Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster
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If European association football were organised like NCAA college football...

There are many things I want to write about, but don't feel I have the confidence to do them proper justice - and yet the topic that gets me feeling that I have something to say and that I want to say it right now is the LiveJournal election, which is not important at all in the greater scheme of things. I keep following the voting counts, I keep observing that the lead is closing (600-ish, 585-ish, 565-ish, 550-ish, 490-ish, 470-ish, 450-ish...), I keep trying to read the entrails to discern changes in voting profile as different categories of people come online and vote, I keep hoping for miracles and I keep pondering idly where the transfers have to be going. (I think that there are some plausible patterns weakly indicated: cambler-jameth, jameth-cambler and squeaky19-rm at least.) However things turn out, there are bound to be accusations of sockpuppetry - though not nearly as many as there will be after next year's election. I shall sum up what I'm hoping for thus: "unity candidate". Hint, hint. (ETA: and, indeed, an attempt to create a unity candidate has been started, but it'll only work if the candidates themselves respect the results.)

Instead, I shall post upon an obscure topic of sports organisation at considerable length.

If European association football were organised like NCAA college football...

From time to time, my American friends boggle at the way association football is organised, principally at the existence of coherent pyramid structures encompassing hundreds of leagues, thousands of teams and tens or hundreds of thousands of players. The concept that a team can start from nothing at the lowest level and with sufficiently many good results (and sufficient funding...) work their way up to the highest level in the game is surely an attractive one. Some might consider that to be a sporting structural embodiment of the American Dream; on the contrary, the existence of the revenue-sharing-focused, draft-based structures at the top levels of American sport could be considered rather socialist. Occasionally I see people surmise what might happen if American sports were to be organised on European principles. I haven't seen things done the other way around quite like this, though.

As my wife hails from within punting distance of Athens, GA, she follows Georgia Bulldogs football with a passion that I have inherited. In the UK, there is little tradition of paying attention to university sport, other than a particular couple of fixtures between a couple of universities. In the US, inter-university ("college") football was the predominant form of the game up until about fifty or sixty years ago and still attracts very many adherents. The league in which Georgia plays, the Southeastern Conference (abbreviated SEC, though that's not a true initialism) has twelve teams whose average attendance over a season was 75,706 in 2006. There are only a handful of stadia in England that have that sort of capacity, none in Scotland and very nearly one in Wales. The SEC would compare well on this list comparing sports league attendances.

I have part of an article written attempting to explore why the American tradition should favour inter-university sport and the European tradition should favour lower-level professional and amateur sport, but don't really feel qualified to complete it. (The conclusion was going to be that the proposed All American Football League sounded like a superb and highly commercial idea, and that it would have at least a 60% chance of making it to season five. Yeah, I'm kind of glad I didn't get around to finishing and posting that one.) In short, as unintuitive as it might sound to British sports fans' ears, American college football is a very, very big deal in the US.

Due to what I suspect might reasonably be considered historical accident due to cultural disagreements at the time, there are many parallel divisions of teams at the top level of American college football, organised on a vaguely-regional basis but with a great deal of crossover between neighbouring competitions. Teams play many opponents from their own competition and a few other opponents from other competitions, the latter generally being selected for a mixture of traditional and financial reasons. There is some degree of attempt to declare one team to be the national champions, but due to traditional views that football should only be played for a limited period in the year so to contain the disturbance to the players' academic studies, sufficiently few games are played that the process is a questionable one involving a considerable degree of (among other things) qualitative assessments of competing teams' worths, in order to reduce the number of (arguably likely to be uncompetitive) games required.

From 1916 onwards, there was a tradition of playing a one-off game entitled the Rose Bowl between one of the teams of the Pacific Coast Conference, later the "Pac 10" conference, against a team representing the eastern half of the USA. (Quote:) Beginning with the 1947 Rose Bowl game, the game's participants were established as the champions of what is now the Big Ten Conference and the PCC (Pacific Coast Conference).

(Quote:) Other cities saw the promotional value for tourism that the [...] Rose Bowl carried and began to develop their own regional festivals which included college football games. [...] The historic timing of bowl games, around the new year, is the result of two factors: originally bowls began in warm climates such as Southern California, Florida and Texas as a way to promote the area for tourism and business. By 1940, there were five major college bowl games: the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and the Sun Bowl. [...] By 1950, the number had increased to eight games. The number continued to increase, to 11 games in 1970, 15 games in 1980, 19 games in 1990, 25 games in the year 2000 and beyond. There are scheduled to be 34 such bowl games at the conclusion of the upcoming 2008 season

Since 1936 onwards, there have been annual polls attempting to crown one university to be national champion. The results have been unpredictable; the deemed champions in some years have not won their conference, in other years have not won their bowl game or in other years still have only been announced as one of two co-champions. From 1992 onwards, there have been attempts through the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance and (currently) the Bowl Championship Series to provide meaningful, co-ordinated match-ups, not least (since the 1998 season) to provide a National Championship Game between two teams who are ranked #1 and #2 in the nation by some manner and whose winner might thus be considered a hard-to-dispute national #1. The controversy comes in that the selection of two teams for the National Championship game can often be far from clear, and there are some years in which certain teams who were not included in the National Championship Game can make strong cases that they should have been. (At this point, I'll remind you that my wife is a big Georgia fan. GO DAWGS!)

