Why So Dull? The European Run-In

I once wasted a few minutes trying to convince some minor acquaintance that the 2010 World Cup final attracted RvPmore television viewers than the Super Bowl, and that therefore the World Cup is quantifiably better than the NFL play-offs. The argument approached yes-it-is-no-it-isn’t territory, and the fact that we both walked away more entrenched than ever in our respective positions says a lot about the stubbornness of sports geeks (and about arguments in general). Most serious[1] football fans are totally convinced that the sport they watch and love is superior to every other sport by every conceivable metric, and if you tell them they’re wrong, they get angry and defensive.

This is one reason so few football fans are discussing the Great Big Secret of 2012-13: for the first time in a long time, none of the five major European leagues has produced a genuinely exciting title run-in[2].

Earlier this month, Bayern Munich clinched the 2013 Bundesliga. In Spain, Barcelona is only a few games away from yet another trophy. Manchester United is strolling to title #20, and Juventus has surged clear at the summit of Serie A. In Ligue 1, nouveau riche Paris St. Germain is seven points ahead of its closest challenger.

At the moment, football revolves almost entirely around elite teams that buy the best players, win the most important trophies, and snatch the biggest slices of the TV pie. Later this year, UEFA plans to implement the Financial Fair Play program, which Michel Platini claims will level the playing field. It’s unclear, however, whether the program will actually work the way Platini intends. Some experts fear that FFP, which is designed to ward off Portsmouth-type financial Armageddon by preventing smaller teams from taking economic risks, will only strengthen the top clubs’ stranglehold. A year from now, the Manchester City model – under which a rich owner spends and spends until his team qualifies for Europe or wins the league championship – will no longer be a viable option for scrappy aspirants.

This is good news for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, which is going to win the Premier League title despite its dodgy midfield and geriatric center backs. Last season, United lost the league championship on arguably the most exciting day in Premier League history[3]; this year, all anyone wants to talk about is PSG’s alleged interest in Wayne Rooney.

United will compete for the Premier League title every year – at least, until Sir Alex finally calls it a day, which won’t be anytime soon. Juventus, Bayern and Barcelona are all perennial trophy-winners. PSG has a lot of money, a brilliant coach and Zlatan Ibrahimovich. It’s no surprise that these teams are winning big-time competitions: we know there’s no equality in football. In each country, the same three or four clubs vie for major honors. But this is entertaining only when that three- or four-team mini-league is intensely competitive — when, for instance, the Manchester derby actually means something and the Classico isn’t just a Champions League warm-up match.

In theory, next season should be as exciting as ever. United is the best team in it league only because that league is mediocre; once City gets its act together, Chelsea settles on a manager (Mourinho? Moyes?), and Andres Villas-Boas harnesses the not inconsiderable power of Emmanuel Adebayor, the Premier League title race will come alive. Barcelona may be cruising in La Liga, but Xavi and Puyol are on the wrong side of 30 and Messi’s recent injury scare left Barca badly exposed; Real Madrid is ready to pounce. This year’s run-in doesn’t seem symptomatic of some inexorable trend that threatens to destroy football. It’s just a blip. But an important blip, because it’s easy to forget that the major European leagues are always a couple of weird-ish results away from an utterly tedious run-in. The system’s not broken, but it’s precarious.


[1] These labels are tricky. At this point, it’s pretty much impossible to distinguish among “real” fans, “part-time” fans, and people who watch football on Saturdays because there’s nothing else on. Writing in The Blizzard, Brian Phillips argues against the conventional notion of  “real fandom,” casting his lot with the Indian bloggers who wake up at 3 am to watch Liverpool draw 0-0 at Reading, rather than with the born-and-bred Scousers who live ten minutes from Anfield and see every game in person.

[2] Of course, there’s more to league football than the title race. In the Premier League, for instance, there’s Paulo Di Canio’s Sunderland and Arsenal’s pursuit of Champions League football. There’s Rafa Benitez and Fernando Torres and John Terry. There’s Harry Redknapp, for crying out loud.

[3] The final day of the season is always nicknamed either “Survival Sunday” or “Championship Sunday,” depending on which “battle” the television stations think promises the most excitement. Last year, the American channel Fox Soccer went with “Survival Sunday,” only to have final day develop into the most fascinating title showdown in recent history: Manchester City needed to beat QPR to win the Premier League but trailed 2-1 with only a couple of minutes to go. Then this happened.


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2 thoughts on “Why So Dull? The European Run-In

  1. Lilly says:

    You should post your works more often. They’re very interesting and fun to read!

    • Much appreciated, Lilly! I’ve been busy recently and haven’t had a chance to post. I write a weekly column for EPL Talk, however — check out the “Fantasy Football” tab.

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