They’re Just Crazy About It

I thought I’d expend a few bytes discussing the popularity of football (soccer) here. To the non-native observer (me), it’s stupendous. There’s just no way to overstate it. I’m not sure Americans can appreciate it, though, simply because there is no analogous sports structure in the US.

In American football, the NFL basically divides itself into the AFC and NFC for the purpose of faux regional conflict and 32 teams play each other for one season, culminating in the hype-filled Super Bowl. The schedule is set, the teams are known, and the only mystery is who will be invited to the Pro Bowl. The owners collude with each other in a cozy, $7bn club, granted anti-trust immunity by a bought-and-paid-for Congress. Money comes first, sport second.

Here it’s quite different. The team owners don’t look like the Board of Directors of Soccer, Inc. The Brits and Europeans have many different professional leagues and competitions, seemingly lasting year-round, and crossing international borders.

For example, in the UK there’s the Football League, Premiership League, Champions League, League One, and League Two. In Europe, there’s UEFA EURO 2008, UEFA Champions League, and the UEFA Cup. Each European country has its own leagues and then there’s the FIFA World Cup every four years. Talk about rich and diverse competition! It makes the NFL seem down right inbred.

In addition, in the UK (and probably in Europe) there are several lower tiers of semi-pro football leagues. These have a status, history, serious facilities, and local following that’s unlike anything in the American football scheme. It’s a bit like the minor leagues in US baseball, actually. Altogether there are 485 pro and semi-pro teams in the UK alone.

In the UK, as in many sports leagues around the world (but not the US), promotion and relegation is a process that takes place at the end of each season in which teams are transferred between divisions. The best-ranked teams in each division are promoted to the next-highest division, and at the same time the worst-ranked teams in the higher division are relegated (or demoted) to the lower division. Now there’s incentive for you! A local semi-pro team was recently relegated to a lower division and they announced a drop in season ticket prices as a result. Imagine the Redskins doing that after a bad season.

This all breeds a huge interest in football (soccer) here. It often dominates the media, the TVs in every pub and restaurant, and the news. It’s not unusual for an issue of the London Times to devote 12-15 full pages exclusively to football. In the US, the NFL keeps a legal death-grip on the rights to broadcast anything about US football; here, stations frequently broadcast independent coverage of local and national teams. And matches are shown live, in prime time, all the time.

UK acquaintances here have asked why Americans call the Super Bowl the "world championship" of American football, when teams from only one country compete. Good question.


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