Friday, August 16, 2013

How to Enjoy English Football

NBC has been working very hard to promote the new season of English Premier League football (soccer), which starts tomorrow.  The EPL's popularity has been growing in the United States for some time, and NBC's new contract means that the English game will now be promoted in this country like never before.  It's a nice thing for folks like me who started following English football 20 years ago, when it was extremely difficult to find any good coverage in the United States.  Here are some things you should do if you want to start watching English football:

1.  Learn the geography.  Imagine a person in England who wants to follow college basketball, but who doesn't realize that North Carolina and Duke are so close together -- or that Indiana and Purdue are in the same state.  As you can imagine, such a person would miss out on a lot of the drama in the sport.  The same is true of English football, which is intensely local and regional.  (The whole sports culture in Britain is very easy for Kentuckians to understand, as our own sports culture was built by folks whose ancestors had emigrated from Britain.)  Like Kentucky high schools, most English football clubs are named after the local town. But there are exceptions -- especially for clubs in London.  Here are the clubs in the EPL that are not named after their home towns:

Arsenal is in North London
Aston Villa is in Birmingham
Chelsea is in West London
Crystal Palace is in South London
Everton is in Liverpool
Fulham is in West London
Tottenham Hotspur is in North London
West Ham United is in East London  (Technically, there is an area called "West Ham," but it's just easier to think of the club as being in East London.

2.  Don't expect parity.  American sports fans are used to wide-open competitions in which many different clubs have a chance to life the title.  That is not how the EPL works.  It has no salary cap, and no playoffs for the title -- you have to have the best record over the course of 38 games.  That requires a very deep lineup, which requires a great deal of money.  Manchester United and Arsenal are probably the two most popular clubs in England, so they have enough money to be competitive.  For anyone else to be competitive, you need a very rich owner who is willing to spend a huge amount of money.  Right now, the only teams that fall into that category are Chelsea and Manchester City.  Between them, these four clubs have won every EPL title since the 1994-95 season, and one of them will win this year.

3.  Remember that it's a long season.  The EPL starts in the middle of August and usually runs until the middle of May.  This year, the season is scheduled to end on May 11, 2014.  There are 20 teams in the league, and every team has to play every other team twice -- home and away -- over the course of the season.  That's 38 games.  The fact that the season is so long is one of the main reasons that the cream so consistently rises to the top.  It also means that you shouldn't really get too worked up about what's happening in the EPL until around Christmas time.  From December 21, 2013 to January 1, 2014, most clubs will play four league games -- and that blitz of games usually goes far to determine the champion.

4.  Understand the rankings of the competitions.  In the course of the season, each club will play in the EPL, the F.A. Cup, and the League Cup.  The best clubs will also play in the UEFA Champions' League, while other strong clubs will play for the Europa Cup.  Here's how it works:

--  Everyone's top goal is to win the Champions' League, which is the biggest trophy in club soccer.  (A lot of Champions' League games are played in the fall, which distracts the top clubs from EPL play.)

-- Next, you want to win the League.  (Even Man Utd, which tries to win the Champions' League every year, gets excited about a league title).

-- Next, you want to make sure that you qualify for the Champions' League (the top 4 English teams qualify, and I'm pretty sure that those teams will be Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, and Arsenal).

-- Next, you want to avoid being relegated.

-- Next, you would like to win the F.A. Cup, which is at least cool and has a lot of tradition.  (Last year's F.A. Cup winner, Wigan Athletic, became the first team to win the Cup and be relegated in the same year.)

-- After that comes the Europa Cup (if you're in that) or the League Cup.  These competitions tend to be a bigger deal for clubs that don't have much of a chance of winning the other competitions.  For example, it's pretty common for Manchester United to play a team of back-ups in the early rounds of the League Cup.

5.  Understand that English clubs can't rebuild in the same way American teams can.  One of the great stories in NFL history is how Jimmie Johnson took over the Dallas Cowboys and completely rebuilt them into a powerhouse.  In his first year, the Cowboys went 1-15.  Three years later, they were the Super Bowl champions.  Americans love this sort of thing -- but it can't happen in English soccer.  Any team that finishes in the bottom three of the EPL (the English equivalent of going 1-15 in the NFL) is relegated to a lower level.  That means you lose a lot of money, as well as your best players.  So you can't just tear your team down and rebuild like you can in the United States.  This is one of the reasons that the EPL has so little parity.  Most clubs in the EPL go into the season simply hoping to avoid relegation.  This makes them extremely cautious compared to American clubs.

6.  Understand the significance of Sir Alex Ferguson's departure.  This is a great time for NBC to start its coverage, because it really is the beginning of a new era.  For the past 20 years, Sir Alex Ferguson -- the longtime manager of Manchester United -- had dominated the EPL in much the same way the Bear Bryant dominated the SEC in the 1960's and 1970's.  Like Bryant, Ferguson was a larger-than-life figure who won and won and won.  His final team last year ran away with the EPL crown, something that happened fairly often.  But now he's gone, and we could see a shake-up in the league -- much as the 1980's saw a shake-up in SEC football.  I don't think we'll get to anything like parity.  But we could see a transition that could result in more exciting pennant races.


  1. This was outstanding and helpful.

  2. EPL or BPL? I see that @NBCSportsSoccer is doing a hashtag, #BPLonNBC.

    Not even five minutes since I read this tutorial, and I'm already back to being confused.

  3. Everyone calls it the EPL. NBC was just being silly.

    By the way, think about how annoying it would be if the NFL was the Coca-Cola NFL or the SEC was the Golden Flake SEC. But that sort of thing is very common in European sports. My advice is that if you're going to start watching European sports, you should do all you can to ignore the constant and intrusive branding.