Some time ago I wrote a somewhat tongue in cheek bit about why football in the NFL is the best sport to watch. I still stand by some of it, but the NFL has had its problems over the last almost 15 years and for various other reasons I have also had less of a personal interest in the game lately.
The opening of that piece also has this quip in it:
If your favorite sport is soccer then we can just agree now that you will hate me and I will feel sorry for you.
Which, well, I guess brings us to the subject at hand. As we wind down to the end of English and European football seasons, let us reflect on how in the fullness of time one can change one’s mind about things, and discuss what is great about soccer.
As before this is mostly sort of serious, but not really. And as before only some of the reasons for liking the other football now have anything to do with the game itself.
No Night Games
I mentioned this in my previous short thought about English football. The timing of the games on this side of the Atlantic is just great. You can enjoy a few nice games every weekend morning, and then go about the rest of your day without sports getting in the way. Even during the NFL football season, you can easily watch both the Premier League and Red Zone on Sundays. Since no Premier League game ever runs longer than two hours (great!) you always know that all the soccer games will be over by the time “the witching hour” comes around on Red Zone. The perfect crime.
Note that this guaranteed fixed time window is the best thing about actually watching the games. Even in other competitions where draws are not allowed, like various tournaments, the World Cup, and so on, the games will never go more than three hours. Meanwhile there is no game in American sports that does not get stretched to two and half to three hours with commercials and such. Even the new fast baseball is still much longer than a soccer game.
But the very best thing is that you never have to be up near midnight watching some stupid sports game because of unavoidable psychological programming that you picked up in your childhood. This is even better than consuming American sports on the American west coast.
While I’m sure some of this is just the relative novelty of my experience, I feel like the commentary on Premier League football games is in general much better than the current crop of announcers in the NFL, NBA, and national MLB. The NBA in particular is in a horrible drought right now, with everyone waiting and praying for Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy to just fucking get out of the way so at least Doris Burke can keep Mike Breen company on the big games. But this will never happen.
The NFL commentary is on the whole better than the NBA, but also generally anonymous and without style. Certainly nowhere in American sports will you get the literary turns of phrase that happen half a dozen times in every game where Peter Drury is doing the call. Every game he does generates at least one or two twitter clips from the Men In Blazers. No American announcer even comes close.
The analysts for the Premier League broadcasts are also mostly better than NFL and NBA. Not only do they all seem able to provide you with early Tony Romo levels of insight into the what’s going on in the game, they also have no fear when it comes to criticizing the players, coaches, and refs doing the playing, coaching, and reffing. No missed strike is a good try, it’s always “he should have done better”. Questionable tactical changes are called out. Dives are called dives and dodgy decisions by the ref in the penalty box are given no mercy. Very refreshing.
In almost all of the international soccer leagues relegation means that teams cannot tank. Let us review.
In American sports, because they are communist, when you do badly and come in last in the league, the league tries to help you out by giving you the best shot at new young players to make your team good again. No one would actually publicly condone losing on purpose to get good draft picks, but at least in the NBA there is a verb (tanking) that means basically “lose as on purpose as you can to get good picks”. In addition, there was even a team (the Philadelphia 76ers) that engaged in what they called “the process”, which involved tanking over multiple seasons to get many good draft picks to become more competitive. They did this for about five years and obtained a generational player (Joel Embiid) who has led them to several thrilling exits in the early rounds of the playoffs. So there is that.
NFL teams can’t really explicitly tank, but under good management bad teams can get good if they understand how to use the draft system to their advantage. As far as I know it’s impossible to tank in baseball. But baseball sucks anyway.
International football teams cannot tank at all. If you lose you don’t get second chances. You get kicked out of the league into a lower tier league. You lose a huge percentage of your revenue. You have to fire everyone. You lose all your players. And then you have to win again in the lower league to get back into the higher tier. This system is called relegation and promotion. Typically the bottom three teams in the league get kicked out (relegation) and replaced by the top three teams in the tier below (promotion). In English soccer there are 6 or 7 levels of professional and semi-professional leagues … so the potential for collapse is almost infinite.
This is a brutal and Darwinian way to run a sports league, and it’s also genius for two reasons:
Now there is a super compelling reason to watch the bad teams as well as the good teams.
Watching the promotion fights for the lower tier leagues is just as fun as watching the championship fights for the top tier.
This year we didn’t find out which teams got dropped from the Premier League until the nearly the very end of the very last day of the season. As a neutral fan can’t beat this for entertainment. As an actual fan it must be the absolute worst.
