverware is an afterthought left for midweek nights at faraway places.

That’s an excuse that England would do well to retire.

Deep pockets mean player depth, which means the means to get through league, domestic cup and European cup matches, and there are few clubs more wealthy than England’s big five.  If need be, they can just study Spain’s La Liga, where teams manage to find a way to win a variety of trophies or at least come within touching distance.  The UEFA Champions League final will feature, for the second time in three years, two clubs from one city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, one year after FC Barcelona came out on top.  Atletico won Europa League crowns in 2010 and 2012, and Sevilla, a Europa League winner in 2006 and ’07, just won its third consecutive Europa title, beating Spanish rival Villarreal in the semifinal.  And all these clubs had the wherewithal to compete in La Liga, a league that’s supposedly FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and a bunch of nobodies.

 

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THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE’S SAME GAME

Atletico Madrid, behind goals by Adrian Lopez, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, recovered from a scoreless draw at home in the first leg to pound Chelsea, 3-1, at Stamford Bridge to win its UEFA Champions League semifinal series, setting up an all-Spanish final May 24 in Lisbon.

The victory comes a day after Real Madrid humbled defending champ Bayern Munich, 4-0, on a pair of goals each by Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo and won its home-and-home set by a 5-0 aggregate.

The final, at Benfica’s massive Estadio de Luz, will mark the first time that teams from the same city have met for Europe’s biggest club prize.  Since the European Champions’ Cup became the UEFA Champions League in 1992, four finals have pitted clubs from the same country:  2000, Real Madrid 3, Valencia 0, at the Stade de France outside Paris; 2003, AC Milan 0, Juventus 0 (Milan on PKs), at Old Trafford in Manchester; 2008, Manchester United 1, Chelsea 1 (United on PKs) at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium; and 2013, Bayern Munich 2, Borussia Dortmund 1, at Wembley Stadium in London.

Real Madrid, a finalist for the 13th time, will be seeking an unprecedented 11th European champions title.  Atletico, which last appeared in a final 40 years ago–losing to Bayern Munich–will be playing in its second final.  [April 30]

Comment:  Like Spanish soccer?  You’d better.

(Full disclosure:  This writer likes Spanish soccer.)

This derby showdown–to be played more than 300 miles from Madrid–will be the fifth this season for the two teams, and the sixth since Atletico defeated Real in last May’s Copa del Rey final, ending a 14-year, 25-match winless streak against its rival.  In La Liga, Atletico, the current frontrunner, won at Real, 1-0, in September and tied at home, 1-1, last month; Real swept their Copa matches in February by an overall 5-0.

It raises the question, what will this grand finale prove?

Sometimes, these things work.  Last year’s UEFA Champions League final was an entertaining advertisement for German soccer.  But for those who want to see a real contrast in styles, a meeting of sides that don’t know one another too well, it often does not.

There’s no going back to the days when the European Champions’ Cup was true to its name and involved only defending league champions.  This year’s competition was open to a whopping 76 clubs, including a handful from the more powerful nations who dazzled the soccer world the previous season by finishing fourth in their league.  Of course, this is about money–lots of it.  Clubs that qualified for the group stage automatically pocketed $11.9 million; maximum points in the group would bring in another $8.3 million.  The payout for an appearance in the knockout rounds began at $4.8 million.  As for the final, one of the Madrids will walk home with an additional $14.5 million.  And the public doesn’t seem put off by a same-country final:  Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund last year attracted a global television audience of 360 million–better than three Super Bowls.

But from a sporting perspective, the UEFA has both turned its prime club championship into the impossible dream for dozens of its member associations and reduced its secondary competition–once known as the UEFA Cup and now known as the Europa League–into an afterthought for all but the most ardent fans.

As for the “champion” credentials of this year’s two finalists, Real Madrid qualified for the 2013-14 Champions League by finishing second to FC Barcelona a year ago, a whopping 15 points off the pace; Atletico was third, a dot in the rear-view mirror at 24 points back.

 



THE GAME’S FOGGY CRYSTAL BALL

Is the world ready for another Beckham?

According to the Associated Press, David Beckham’s teenage son might be the next person in his family to play in the English Premier League.  Brooklyn Beckham, at 13 the oldest of Beckham’s four children, is having a tryout with Chelsea and played in an under-14 game at the club’s Cobham training center.

Chelsea tried to keep Brooklyn’s trial a secret, the Daily Mail reported, but some of the club’s academy players couldn’t resist posing for photos with Dad, who watched from the sidelines.  Those shots, of course, were posted on Twitter.

The Beckham family has moved back to England following the elder Beckham’s departure from the Los Angeles Galaxy, his six-year stay in Major League Soccer culminating with a second consecutive league championship.  Among the 37-year-old’s suitors are rival clubs in the United Arab Emirates, Al Jazira and Al Nasr.  Brooklyn, who is scheduled to continue to play at Cobham in the coming weeks, was a member of the Galaxy’s youth team while he was in Los Angeles and still appears on that club’s Web site as a member of their U-14 team.  [January 22]

Comment:  From “Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats,” at the end of an item that included the tale of Chris Kirkland, whose father put down a 100-pound bet that his boy, then 10, would play for England before his 30th birthday (Chris did, playing in goal for the English at age 25):

“One of the players on the field … was English superstar David Beckham, whose toddler son, Brooklyn, has been established as a 100-to-1 shot to one day play for the national team.  London bookmakers had started Brooklyn out at 1,000-to-1 not long after his birth, but they slashed the odds in August 2001 when Beckham was quoted as saying his son was a better soccer player than he was at the same age.”

