OT: An American’s guide to European football

Players from the top European football clubs fighting for the UEFA Champions League trophy. Graphic courtesy of nairaland.com.

HENRY BREDEMEIER | MANAGING EDITOR | hbredeme@butler.edu

For those of you who know nothing about the insane world of European football, you are not alone. Actually, you’re quite a lot like me circa 2016. 

There are many valid reasons that people didn’t follow the sport — they may claim the sport is too low-scoring and boring. They may wonder why they should care about leagues across the Atlantic or why they should spend two hours watching a game that ends without a winner.

I would be lying if I said I had never felt the same way. However, once I finally caved into my brother’s incessant insistence that I would love the sport, I realized something that I hate admitting — he was right. I fell for the sport I used to mock.

Now, there are major flaws in European football that should not be ignored. Corruption in the governing body of FIFA and in some clubs run by Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern countries — that pour literally billions of euros into their clubs — are serious problems for the sport. These problems are exacerbated through a screwed up transfer system that leads to consolidation of talent at the top. 

But, let’s not pretend that Americans’ favorite sports — the NFL, MLB, NBA, college football and basketball — don’t also have serious flaws, some eerily similar to those of European football. Once you get past the flaws, like we all must with our favorite sports, you can watch the game of soccer for what it is: a beautiful game.

A final barrier to overcome for kickstarting your European football fandom is to get used to the schedule. First, there is a league in essentially every country in the world, but the best of the best are in Europe. The creme de la creme is the English Premier League, followed by Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1. 

The regular season for each league is simple. Each team plays every other team in their league twice, home and away. A win is worth three points and a draw is worth one. Whichever club accrues the most points by the end of the season wins the league. 

But, perhaps more importantly, the last placed teams in each league get relegated to a seperate league below and are replaced by the top teams from the second-tier league. This is called promotion-relegation, and America’s league Major League Soccer’s refusal to adopt it is why many believe it will never reach the levels of Europe’s top leagues. 

To be fair, the threat of being relegated is daunting. A relegated team will lose massive amounts of money from ticket sales and especially television deals, and their best players will likely leave to pursue other teams in the first division, so it’s understandable why American owners would be dubious of a system that could destroy their investment. However, without that threat, there is no true deterrent from straight up sucking, whereas American teams are rewarded with high draft picks that essentially encourage being the worst — I’m looking at you 76ers.

In addition to the domestic regular season is the Union of European Football Associations’ UEFA — Champions League. The UCL is a tournament of the best teams in all European leagues from the prior season — the number of teams from each country being determined by the quality of the league — and is played alongside the normal domestic competition. The Champions League trophy has become the most coveted in the game.

If you are interested in getting into soccer but don’t know where to start, I recommend the Champions League. This is where the best teams come to play each other, and it’s knockout style is more akin to the American way of watching sports.

To prepare you for your arrival into the European football world with the Champions League, I have comprised a guide to Europe’s top clubs, using comparisons with American sports franchises to help contextualize the magnitude, or lack thereof, of each club.

 

Manchester United FC, England – Los Angeles Lakers

Manchester United, commonly referred to as Man U, is the most historic club in England. They have won the league a record 20 times, with an additional three Champions League wins. Man U is more than a team that wins, though. The club is a massive brand — the 11th most expensive sports franchise in the world — and has been home to some of the best footballers in the world throughout their history. Recently, the Man U brand has been donned by worldwide superstars in Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. Sound familiar? 

The Lakers are tied with the Celtics for the most NBA Championships, and have done so on the backs of some of the greatest players to ever grace the court — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Now, arguably the greatest player ever, LeBron James, is playing his twilight years in purple and gold, much like Ronaldo after his recent return to Manchester. So, if you’re a fan of titles, glamor and GOATs — cough cough bandwagon — Manchester United may be the club for you.

 

Manchester City FC, England – Los Angeles Clippers

For its entire history, Manchester City has been the little brother to Manchester United. While the crosstown rivals were achieving unimaginable success, Man City were struggling to even stay in the First Division of English football, falling down to the Third Division in 1998. Who could save Man City from the perils of mediocrity? 

