Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Drop

Every year around this time throughout Europe sportswriters and commentators and fans start talking about The Drop.  Relegation and promotion (or, I guess, promotion and relegation if your glass is half full) are features of almost every professional soccer league in the world not in the U.S. or Australia.

Rather ironic, since relegation is the most democratic, or Darwinian, of all sporting concepts. Each year in one or two or three of the clubs that finish in the bottom of the standings of a league will be relegated to the next division down, and the same number of clubs will be promoted, either by virtue of their finish in their league during the regular season or by a playoff, to the next higher division. So while clubs in, say, China will (theoretically) rise or fall each year on their own merits, those in the U.S. are among the few that are always safely ensconced in the highest professional division of the sport.

Because of the way professional sports teams developed in the United States, with a small number of clubs owned usually by one individual or entity, promotion and relegation never took hold here. In Europe, however, with its thousands of soccer teams and stronger local and regional ties, it was a natural development.

In recent years, the relegation battle, at least in England, is much more interesting than the fight for the championship of the Premier League. While the same two or three teams fight it out for the crown every year, several more are sucked into the abyss that is the desperate attempt to avoid the drop.

This year the races to the championship and to relegation are both shaping up to be interesting, thanks to the lack of a dominating club at the top and many middling to miserable ones at the other end of the spectrum. But while one of the usual suspects (either Man United or Arsenal) are likely to win the crown, nine or ten clubs, within six points of each other, are capable of playing badly enough over the last eight or nine matches of the season to warrant relegation.

Unfortunately for me and other Blackburn fans, one of those clubs that could face The Drop is the Rovers.  In the top ten and looking good just a few weeks ago, Rovers have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, or at least a draw, on several occasions recently, including two weeks ago when they conceded a penalty in the last minute to lose 3-2 to Fulham, and last week when they had to come from two goals down at home to register a draw with Blackpool. Speculation has gone from wondering whether the club will be able to challenge for a Europa League spot to whether they will be playing in the Premier League next season.

I have to admit, though, that whether it's the glass-half-empty Rover fan, the masochist, or the republican (yes, little "r" republican) in me, I relish the fight to dodge The Drop. Nothing more energizes a fan base than supporting your club to survive to fight another day. And, I have to admit, I always relish the opportunity to chirp when a "Big Club" (like Newcastle two seasons ago) goes down.

How cool would it be to get to see an American pro team (insert team name here -- mine would be the Cowboys or the Yankees) struggle to maintain top flight status? Can you imagine the glee if Jerry Jones was faced with the prospect of a half-filled billion dollar stadium while his Cowboys play some semi-pro team from Waco?

I'll be there on Saturday morning, biting my nails and hoping the Rovers can pick up three or even one point against Arsenal (yeah, right) that would go a long way to avoiding The Drop. But I'll be pulling just as hard for West Ham and Birmingham (two self-proclaimed "Big Clubs") to lose and sink a little farther toward oblivion. What could be more American?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mes Que Un Club

While I may live or die with every Blackburn Rovers' win or loss (and there have been more of the latter than the former lately), I have to admit that Rovers are not my absolute favorite team to watch. That distinction rests with F.C. Barcelona.

Mes Que Un Club ("More than a Club") is the motto of Barcelona. It refers to the fact that the club is much more than simply a soccer club. And while the club also has basketball, handball, hockey, and futsal teams, it refers to much more than that as well.

Barcelona is the team of Catalonia, a region of Spain that has at various times in its history enjoyed cultural and political autonomy or oppression courtesy of its various rulers, most recently Spain. During Franco's rule, the Catalans in general and Barça in particular were singled out for punishment as a culture and institution that were anathema to The Generalissimo's idea of a unified Spain. 

Catalans were prohibited from speaking their language and Franco installed a series of handpicked toadies as Barça's president after his militia executed its duly elected president in 1936. Real Madrid's status as Franco's club and Barça's as the club of the Republicans have always been reason enough for me to root for Barcelona and despise Real (and that was before Real bought Cristiano Ronaldo). Even today, the colors of the Catalan flag appear on Barça's badge, shirts, and its captain's armband.

While there are political and cultural reasons why I began supporting Barça, there is a simpler reason I prefer to watch them over any other team, even Rovers: they play the most dazzling soccer on the planet.

Barcelona plays the game the way I think it ought to be played. Pinging passes around the pitch, probing for openings, dominating possession, looking for that little window or slight angle that provides the killer through ball. With plenty of determination and grit, but no cynicism. They have two of the best center midfielders in the world (Xavi and Iniesta) to run the show, one of the best forwards, David (that's "Dah-veed") Villa to score goals, and the best player in the universe, Lionel Messi, to provide the magic.

And here's the kicker, at least for me: all four are under 5'10" tall. Villa, at a listed 5'9", is the "giant" of the bunch. Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi are all purported to be around 5'7", although I'm skeptical of even that measurement. 

As a vertically challenged individual, and perhaps more importantly, the father of two vertically challenged (former) high school athletes, I've always been sensitive to coaches or organizations that are quick to dismiss someone just because of their height. That certainly didn't happen to these four -- instead, they comprise the most lethal soccer attack in the world. How cool is that?

I watched Barça dismantle Arsenal in the Champion's League Tuesday and came away with one thought: everyone who thinks soccer is boring needs to watch this match. While Arsenal are generally a team that like to possess the ball (before and after the first leg of this two-match contest they were often referred to as "Barça Lite") they saw virtually none of in the match, reduced to desperate defending and great goal keeping to keep the score close. 95,000 fans cheered every pass, and Messi scored a goal that only Messi could score. 

So, for all of you out there who still think soccer is boring, here's a little (pun intended) Messi for you. And I'll be happy to loan you my dvd of the entire match if you'd like. Seriously. Just remember to give it back. They're more than just a club you know.