Known as punters, the British betting sickos who have become fascinated with the news out of Chelsea should bear in mind that when it comes to soccer prodigies, happily, there are no sure things.  The day before Brooklyn’s trial, one of the surest of all sure things, Freddy Adu, the kid who signed a $1 million sponsorship deal with Nike and made his MLS debut at 14, was released by the Philadelphia Union.  He was–and is–23.

For those who don’t believe the crystal soccer ball can get cloudy:  http://espn.go.com/sportsbusiness/s/2003/1119/1665998.html



NEUER TIME

Bayern Munich will meet Chelsea in the 2011-12 UEFA Champions League final on May 19 at Munich’s Allianz Arena, becoming the first team since Roma in 1984 to play at home in European club soccer’s biggest match.

The two finalists both pulled off stunning upsets in the semifinals.  German powerhouse Bayern, a four-time Euro champ (1974, 75, ’76, ’01) eliminated Real Madrid while England’s Chelsea, a finalist in ’08, shocked cup holders FC Barcelona.

Prediction:  With all due respect to Iker Casillas (Spain, Real Madrid), Gianluigi Buffon (Italy, Juventus), Victor Valdes (Spain, FC Barcelona), and, yes, Chelsea’s Petr Cech (Czech Republic), Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer will emerge from the match having cemented his place as perhaps the world’s best goalkeeper.

And if he doesn’t, he has plenty of time to do so.  Already a World Cup veteran, Germany’s No. 1 is just 26.



OUT OF AFRICA, THE NEW YEAR’S FEEL-GOOD STORY

Zambia defeated Ivory Coast on penalty kicks, 8-7, following a scoreless draw in Libreville, Gabon, to capture the 2012 African Cup of Nations. 

The emotional final came down to two misses from the spot by Cote d’Ivoire.  In the tiebreaker, after 14 consecutive conversions, a Zambian save and Zambian miss, Arsenal’s Gervinho, a standout during the three-week tournament, misfired for the Elephants and Stophira Sunzu bured his try to give Zambia its first African crown.  Back in the second half, Ivory Coast had a chance to settle matters when Gervinho was brought down in the right side of the box, but Chelsea star Didier Drogba botched his PK attempt.

On the Zambian bench was the country’s soccer chief, Kalusha Bwalya, who had hired current coach Herve Renard.  In 1993, Bwalya, then a member of PSV Eindhoven, was due to fly from Holland to Africa to play for Zambia in a World Cup qualifier when all of his teammates were killed in a plane crash off the coast of  Libreville.   Three days before the 2012 final, Bwalya and Renard led the current Zambian squad to a Libreville beach, where they said prayers and scattered flowers.  “There was a special spirit with us,” said Renard, a Frenchman, later.  “It was written in the sky.”  

Zambia came into the tournament as 40-1 longshots while the heavily favored Ivorians, who won the 55-year-old competition back in 1992, went home having gone six games without a loss and without conceding a goal.  [February 12]

Comment:  Over the din of the silly turmoil in England concerning its captain and coach, over the din of the very real turmoil in Egypt (winners of the previous three African titles) that threatens that country’s ability to field a national team, 2012 has produced a feel-good story, and we haven’t even reached mid-February.  For more, scroll down to “Zambia’s Chance for a Bit of Closure,” January 21.



THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED

In the first-ever regular-season European soccer match televised by a major American television network, Manchester United strengthened its grip on the top spot in the English Premier League by knocking off Chelsea, 3-1, at Old Trafford.  Chris Smalling, Nani and Wayne Rooney scored to give the Reds a three-goal lead at halftime.  Chelsea’s Fernando Torres scored a consolation goal but later missed when presented an open net.  Rooney also misfired on a penalty-kick attempt.  [September 18]

Comment:  Do not adjust your set.

Those guys in shorts on your screen really were playing football, on an NFL Sunday.  And it came courtesy of Fox–not Fox Soccer Channel, its cable offspring.  The game was aired in the U.S. on a delayed basis, either before or after Fox’s regional NFL telecast, thus creating an unprecedented football-gridiron football doubleheader.

The Manchester United-Chelsea game was the first of four Sunday EPL matches that will be aired this fall on Fox, the network no doubt encouraged by the number of viewers–2.6 million–it drew for its live telecast of last May’s UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Man. U.

Nearly 20 million Americans routinely tune in to watch NFL games.  Whether that means that many of them tuned in to see the New Orleans Saints beat the Chicago Bears, then stuck around to watch the doings in the Theater of Dreams, is very questionable.   Joe Six-Pack isn’t easily converted, whether it’s politics, religion or, more important, sports.   Nevertheless, Fox’s gambit sends a warning shot across the bow of those who continue to dismiss soccer as a sport with no future on American TV.

A month ago, NBC and Major League Soccer announced a $36 million, three-year deal that basically shifts MLS coverage from FSC, which reaches approximately 40 million homes, to the NBC Sports Network (known at present as VERSUS) and its 76 million homes.  Beginning in 2012, NBC and the cable NBC Sports Network will show a total of 49 MLS games a season, including four U.S. National Team matches.  Of those, the NBC network will air two U.S. games, two MLS regular-season matches and two MLS playoff games.

ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 remains in the game:  it still holds the rights to MLS games, including the MLS Cup, through 2014.  But as MLS Commissioner Don Garber told the New York Times, “The three-year deal [with NBC] allows us to align all our TV relationships [ESPN, Univision and newbie NBC] to end concurrently at the end of the ’14 season and provides us with a potential opportunity to have a more exclusive relationship with a broadcaster.”

By then, the ratings numbers from another World Cup, driven by that coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, will be in.  Then the fight over that admittedly modest-but-growing TV soccer pie will begin in earnest.

Hard to believe that when MLS launched in 1996, it had to pay ABC/ESPN for air time.  In a country where a sport’s worth is measured by its TV contract, that’s a bit of progress.