The United Arab Emirates could, and they did. In 2008, Sheikh Mansour, UAE deputy prime minister and brother of the President, purchased the club with his royal and oil-stained money, and has since spent a fortune — over $2 billion — transforming Manchester City from a club to be forgotten to a European powerhouse. Man City had only two top-level wins before Mansour, and has since won five Premier League titles, including last season. Despite the massive domestic success a Champions League win has eluded them, and last season’s defeat in the final and subsequent $130 million purchase of Jack Grealish proves that City are not satisfied with just English titles.

Although they are not completely analogous, Man City and the Los Angeles Clippers have a lot in common. Both teams have a lack of historical success and were purchased by insanely wealthy buyers. Since then, both teams have seen a significant increase in winning. However, no matter the success or which players they bring in, the teams will never be truly loved by their home city.

 

Paris Saint-Germain FC, France – Brooklyn Nets

If I was writing this 10 years ago — I was 11 but just go with it — Paris Saint-Germain would not have been mentioned. At that point, PSG had only won the French title twice, a league that is no more than the fifth best league in Europe. But since they were bought by a subsidiary of the Qatari government in 2011, the club has won Ligue 1 seven times. In that time, PSG went from a thoroughly irrelevant club to arguably the best in the world, yet they are still searching for a UCL title.

After signing the icon that is Lionel Messi this summer, and pairing him with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar — spending $170 million and $226 million, respectively — PSG now has three of the four most recognizable footballers in the world wearing their uniform. It’s not unfathomable that these massive purchases of international superstars were made by the Qatari government to distract from their practice of modern day slavery for building stadiums ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup. Think about that before choosing PSG to be your team.

The comparison for PSG are the Brooklyn Nets, but I’d like to make it very clear that the means of these two teams becoming what they are different. The Nets are historically one of the worst franchises in the NBA, but moved from New Jersey to a fancy new home in Brooklyn. In 2018, their Russian oligarch owner then sold the team to Joe Tsai, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, who took the side of the Chinese government during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. 

Despite that, this move worked out well for the Nets, who managed to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the same summer, and packaged many assets to trade for James Harden. Both PSG and the Nets now have three of the best players in their respective sports, but still haven’t managed to turn that into the ultimate prize. But, no one would be surprised if they both achieved that goal by the end of this season.

 

Liverpool FC, England – Boston Red Sox

Liverpool is the second most successful English club of all time, behind their rival Manchester United. The “Reds” have won 19 First Division titles, most recently in the 2019-2020 season, breaking a 30-year drought without a title. In those 30 years they came incredibly close many times, finishing second four times, including 2014 when Steven Gerrard and company literally let the title slip away. Liverpool play at Anfield, their home since 1892, making it one of the oldest and most historic football stadiums in Europe.

Liverpool’s American counterpart on many levels is the Boston Red Sox. Both teams represent a historic city, are arch-rivals with the greatest franchise and play at an old, beloved stadium. They also both recently experienced a long title drought yet came ever so close to winning many times. It may not be a coincidence that the two clubs are owned by the same company, Fenway Sports Group, who shortly after purchasing the Red Sox in 2002 and Liverpool in 2010, transformed the teams back to their former glory. 

 

Real Madrid CF, Spain – New York Yankees

Real Madrid is the most successful soccer club in the world. “Los Blancos” have won Spain’s top league a record 34 times — at least one in every decade since the 50s — and the Champions League an astounding 13 times. No other club has won more than seven, and all of England’s clubs have a combined 14 European titles. The definition of Real Madrid is dominance. 

Some of the best and most iconic players of all time have played at Real Madrid, and the club is not afraid to pay top-dollar for the talent. Just this century Real Madrid have broken the transfer fee record five times, bringing in the likes of Luís Figo, Gareth Bale, Kaká, Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo. Oh, and Real Madrid is the second most expensive football club in the world and the fifth most valuable sports franchise.

The obvious comparison here is the Yankees, the second most valuable sports franchise in the world and far and away the most successful MLB team of all time. The 27 World Series titles, the countless legends wearing the famous pinstripes and the unrivaled spending on players all point directly to Real Madrid. The icing on the cake is the perception of the teams by fans of the sport — you either love them or hate them.

 

FC Barcelona, Spain – Chicago Bulls

Barcelona is the most valuable soccer club in the world according to Forbes, coming in at fourth overall and edging out arch rival Real Madrid by $10 million. The club has 26 La Liga wins and five UCL titles, but until very recently, they had Lionel Messi — international superstar and the GOAT by many accounts. While Messi was assisting and scoring at a rate never seen before, he subsequently became one of the best sports marketing tools ever. 

