BEND IT LIKE BRITAIN
In Europe, they do sports differently than Americans do in the U.S.
Most people know that soccer is the world’s most popular sport. And right now, the best soccer is being played in England.
This year, both of the top tournaments in Europe have all-British finalists — and none of those four teams actually won the English Premier League (EPL).
Baku Stadium in Azerbaijan in 2015. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
On last year’s Forbes list for most valuable teams in world soccer, the EPL has six of the top 10 slots.
Soccer leagues exist on six continents, and the richest one is the EPL. World soccer leagues and teams operate differently than leagues and franchises do in the U.S. Money is a natural separator between the haves and have-nots.
The NHL, NBA and NFL all have salary caps, which essentially means that an individual team can’t spend more than a specific amount on player salaries. For instance, in the 2018 NFL season, the salary cap was $177.2 million.
A typical soccer season works as follows: Instead of having playoffs, most soccer leagues just finish at the end of the season, with the team in first place winning the league outright. Tournaments that have single-or double-elimination playoffs run concurrently throughout the season in most countries.
Manchester City, one of the twenty teams in the top division of English soccer, won the league by the squeakiest of margins, finishing with 98 points against Liverpool’s 97 points total.
Manchester City also happens to have the most money, the best players and (by most accounts) the world’s best manager in Pep Guardiola. The bald Spanish maestro made his name synonymous with excellence at Barcelona managing Lionel Messi before plying his trade with German giants Bayern Munich.
He generally wins in his domestic league (8 out of 10), but throughout his tenures has had teams furnished with the best players.
Finishing a mere point behind him (but with a separate reason to remain his cheery, exuberant self) was manager Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool. He always seems to get compared to Guardiola, where — back in his native Germany — Klopp managed Bayern’s main-yet-significantly weaker rivals, Borussia Dortmund. As of late, Bayern has been exerting their financial superiority by buying up Dortmund’s best players.
Klopp snagged two Bundesliga titles while Guardiola was in Spain: Pit that against Guardiola’s three in three years and you have a real big brother-little brother complex going on.
The Champions League
This competition only came into existence in 1992; previously, the top intra-European cup competition was called the European Champion Clubs’ Cup.
The UEFA Champions League is a competition that pits the best teams from Europe’s leagues against each other in a World Cup-style tournament — meaning there are group stages where teams play each other, then the top half of those teams play in a double-elimination playoff.
The one Champions League final that Klopp reached with Dortmund, he had to face a non-Guardiola led Bayern and lost 2-1. Now having moved to Liverpool to attempt to revive one of the most successful teams in the history of English soccer, he has made the final in the Champions League two years running.
Last year, Liverpool lost to Spanish juggernaut Real Madrid after the Liverpool player having the best season, Mohamed Salah, went down with an injury early in the match.
Now, Klopp gets a chance to achieve a one-up on Guardiola by bringing home European soccer’s most prestigious trophy right under the nose of a Manchester City team that has not only won the EPL this year, but has brought home both of the domestic tournament trophies in England in the same year.
In the Champions League, Liverpool’s opposition this year is Tottenham Hotspur, who finished fourth in the EPL with 71 points. Having waded through an injury crisis that saw them resort to using the veteran striker Fernando Llorente to boot balls to and head down, they beat Manchester City in the quarterfinals and then overcame a deficit to the darling club of the tournament, Ajax Amsterdam.
The team known for messing things up is now riding high into their first European final since 1984, when they reached the European final (which was a precursor of the Europa League).
The Europa League
A secondary cup gets played every year, too: The Europa League runs concurrently with the Champions League and follows a similar format, just admitting slightly inferior teams from a higher variety of lesser-known European countries.
The Europa League came into existence in 1971, and this year Chelsea took the trophy back to West London after winning 4-1 against fellow London team Arsenal in Baku, Azerbaijan. The first goal scored was by Olivier Giroud against Petr Čech, with both players having formerly played for the other team.
Arsenal didn’t bring their entire team, as the creative Armenian forward Henrikh Mkhitaryan decided not join his teammates in lieu of the political tensions between his home country and the host country. Armenians have not been allowed to enter Azerbaijan since 1994 due to an ongoing war between the two countries since 1988. He felt his safety would not be guaranteed despite the sports minister of Azerbaijan giving special permission to enter the country.
The caliber of soccer coming out of England isn’t likely to dissipate any time soon, as long as the money is flowing. The only thing powerful enough to stop that steady stream of cash is politics, with issues such as Brexit posing as the primary roadblock for the future of brillant soccer being played in England.
The Champions League Final will be played in Madrid, Spain, and airs on June 1 at 12:00 p.m. on TNT.
Soccer: mostly called football because… obviously
Bundesliga: the German top flight league
UEFA: which stands for Union of European Football Associations
Tottenham history lesson: messing things up at the last moment is commonly referred to as being “Spursy”