LONDON – Well, there are a few ways you can do this. You probably know that the Barclays Premier League – that is the highest level of soccer played in England – is by pretty much all measurements the most popular sports league on Planet Earth. Just start with television reach – the Premier League is broadcast in 212 territories, reaching about 4.7 billion people. Yes, that’s BILLION.
But there are countless other measurements that show just how big the Premier League is around the world. Manchester United is worth more than the New York Yankees though Manchester itself has a population slightly smaller than Charlotte, N.C. Tottenham Hotspur, a London team that has never actually won the Premier League as constructed, has fan clubs on all six continents and 20 clubs in the United States with more on the way. Another London team, Arsenal, claims an active worldwide fan base of more than 100 million. Liverpool has a massive fan base in Singapore. Chelsea’s reportedly becoming hugely popular in places like Russia. The reach is simply mind-boggling.
And so, the idea here is to help you pick a team. You can do it the fun and easy way and go here, answer a few questions, and be on your way. But we’re going try and go a bit deeper. Wednesday, I’ll have capsules on all 20 Premier League teams that should be able to help your choice. Thursday, I’ll try to reflect on the passion of Premier League soccer here in England.
But first, we should start with some basics.
Question 1: Do you want your team to win the league?
So you will want to start with this: Most people in England believe only three or four teams have a legitimate chance of winning the league this year. The Premier League has a very different approach from American sports. Of course, soccer has ties, or “draws.” And the Premier League champion is simply the team with the best record at the end of the year (with wins earning three points and draws one point). Very little is left to chance.
This concept is really foreign to us as Americans. We like our playoffs. We like our second chances. We like our March Madness. As Coach Ted Lasso says: “Ties? And no playoffs? Why even do this?”
Last year, Manchester United basically had the championship wrapped up a month before the season ended. The Premier League has been in existence since 1992, and only five different teams have won the championship. One of those teams, Blackburn, is no longer in the Premier League – more on that in a minute.
The other four are:
-- Manchester City (won in 2012 on last day)
-- Chelsea (won in 2005, 2006 and 2010)
-- Arsenal (won three, the last one in 2004)
-- Manchester United (won the other 13).
These teams are sometimes known as the Big Four – though there seems to be some question about whether Arsenal, which has not won or finished runner up since 2005 is still part of the group. It depends who you ask.
If you come in wanting to root for a team that can be champion this year, you should probably choose Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United – the first two because they have great players, wonderful history and billionaire owners willing to Steinbrenner their way to titles, the last because of its dominance and place on the world stage.
Question 2: Wait, why would I root for a team that has no chance whatsoever to win a Premier League championship?
A good question – and one I spent a lot of time trying to study during my time here. The first point is this: While there are no playoffs for the Premier League, there are A LOT of trophies handed out. That’s because there are several tournaments going on while the Premier League season is happening. It’s an involved web of soccer here in England – games are happening all the time for all kinds of different tournaments.
The biggest of these tournaments is the FA Cup, which is an awesome, sprawling, absurd and wonderful March Madness kind of tournament that includes pretty much every soccer team in England including a few guys who happen to play for the pub around the corner. That’s not a joke. More than 750 teams compete in the FA Cup. And they all play in this mad scramble of a tournament that will sometimes end up with a collection of plumbers and construction workers playing Liverpool. It’s a free-for-all, and basically any Premier League team could win it. Last year, for instance, Wigan Athletic won the F.A. Cup the same year that it was relegated from the League.
Yes, again, we will get to relegation in a minute.
There is another tournament, of somewhat lesser consequence, called the League Cup, which includes the top 92 teams – that is the teams that play in the top four leagues in England. I will now give you the names of those top four leagues, and if you are like me the names will make absolutely no sense to you. But then it might be hard for us to explain why Indianapolis is in the AFC South.
Premier League: The top league in England. That’s easy.
Football League Championship: The second division – the easiest baseball comparison is that it is kind of like Class AAA, only it’s TEAMS that get promoted and relegated, not players. Why a second division would be called “Championship” is, well, yeah a bit baffling.
League One: Third division. Yeah, I know.
League Two: Fourth division.
So you have the F.A. Cup, the League Cup, there are a couple of major tournaments going on through Europe for a handful of the top teams, and then there are all sorts of special games, small tournaments, Derbies (pronounced Darbies – they are rivalry matches between teams that are close together) and so on.
