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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tilting at Windmills, Not Exactly

Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, wrote an entertaining column as to which team he'll pick to root for in the English Premiership (that's the top English soccer league, for you soccer phobes out there) in the upcoming season. If you want to get an American view of the Premiership teams, read this column.

A few points from where I sit:

1. The Glazer family spent $1 billion to buy perhaps the best known franchise in the entire world (and not just North America), Manchester United, a few years back. They probably figured that they were buying the Yankees, but then. . .

2. Roman Abramowich, one of the Russian oligarchs, bought Chelsea, one of many Premiership teams in the London area and perhaps viewed as the lace-curtain one which, before Abramowich bought the team, was in the top 5 or 6 every year but usually behind Man. United and Arsenal, among others. Abramowich has been spending the big bucks, and last year Chelsea ran away with the Premiership (they stumbled a bit at the end and in the intra-European league championships, but that's another story). Man. U. is still excellent, but now you have some huge bucks in the league other than the Glazers, and more may be on the way.

3. Rumor has it that another oligarch is interested in buying Portsmouth, a team that usually is in the bottom half of the Premiership standings. It's in the Southwest, a port city, and Simmons paints a good picture of it. If an oligarch buys the team and builds a new stadium, the Premiership could get even more interesting.

4. The rivalry between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal (they're probably the Dodgers to Man. U's Yankees) is more bitter than almost anything we see in America. I'm not so sure that Tottenham Hotspur fans would have held up "We love North London" signs the way Red Sox' fans held up "We Love New York" signs in Fenway Park after 9/11. Read Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch" to get an understanding as to how soccer gets inside the soul of an Englishman. Simmons is spot on with his commentary here.

5. That said, I was surprised that he picked the Spurs, also based in London, as his team to root for. I can't really find an analogous team in baseball, because the Spurs aren't really contenders. They're good enough to give you trouble, to finish in the top third, but they're seldom a threat, at least recently, to win it all. Okay, so they're not the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Washington Nationals. Maybe they're more like the contemporary Twins or A's, with one big exception -- not much emotion gets invoked when you mention those two baseball teams.

6. I root for Arsenal because a good friend does, because they have an interesting style, and because one of the best strikers in the world, Thierry Henry, plays for them. Rooting for Man. U. is like rooting for the Yankees, and I'm not into the big spenders -- Chelsea is a combination of Jimmy Dolan's Knicks and Mark Cuban's Mavericks. Liverpool is an interesting team, but their funky-haired striker, Frenchman Djbril Cisse, is now back in Marseille, and they're in a spot in the England that's akin to a spot in the U.S. I'll probably not get to -- call it Milwaukee. Then there's Newcastle, up in the northlands (the Wilkes-Barre of England), an area that Tony Blair represents as a Member of Parliament (note to you social studies types out there, M.P.'s don't have to live in their districts and many don't -- Blair might root for Newcastle for political reasons, but he's not from there). Simmons is hilarious on his take about Newcastle and probably right -- they get guys who are over the hill or to whom bad things happen after they get there. The thing about rooting for Arsenal is that after years of being a Philadelphia sports fan, I need to root for a team other than the Eagles that actually has a chance at a championship. The Gunners, as they're called, fill that need.

Read the whole thing, though, as it's a great read.

And get interested in the Premiership -- the fervor surrounding it is pretty neat to observe.


Anonymous Phil the Brit said...


Great to have you blogging soccer again. I enjoyed your World Cup posts immensely. I’ll offer a couple of contrary views, if I may.

First, Abramovich was already installed at Chelsea and splashing his big bucks before the Glazers took control of Manchester United.

This is why United fans were so exasperated to see a buyout weighed down with debt borne by the club, hampering its ability to compete with Chelsea in the transfer market. Fans here want buyers with cash to burn, not the mere acquisition of a franchise.

I’d also question the ferocity of the Arsenal-Spurs rivalry. From here it’s regarded as relatively genteel. Liverpool-Man Utd sets the gold standard for antipathy. A few others worth mentioning are Man Utd-Manchester City, Man Utd-Leeds United (anyone see a pattern here?), Newcastle United-Sunderland, Liverpool-Everton (despite all pretence at its being a friendly rivalry), Aston Villa-Birmingham City, and West Ham-Chelsea.

These in turn pale by comparison with Celtic-Rangers in Scotland, with the bitter rivalry you would expect of a country’s two leading clubs from the same city whipped up to insane levels by religious bigotry.

As for Spurs, they represent the beautiful game to many fans here, particularly those old enough to remember their team that won the twentieth century’s first league and FA Cup double in 1961. Ever since, they’ve been burdened not only with expectations of success (as all teams are), but to succeed with a certain style. Maybe their closest US equivalent is Stanford and Duke, required to succeed within their academic straitjackets.

Neighbours Arsenal were traditionally synonymous with grinding out results to the terrace (bleacher) cry of ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’. Then, Arsene Wenger arrived, and Arsenal started winning in a style even Spurs’ double winners could envy.

Last season saw Spurs make progress, but they were inevitably pipped by Arsenal for the Premiership’s final Champions league qualification place.

Simmons’ choice of team is a romantic one, Prof, whilst yours satisfies both head and heart.

6:05 AM  

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