October 3, 2008

Friday Soccer Roundtable, Part 1

No links this morning, I've got something better...

It's Friday and odds are you're barely paying attention at work. Today you're in for a treat, a four-part roundtable featuring some of the best soccer writers on the series of tubes. We've got Mustafa Redonkulous from Deuce of Davenport, ü75 from Unprofessional Foul, Josh from The Beautiful Game, Dave from Dave's Football Blog and Ric from MVN.

Question #1: Let's start with the Premier League: They fielded the two finalists in last year's Champions League and three out of the four semifinalists. More billionaires are interested in buying a team in that league than any other in Europe. Will the Premier League begin to dominate Europe or is this just the ebb and flow of the game?

Mustafa Redonkulous: Seems to me that the Premier League is going to be on top for a while. Most top players want to go to England at some point in their careers. TV contracts are pumping more money than ever into the league. The most potential for worldwide exposure is in England as well.

If you look at the other major leagues in Europe, there isn't as much money or prestige beyond one or two teams. Ligue Uhh is nothing to speak of. The Bundesliga while getting better in terms of play doesn't have the exposure or money on the level of the Premier League. Team ownership in Spain seems to be a clusterf*ck with member owned teams, dicey elections and finances as well as supporters that make Newcastle's look almost rational. Italy...well who would want to mess with that? So shady. Serie A has been eclipsed by La Liga and the Premier League.

The fact is that the Premier League has more worldwide exposure, the best players (although that's debatable) and more money to be made than any other league. Owning a Premier League team is a status symbol. It also seems that it's easier to buy a team in England than on the continent. It's also easier to turn an above-average team into a big club. See Chelsea. That said, it's not easy. See Spurs and watch Man City. It's just easier in England.

Josh: I think last year was an anomaly. Despite a wealth of talent and resources, the English domination of 2007 won't be replicated like that year after year. The EPL teams were able to stay healthy throughout the Champions League season and some beneficial draws also played a part in their dominance.

I don't think either Chelsea or Manchester United will be as good this season.

Let's not forget that England has only won two Champions League titles in the last nine years. Only three times since 1985. The attention the English dominance received last year was due, in part, to how rare it is for one country to dominant as such.

But that said, the Premiership is clearly separating itself as far-and-away the top league in the world. In a short time these last couple years the prestige and allure of England has skyrocketed. Even Italian mainstays like Del Piero and Buffon have been linked strongly to the EPL.

It's a league that the best want to play in. And the money is starting to be distributed more evenly throughout the middle-of-the-pack teams. While it may not dominant like last year in European competition, English league soccer could be as strong as ever.

ü75: The EPL (suck it, Barclay's) may sit atop the heap for a while, but will not maintain that position long enough to be considered the long-term dominant league in Europe. Leagues, like the teams in them, have a tendency to bubble up to the top, then slide away as another usurps them. The way I see it, there are three reasons that this will happen to the EPL in European competition.

First, much is made of the billionaire's playground that the EPL has become. However, I don't think that the league will keep the interest of most of the new wave of owners for very long, save for one team. The reason being that there will always be something wonderful and new to go to the top of the list for money men. I'm guessing we see an average shelf-life of about 10 years for any of these owners before they divest themselves.

Also, if one of these teams wins the Champions League early into the tenure of new ownership, the luster will be lost even quicker. If, say, Chelsea had done so last season, then struggled, I think Abramovich would jump. And what if a single owner, a la Abramovich (hate to keep picking on Chelsea), runs into a financial, legal or health-related mess? You only need to look north of the border at the relationship of Brooks Mileson and Gretna to see just how tenuous time at the top can be if one guy is pulling all of the financial strings.

As for which team with rich ownership is in it for the long haul--Manchester United. Sick as it may make me to say it, the Glazer sons will be around long after their old man kicks the bucket. They are fans of the club from well before the time they bought in. Can Liverpool, Manchester City or Chelsea say the same for their owners? No.

Secondly, the English game does not lend itself to some of the excesses that other continental teams enjoy. Those teams get special dispensation from organizational bodies, the government, or, in the case of the Spanish clubs, from banks whose directors are in deep with the club. These types of breaks cannot be taken lightly. The difference in quality between these clubs is razor thin at this level, and free money or government turning a blind eye to shenanigans involving the running of these clubs may take continental teams over the top. As long as what happens doesn't make too many waves, it will be allowed to pass. The FA seems to have a bit more backbone than other associations, and this cannot help its teams in the long run.

Finally, and this ties in a little to other countries and their organizational bodies, the English league is tough. Sure, some games come out easier than others, but every game demands concentration and effort to get a result. While Real Madrid probably had little fear of Sporting Gijon midweek, the same cannot be said of Arsenal and Hull. Slip ups like Arsenal's threaten the possibility of Champions League play the next year. And while the cast of characters from England every year remains largely the same, much like the big continental leagues, the energy expended making sure that happens is greater. Simply put, the Champions League money is so necessary to run these clubs that reaching it is much more important than winning it.

I figure the EPL has about another five years of this level of strength before it goes belly up. Look for Spanish clubs--Real, Barcelona, and maybe Villareal, to take over at the top of Europe.

Dave: The Premier League is sort of like the NBA, in that football was created in England, and therefore its top league has all the glam and self-importance that goes along with it.

Is it really all of England that is on top right now, though, or is it just the Big Four? Look at the shattered dreams of Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle and tell me anyone would want to be there right now. The Big Four are the Big Four because they're in the Champions League, and I think that carries far more prestige than any domestic league.

In the future, you'll see fewer top players going to England just for the sake of going to England. Many would probably prefer the prestige of European football over the glitz of English football, especially if it suits their style of play. Sure, players will ask themselves if they would rather be in Madrid or Middlesbrough on a Saturday night, but they'll also ask themselves which city offers them the best chance of letting them play on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. Which city do you think they'll pick then?

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