Again, I think some of this feeling is just the relative novelty of my experience, but I feel like the drama in the Premier League is unmatched. Certainly this year was crazy in ways I have never seen in other sports. Every game seemed to have high stakes of some kind. More teams fired their head coaches than did not fire their coaches. Several teams fired their managers several times. It was unreal.
And then on top of all of this was the relegation drama, the drama of the evil Death Star of a Man City team just inevitably chasing down Arsenal and crushing them and everyone else to win the league.
And then on top of all that is Peter Drury and his buttery delivery making even a throwaway game between Man City and a bottom feeder into the thing that you must watch this morning even though you know you don’t need to watch it.
I wonder if next year will be like this?
The Game and the Meta-Game
I have, of course, spent most of my time here covering the structure of the league and the aspects of that structure that make for good entertainment. I haven’t said too much about the game itself because honestly it kind of baffles me. I stare at it and I can make certain obvious observations about what is going on. Team A may be extremely effective at passing the ball around while not losing it, creating scoring chance after scoring chance. That means they are, in some sense, “winning”. Or Team B may be defending for their lives just trying to survive, and they often make it!
What I don’t really understand is the mechanisms that cause these game states to happen. I can watch (say) an NBA defense and tell you if they are trying in 5 or 10 minutes of game time. Similarly, I can explain to you why the Patriots are pathetic, or the Buffalo Bills dominant in any given week. These things are intuitive to me.
I don’t really understand how soccer works internally, I only understand the outcomes. What exactly happens in “the midfield” seems very important, but I have no idea what it means. Also, seeing bad defense in real time seems to be out of my cognitive reach. Earlier this year when Tottenham gave up five goals in twenty minutes to Newcastle (just wow) all I saw were the balls going into the back of the net. The analyst on the TV went on and on about how the Tottenham defenders were completely clueless, but I didn’t really see it like I would see the same thing in an NBA game. I suppose with time this will get better.
Happily, I can fall back on the endless analysis and gossip cycle, which the Premier League has brilliantly imported from the NFL and made their own. Coaches are tactical geniuses or slobbering morons, depending on their results. Players move from team to team, or more importantly, are rumored to be moving from team to team for various reasons bordering on soap opera, all of which mostly just keep the endless news cycle churning along. The most amazing thing is the extent to which the language and narratives are all the same as in the American sports even though the game itself is so completely different than what we have here.
It makes me feel very at home.
Of course nothing is perfect, so I have gripes. They are relatively few.
Timekeeping. One aspect of soccer that I just will never understand is how people put up with a game that is supposed to have a fixed time limit, but actually will just keep going until the ref decides things are done. It’s horrifying.
Offside. Just how does this rule work? Also why, in this game where when the game ends is managed with all the precision of a six year old deciding when to get dressed for school, do we have computers figuring out whether a player was offside to a level of precision that is apparently measured in millimeters? This makes no sense.
Similarly, does anyone understand what a hand ball is anymore? This is almost as complicated as the catch rules in the NFL.
I don’t like penalty shootouts. But what else are you going to do? I don’t know. But I still don’t like them.
What is the deal with substitutions? Why is the game structured so that the last 10-15 minutes of every match seem to be played with 10 zombies with leg cramps and a goalie against 10 other zombies with leg cramps and a goalie? OK sometimes it’s maybe 7 zombies and a few fresh subs against 6 zombies and a few more fresh subs. But all of these situations bring up the question: why not just have more subs? Or, even more radically: why not allow a player that you subbed off to come back later when they have had some rest? Baffling.
Finally, like hockey, soccer seems to have a fundamental balance issue wherein a team that is missing one player does not immediately lose. I will forgive the game this foible, as it is likely a result of the following core fact: actually scoring a goal is a nearly impossible act requiring incredible feats of athleticism and coordination along with the luck to have 15 external things that you can’t control go exactly right all at the same time.
And yet Liverpool can beat Man United 7-0 on a random day, when all of those things go exactly right seven times in a row.
What a crazy game. Even when it sucks it’s inexplicably cool.
For some insight into where Premier League came from you should read The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports. The inspiration that it drew from American sports, and in particular the NFL, is fascinating.
Football Cliches is a great podcast about the language and culture of English football. Very interesting side dish to the main diet of news and analysis.
Shout out to the NBC Premier League team. It is a great injustice in the world that these people don’t get to do the World Cup and we get that team from Fox instead, which is mostly forgettable at best.