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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

An American's Guide to the Barclay's Premier League

Since you probably see the BPL advertised on NBC and shown a lot on NBC's sports channel, since some kid you know probably plays soccer (and many prefer it to baseball, because of the action -- you don't stand around much), and since the World Cup is coming up in 2014, I figured it would be a good idea to share some highlights and what I find to be appealing.

1.  It's in English.  That's helpful.  I was on a business trip to France recently and watched some wonderful games -- Lazio hosting Napoli before a half-filled house, La Ligue's #2 team, Lille, besting the #3 team, Marseilles, and a "red zone" like presentation on Canal One -- all in French.  I know enough of the game to figure out who is who and what's going on, but this is in English.

2.  It's in England, but all over England, with a few caveats.  First, the best teams come from one of three cities -- London (Arsenal, Chelsea), Manchester (United, City) and Liverpool (Liverpool and Everton).  The latter two are closer to one another than they are to London (which also has West Ham, Tottenham, Fulham and Crystal Palace among the 20 teams in the BPL).

3.  It seems like owning a BPL team has become the signature trophy for the "A" list of international capitalists.  A Russian oligarch owns Chelsea, a Middle Eastern oil sheikh owns Manchester City, the Boston Red Sox's owners own Liverpool, the Glazers (who own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) own Manchester United (the New York Yankees of international soccer) and Stan Kroenke, who owns the St. Louis Rams, Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets, is the majority owner of Arsenal.  Paul Allen hasn't arrived in the BPL. . . yet.  

4.  There is no salary cap.  That helps the uber-wealthy, but disables squads in places that aren't on the beaten path and perhaps have no hope of making it into the Top 4 in the BPL (where you get cash and prizes; more later).  Arsene Wenger, the respected Arsenal coach who has guided the Gunners to 16 straight Champions Cup appearances, believes that the lack of cap hurts competitiveness.  He might be right.  I couldn't imagine being a fan of Fulham.  It's in London, but it's status in the Premiership is in peril.  Too frequently.

5.  There are no playoffs.  (There's a funny YouTube video on this involving the transfer of a U.S. football coach to Tottenham).  If you finish in the top 3, you automatically qualify for the Champions' League (which gets played during the regular season) -- and which draws the top teams from leagues around Europe.  If you finish fourth, you qualify for a play-in series to make it into the Champions League.  If you finish fifth, you make it into the Europa League, which is ostensibly what the FCS is to the BCS.  Put differently, the Europa League is for the best teams that didn't make it into the Champions League.

6.  You play a home and home with everyone else in the league. 

7.  You get two points for a win and one for a draw. 

8.  There are no penalty flags, no technical fouls, but there are fouls.  A foul involves the other team's getting possession or a penalty kick.  A rough foul will get a player a yellow card; pick up two in a game and that gets you a red card and an ejection.  Pick up five yellows over the season and that will earn you a suspension from the game after you picked up the fifth yellow card.  Commit a very rough foul or a foul that costs the other team a good chance to score -- and you'll get a red card and an automatic ejection (and with a red card comes a suspension from the next game).

9.  The bottom three teams get relegated to the next league down.  Translated, if your team finishes 18th, 19th or 20th, you'll be playing in English soccer's equivalent of the Nationwide Tour.  The top three teams from the Championship League, as the second-tier league is called, get promoted to the BPL.  And that means cash -- it could be worth 50 million English pounds.  Which the team will need to compete for talent to win enough in the BPL to stay there.  And staying there is hard.  Almost every team in the Championship League has had a stay -- sometimes long -- in the BPL

10.  The game does move well, and the athletes are very good.  The best U.S. athletes don't play soccer, but imagine Calvin Johnson as a goalie, Chris Paul as a central attacking midfielder, Allen Iverson as a wing, and dream on.  Some of the best international players -- if they are not playing for Real Madrid, Barcelona or Athletic Madrid in Spain, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma or Juventus in Italy, PSG in France or Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund in Germany -- are playing in the BPL.

11.  Among the best players in the Premier League are Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, Manchester City's Sergio Aguero (Diego Maradona's son-in-law), Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany, Liverpool's Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez (a goal-scoring machine), Chelsea's Oscar, Juan Mata and John Terry, and Manchester United's Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.  Among many, many others.

12.  The World Cup is coming up fast, and the U.S. drew a "group of death" with Germany (among the favorites), Portugal (always dangerous) and Ghana.  Conventional wisdom has it that many South or Central American teams will make it to the "knockout" round of 16, including Brazil (11th in the world but the home country), Argentina (with the reigning "best player in the world," striker Lionel Messi), Ecuador (who got a very easy draw), Uruguay (with both Suarez and PSG's superlative striker, Edson Cavani), Chile, Colombia (one of the top five in the world, with another premier striker, Falcao), Mexico (who played terribly in qualifying and just eked in).  Among the others to watch are Germany (with an all-star starting lineup), Spain (the defending champions who add excellent striker Diego Costa to an already formidable lineup, but who looked a step slow last summer when they lost the Confederations Cup final to host Brazil) and Belgium (another team with an all-star lineup).  England, France and Italy always should be watched, but they probably won't make it to the semifinals in Rio in July.