There are sporadically attempts to reform this bowl system in favour of a play-off system, which would determine which two teams ought to play in the National Championship Game in a more transparent fashion. These reform proposals have been rejected time and time again, and have recently been rejected until at least 2014. Partly this is due to intransigence on the part of some conferences (by virtue of an established and avowed preference for tradition) and partly because the desire to generate revenue through tourism opportunities, as happens in the bowl system, apparently exceeds the desire for a less controversial system to determine the champion. I note, far from impartially, that play-off series exist at lower levels of college football and in (almost?) all other college sports.



In Europe, association ("soccer" - lest we forget, a good British English nickname) football is traditionally played in domestic leagues, though a small number of persistent anomalies exist whereby a team might play in a neighbouring country's league. These anomalies generally arise due to convincing geographic reasons as an attempt to provide less one-sided competition, though this does not happen for commercial reasons to nearly the extent it conceivably might. At least, not yet.

The concept of the Old Firm playing in England is an old chestnut, but a redefinition of a Great British football system, or even a United Kingdom football system, as opposed to separate English, Scottish, Northern Irish and nearly-Welsh systems seems unlikely, probably due to the historical precedent that the UK nations remain as disunited as they did when they began the practice of international football and the special status that they enjoy in the International Football Association Board that sets the laws of the game.

Competition takes place between teams in different countries, though the additional travel distance involved makes this a relatively unusual event. Modern European association football history begins when "Gabriel Hanot, the former editor of French sports daily L’Equipe, first [...airs...] the idea in one of his columns in December 1954" of a competition between the champion clubs of European nations, known as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, or the European Cup for short. Four years later, the European Cup Winners' Cup begins on similar principles - if you win a national (knockout) cup competition, you qualify to participate in another knockout cup competition played between winners of cup competitions in different European countries.

A parallel development to this is the existence of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which was (quote) "set up to promote international trade fairs. Friendly games were regularly held between teams from cities holding trade fairs and it was from these games that the competition evolved. The competition was initially only open to teams from cities that hosted trade fairs and where these teams finished in their national league had no relevance". Some of you might be able to win a few drinks by betting that the competition we know today as the UEFA Cup started in its earliest form, before the competition we know today as the Champions' League in its earliest form; the first Fairs Cup match took place on 4th June 1955, before the first European Cup match which took place on 4th September 1955.

Suffice to say that by the early 1970s, the Fairs Cup evolved into the UEFA Cup, named after the governing body of European football, played between teams who had performed well in their national leagues but had not qualified for either the European Cup or the Cup Winners' Cup.

Above, I referred to this as the beginning of modern European association football history. The wonderful, wonderful Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation list international club competitions in Europe, noting not only the two that survive today and the Cup Winners' Cup but also a number of others that precede it.

(Quote:) "In 1900 the Belgian count Van der Straeten Ponthoz offered a cup to the winner of an international tournament. As the champions of the three existing continental leagues ((Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands)) were present in Brussels, the newspapers at that time called it the club championship of the continent. So can we consider R.A.P. from Amsterdam the first ever European champions?" The competition survives until 1907, with some English teams of whom I have never heard (and who were, I'm pretty sure, not part of either the established Football League or its counterpart the Southern League at that time) having participated - and even won - along the way.

More successfully, the Mitropa Cup was the (quote:) "first major international cup for club teams. [...] The decision to organise an international club competition was taken on July 16 and 17, 1927 in Venice, Italy, and the first matches were played on August 14 of the same year. In the first two seasons, two teams each from Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia entered; in 1929 the Yugoslav sides were replaced by Italian ones. [...]

Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were undoubtedly the strongest countries in continental Europe in the late twenties and thirties, and the first to introduce professional football on the continent (Austria 1924, Czechoslovakia 1925, Hungary 1926). The Cup therefore carried a prestige only comparable with the Champions' Cup of later decades. [...] An edition in 1940 was started but abandoned due to World War II. [...] After the second World War, the cup was resumed (including unofficial editions in 1951 and 1958), but never reached its former status again, mainly because of the advent of the Champions' Cup and other European club competitions."