Estimates suggest that after Messi’s departure for PSG, Barcelona could lose 11% of their market value because of Messi’s impact on merchandising, corporate partnerships and of course, his otherworldly skills on the field. Barcelona’s kit sponsor, Rakuten, signed a four-year contract in 2017 worth nearly $65 million a year. When Messi submitted a request to leave the club in 2020, Rakuten resigned for just one year at nearly half the price due to the uncertainty of Messi’s situation. This shows the financial impact Messi had on the club, and is why the club paid him $140 million a year — the largest contract in sports history.

While Barcelona are unlikely to completely fall off a cliff with results, the effects of a Messi-less squad have already been felt early in the season. This is reminiscent of the Chicago Bulls post-Michael Jordan. After Jordan’s departure, the Bulls have had 20 years of mediocrity with a few years of success sprinkled in. Yet, the Bulls are still one of the most valuable NBA franchises, partially because of their association with Jordan, and the marketing appeal — both domestic and international — that comes with Jordan and his brand. It is too early to know if Barcelona will suffer the same fate as the Bulls after losing their GOAT, but it is already clear that the future of Barcelona is in jeopardy after Messi’s departure.

 

Juventus FC, Italy – New England Patriots

Juventus, located in Turin, is far and away the most successful Italian club. They have won 36 Italian Serie A titles, including an astounding nine straight that was broken by Inter Milan last season, signalling the end of an era for the Italian giants. Juve has a fair share of legends such as Alessandro Del Peiro, Andrea Pirlo and an aging Cristiano Ronaldo, but the club is well-known for their tenacious defense and excellent coaching. It would be irresponsible to not mention their legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon who spent 19 seasons with the club after arriving in 2001, and holds virtually every Serie A and Juventus record imaginable. 

In 2006, the “Calciopoli” scandal rocked the football world when it was discovered that top Italian clubs were influencing the selection of referees to appoint more “favorable” referees for their games. This scandal resulted in Juventus being automatically relegated to the second division, in addition to starting the season off with negative nine points. Juventus wouldn’t stay down long though, as they won Serie B easily that season and were promoted back into Serie A.

Incredible success recently, a legend spending nearly 20 years with the team starting in the early 2000s, terrible scandals resulting in harsh punishments. Now what American team could that be? The New England Patriots of course. Six super bowls in this century led by the combination of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, “Deflategate,” “Spygate” and the end of an era of unprecedented winning makes the Pats and Juve two peas in a pod. Juventus will likely get back to their winning ways sooner than the Patriots because of their wealth compared to the rest of the Italian clubs, but three or four years without winning feels like a lifetime for a club coming off nine in a row.

 

FC Bayern München, Germany – St. Louis Cardinals

FC Bayern München, commonly known as Bayern Munich or just Bayern, is the premier football club in Germany. Bayern has won a record 31 league titles, all but one coming after 1969. This includes an active streak of nine consecutive titles that will in all likelihood become 10 by April 2022. The club also has six UCL titles, including their 2020 victory over PSG. Bayern is and always has been a force in Germany and Europe alike, known for great defense while simultaneously having a lethal attack, now led by polish superstar Robert Lewandowski. Side note: if you’re looking to get into soccer, search “Full-length Lewandowski five goals nine minutes.” It will blow your mind.

There is no easy comparison for a club as dominant as Bayern without repeating, but the St. Louis Cardinals do have some in common with the German giants. The Cardinals are the MLB’s second most successful team and the most historic National League team. Bayern was founded in 1900, the same year the St. Louis Perfectos permanently changed its name to the Cardinals. The Cardinals two World Series wins and four pennants this century are impressive, but clearly don’t compare to Bayern’s recent success. However, the Cardinals current 17-game win streak to clinch a playoff spot shows the franchise is still quite capable of magic and winning when it matters most. That’s the epitome of Bayern Munich.

 

Honorable Mention:

Tottenham Hotspur FC, England – New York Knicks

Arsenal FC, England – Dallas Cowboys

Chelsea FC, England – Golden State Warriors

Leicester City FC, England – Cleveland Cavaliers

Atlético Madrid, Spain – New York Mets

AC Milan, Italy – Boston Celtics

AS Roma, Italy – Chicago Bears

Borussia Dortmund, Germany – Baltimore Ravens

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