Last Year in Football (Part I)
Hello again! This is Shawn’s cousin, Nate, guest posting while Shawn is on vacation at an undisclosed location. Some of you may remember me from the last time I wrote some guest posts. This time around I’m doing a mini-series on recent events in soccer. Or as 2 billion people call it, football.
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As a brief primer to the uninitiated, in European countries there are usually many hierarchical divisions of football, which teams can work their way up through by winning or placing high in the league that they are in. At the very top of each hierarchy is a division often referred to as the Premier League or the National League. This system is foreign to Americans – imagine starting a basketball team at your local rec center and winning for 15 years until you’re in the NBA. On top of that, there are tournaments where the minnows from lesser leagues get to play against the sharks from the big show and have a chance at a famous victory.
Some notes on the points system: in the world of European soccer, there are two kinds of competition. Knockout tournaments play out just like our playoff system after a certain point. But the league itself doesn’t have that format. In the league, you play against every other team twice, and at the end whoever has the most points wins. To an American this seems almost sacrilegious – playoffs are where champions are forged. But after some exposure I began to see the beauty of having to be consistent for the entire season in order to have a shot at the title. In a playoff system the most consistent teams are often punished for their extended efforts because those high-achieving players are beaten and bruised from a long successful campaign.
This has been a fascinating year in football. The two major leagues I follow, the English and Spanish leagues, both had fascinating conclusions. Then there was a little tournament in Brazil you may have heard of . . .
Let’s take a look!
In the English Premier League, with 5 games to go, Liverpool was in prime position to claim their first league title in 20 odd years. Liverpool is one of those underdog teams that occasionally pick up two or three world class players and put together a run for the title, fall just short, and then can’t hold on to all its superstars. The exception to that rule is Steven Gerrard, who at his peak was one of the most terrifying midfielders to roam an English pitch. Stevie G is a titanic figure in English football; universally respected for his on-field performances and (perhaps somewhat begrudgingly) for his loyalty to one club. Liverpudlians and neutral fans alike were a-tingle at the thought of Gerrard winning his first League championship; we previously thought the moment might have gone, as he’s past his prime now. Liverpool’s success last season was less about Gerrard’s aging legs and more about the dynamic front pairing of Daniel Sturridge and one Luis Suarez. Yes, that Luis Suarez. A divisive figure if ever there was one, Suarez is perhaps the most talented footballer to don the Liverpool crest. One might say that he has a real . . . hunger to win.
He’s also derided for his intentional handball that ended up eliminating crowd darlings Ghana in the World Cup four years ago. To which I say, score your penalty kicks. Suarez did the right thing to give his team every chance to win and I would have done the same thing in his place. But I wouldn’t bite people.
Back to the EPL last season. So Sturridge and Suarez are combining to score goals left and right last year. With 5 games to go, Liverpool was in pole position (I’m not even going to attempt to summarize the drama that was going on at all the top clubs leading up to this point – suffice to say it was a wild free-for-all and no one was consistently winning at the end). Even better, both of their rivals at the top of the table were still in their schedule. With wins over both of them, victory would be almost assured.
Liverpool wins the first showdown against Manchester City in a 3-2 thriller! So far, so good. Four games to go, they win again the next week by the same scoreline. Six goals in two games, they’re firing on all cylinders, right? They’re going to need all the momentum they can get because up next is their hated rival Chelsea, coached by one of the most effective and boring tacticians of the modern game.
Chelsea wins 2-0.
Ok, all hope is not lost. Now Liverpool are even on points with Manchester City, all they can do is keep winning and hope Manchester City slip up. Or they could score 14 goals in two games to go ahead of Manchester City on goal difference (unlikely, in case you didn’t pick up on that).
Then came Crystanbul. Liverpool go up 3-0 against a team they should rightly be dominating and look set to cruise to victory. Unfortunately, karma from 2005 comes calling at an inopportune time. Crystal Palace score 3 goals to tie the game and effectively end Liverpool’s title hopes.
The images of Suarez weeping on the field after the game was a humanizing moment for many neutral observers and delicious nectar to his haters.
Almost mercifully, Manchester City won their remaining games. If they had dropped points, it would only have been that much worse.
In the end I think Manchester City were about as sheepish as could be for winning the league. It was universally felt that Liverpool had lost it more than MC had won it, and there was a sense of doom about the whole situation. Liverpool have labored in Manchester United’s shadow for twenty years now, and it feels like a curse that they can’t win a Premier League Championship since United’s star has risen and Liverpool’s has faded.
They did win one of the greatest games ever played on the big stage and clothed themselves in glory as European champions, but that’s a story for another time.
At least they can take comfort in knowing they’ll never walk alone.
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As crazy as the EPL finish was, the Spanish League finale was even more dramatic. Tune in again soon for the next installment in last year in soccer!