Sunday, for instance, I went to the Community Shield at Wembley, which annually matches up last season’s Premier League champion against last season’s F.A. Cup Champion. This time around that matched up Manchester United and Wigan. Manchester United won 2-0 on two goals by Robin Van Persie* and the scene afterward was like something you might see at the end of the Super Bowl. There were streamers shot on the field. The players all went up to the royal box to collect medals, and then they stayed on the field to celebrate, and then they gave Manchester United’s new manager David Moyes this gigantic gold plate roughly the size of a queen-sized bed.
*Though Van Persie scored both goals, it was another Manchester United player – Michael Carrick – who was named Man of the Match. Carrick, I’m told, “controlled the midfield.” So, yeah, I don’t understand soccer very well yet.
And here was the best part: The game was UTTERLY MEANINGLESS. It was an exhibition. Afterward, Moyes would not even talk about being happy to collect his first trophy as Manchester United manager – he has the unenviable task of trying to replace Alex Ferguson, often regarded as the greatest club manager in the history of England, so people watch his every step. He would not even say he was happy to win his first trophy. It was that unimportant.
But they do love giving out trophies in England, and so it seems that fans – realizing that their teams will not win the Premier League – will take pride in other things, like winning some of those trophies, finishing high enough to qualify for one of the bigger tournaments in Europe and in beating their rivals.
Question 3: OK, what about the whole relegation thing?
As an American, relegation is by the far the most fascinating aspect of the Premier League. Every year, the three teams that finish at the bottom – that would be the teams in 18th, 19th and 20th place – are sent down to the second division (which, you will recall, is oddly called the Championship). And three teams from the second division are promoted to the Premier League to fill their spots.
It’s a foreign concept to us because we tend to think of promotion and relegation as an INDIVIDUAL thing. We are used to a SINGLE baseball player being promoted from (or relegated to) Buffalo or Omaha or Albuquerque, but it’s hard to get our mind around an entire team coming up or down. But it’s been this way in England for more than 100 years, so everybody’s used to it here.
This is an important consideration for what team you would choose. On the one hand, it is apparently thrilling to root for a scrappy little team that is fighting just to stay in the Premier League – much more exciting, perhaps, than watching a mid-level club that is too good to be relegated but not nearly good enough to compete for the championship or any major trophies.
On the other hand, if your team gets relegated – ugh. Then what?
This year, there are probably five or six teams that are in what might be called the relegation zone. There are the three teams that were just promoted – Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and Hull City – along with, perhaps, Sunderland and Norwich City. Newcastle, one of England’s major teams with a great history and a huge fan base, could be in danger. Aston Villa, a legendary England team, needed a big finish to secure its place in the league last year. And, of course, another team could simply have a disastrous season.
I asked several soccer analysts and experts in England how many fans would, before the season even begins, take 42 points and forgo the season – 42 points being the total that should prevent a team from relegation. The general answer is that while fans would squawk about it, in the end fans from about half the league would take the 42 points.
So, you have to ask yourself if you want to dive into that kind of fanhood.
Question 4: What about style of play?
Well, I think it’s a pretty important part of what team you choose. The experts at Opta Sports – who collect the data for the Premier League, and many others, including Major League Soccer – are going to help me break down each team’s style in tomorrow’s capsules. But you should ask yourself: Do you want a team that plays exciting, free-flowing soccer – something that, say, Tottenham Hotspur takes great pride in doing?
This is the quote that is on the front wall of the Tottenham offices, and it is from Danny Blanchflower, who was captain of the team when it won both the top league and F.A. Cup in 1960-61: “The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”
So, maybe that’s what appeals to you.
Or maybe you prefer a gritty, defensive team like Stoke City. They bash the ball high in the air, go up and get it (no team “wins” more balls in the air than Stoke), fight and claw against teams with superior talent and try to win 1-0. Last year, Stoke City only had 114 shots on target all season long – easily the lowest in the Premier League. But for the fifth straight year, Stoke City finished with the 42 points necessary for survival.
So maybe that’s what appeals to you.
Obviously, styles change. Arsenal – back in the days when Nick Hornby was writing about them in “Fever Pitch” – was known as “Boring Boring Arsenal.” They were like the Don Shula Dolphins, bludgeoning teams with a no-name defense and the equivalent of a power running game. The team was so built around 1-0 that supporters began singing “One Nil to the Arsenal” to the tune of the Village People’s “Go West.”
But ever since Frenchman Arsene Wenger took over in 1996, Arsenal has become one of the most graceful and fluid of teams in the Premier League. They play as open a style now as perhaps any team in the league – kind of like the Dolphins did when they got Dan Marino.
Question 5: What about celebrities?
Right. In our capsules tomorrow, in addition to telling you why you should and shouldn’t root for each team, what style they play, and what you might expect from each team, we’ll tell you the coolest celebrity for each team.