It is possible to draw parallels between the systems of parallel leagues with additional inter-league competition that take place in NCAA college football and European association football. I haven't gone into details with the reformation of the European (Champion Clubs') Cup into the Champions' League and subsequent massive bias in favour of large, rich clubs from large, rich countries at the expense of clubs from smaller countries, irrespective of whether they were national champions or not, but it's not too wild a stretch of the imagination to compare that process to that brought about by the BCS in regard of access to big-money bowls.

Let's suppose that European association football had a post-season like the BCS - specifically, the BCS since 2006 onwards, with a championship game and four others. Let us declare there are seven big leagues: England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany for money reasons and the Netherlands plus Portugal simply because their clubs have won the European Cup so many times. Let us next assume that no country can send more than two teams into this post-season, and that a strong champion outside the "big seven" should also be rewarded. Let us also assume that the international club fixtures that took place over the past season also happened, as an analogy to the inter-league play that already exists.

Champions of the big seven: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Lyon, Bayern Munich, PSV Eindhoven and FC Porto. Other than that: well, Chelsea and Roma were both very close for second place in their extremely strong national leagues, so I think they have extremely strong claims. The tenth place is tricky, though. In Spain, Villareal were a slightly distant second and Barcelona an even more distant third. Bordeaux came close in France as did Ajax in the Netherlands, but the German and Portuguese leagues were distant.

Outside the big seven, there's a case to be made for Fenerbahce of Turkey, who made the last eight of real Europe this year, but they didn't win domestically. I quite like the thought of Olympiakos Piraeus of Greece being the year's "BCS buster". Their league championship may have been a little tight, but they only made it to the last sixteen of real Europe. If either of those had been a little stronger then I think they could make their case convincingly. In practice, I think we realise that money often talks in BCS game selection and declare Barcelona to be our Notre Dame this year, even ahead of Villareal.

Championship game: Manchester United cement their place this year by virtue of both their results within their league and without, but the second place is hard to call. There's very occasionally a case to put two teams from the same league in the final and Chelsea have two excellent second places, but it's a hard assertion to make - e.g. in the 2006 NCAA National Championship Game, (Big Ten conference) Michigan was nearly but not quite selected ahead of (SEC) Florida to play (Big Ten conference) Ohio State.

Returning to European association football, Real and Inter both lost in the last 16, as did Lyon and Porto, with PSV going out earlier still and Bayern Munich not even qualifying. I think money concerns would push this towards Manchester United vs. Real Madrid. This is probably the most interesting match that hasn't actually happened yet this season. Under the circumstances, I think you'd still favour Manchester United at the moment.

Other bowl games: I think the natural rivalries would tend towards Spain-Portugal and England-Germany, though it's not clear whether France would be more natural rivals of Italy or the Netherlands. Thus our other four para-bowl games might be FC Porto - Barcelona (interesting and close, but Barcelona by a whisker), Bayern Munich - Chelsea (Chelsea ought to be able to handle their style, I'd say) and Inter - Lyon (Inter sound good to me here), with PSV Eindhoven - Roma being the "at large" game. (Roma, just.)

The question is: should those be the big five games, and Manchester United were to win, how strong would their claim to the championship be, and who (if anyone) would claim second place? See, I tend to consider this as a reasonable argument against the bowl system - and, by extension, in favour of play-offs. These hypothetical games could make for delightful friendlies, but I think that once a play-off structure in place, people aren't going to want to have to go back to polls and other such uncertainty.

It would be possible to go through and produce analogous bowl games for the other 29 (?) bowl games, but we'd really be getting into the territory of sports organisation fan fiction. Not that that's a bad thing, and bowls 11-20 of European association football would likely be a lot more interesting and competitive than bowls 11-20 of NCAA college football - it would seem reasonable to guess that they might include lots of national champions of lower-tier nations and relatively few second (and later) teams from upper-tier ones. There could be many interesting international relatively-local derbies, for instance.

One other cute consequence of such a hypothesis would be a comparison between the UEFA Cup and Division I-AA football, these days known as the Football Championship Subdivision. It's an analogy that breaks down quickly because teams from leagues represented in the top inter-league competition can also appear in the European solution, but considering Russia and Scotland to be I-AA (er, FCS) leagues has a certain whimsy to it. The reason to do this is to note the existence of the Super Cup, which these days is an annual fixture at the start of the year between the Champions' League winner and the UEFA Cup winner. The counterpart in the BCS would be a season-opening match between the FBS (I-A) National Champion and the FCS (I-AA) National Champion. Now that's surely just crazy talk, isn't it?

Isn't it?
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