By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 27, 2013) US Soccer Players – A big club gets a look when it’s not winning. There’s a physical slump, an occasional shake of the head in disbelief. You can see it on the field, on the sideline, and certainly in the stands. It’s the response of a group of people waiting for their win. That expectation of the right result is part of what turns a team into a big club. There are a thousand clichés about winning in sports, and almost all of them eventually apply.
That’s what makes it so intriguing when a big club doesn’t perform well enough. When the shots don’t fall and the result doesn’t happen, it’s time to ask a series of serious and meaningful questions. Why… didn’t… we… win?
We got a lovely example of that in Tuesday’s Champions League encounter between Basel and Chelsea. Playing away spared Chelsea a stadium full of their fans sharing their look of disbelief. A scoreless draw in a Champions League game in November? That’s not the Chelsea way. This is a team of world-class soccer players. They’re Champions League winners with a superstar manager. They have the money and the motivated ownership to spend to answer any problem. Basel? That’s the type of team that makes up the numbers. Then it got worse. Basel scored, compounding Chelsea’s immediate problems.
Now Chelsea are losing to the team they knocked out of last year’s Europa League on the way to the title. That was Basel’s greatest moment and a disappointment for Chelsea. The Europa League is for losers if you’re a big club. Chelsea, with a different manager, expect better this season. Instead, Chelsea might be leading Group E but they feel exposed. Questions need answers. Expectations need meeting.
“The only positive thing is that we go through, but not because we got the result,” Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said. “In the end we qualified which is our first objective and now we have the last match at home to finish first. Today I want to praise Basel. They won because we were sleeping in the last minutes but they won also because they were the best team and they deserved to win.”
At the same time at Amsterdam ArenA, Ajax were complicating Group H with a win over leaders Barcelona. Ajax are certainly a bigger name than Basel, but to an elite club they’re a feeder team playing in a backwater. They might squeeze in based on sentimentality and geography for some versions of a European Super League, but it would be the rest of those mighty clubs doing them a favor. On merit, they’re not in the top three of any of the major European domestic leagues. Yet, there they were begging an uncomfortable question of Barcelona. Is this a one-dimensional team that can’t win without its superstar of superstars?
“Self-criticism is always useful and if this group of players has one thing , it is that self-awareness,” Barcelona coach Tato Martino said. “The defeat has come at a moment where it doesn’t damage us as much as it might have and it will allow us to look back at what has happened.”
The next time the shadow of the Super League stretches across European soccer, remember match day five. As exciting as these games are for fans of the underdog, they’re sending a very clear message to the big clubs. They’re vulnerable to results not going their way. It’s the basic point of any athletic competition. There’s the risk of losing. Do it enough, and your position changes.
You can certainly see any talk of a Super League as a grab for power by teams of the moment. We’ve seen major teams fall away in recent years. Leeds were the original Chelsea in the modern era, after all. Rangers replaced looking for a way out of Scotland entirely with seasons stretching in front of them just to get back to the topflight. The safety net of a Super League will never be wide enough to catch every big club. Some of them will find out they’re quite small by comparison.
Let’s play fantasy soccer. If you’re revamping Europe and limiting yourself to 16 clubs in a super league, you could easily fill them limiting yourself to England, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Cast a little wider, and you’re leaving out some of those clubs. That’s part of the reason the Super League remains a recurring rumor. More than a few clubs will have to redefine their scope. There won’t be any global brands outside of a Super League.
What the fortunate few get in exchange is a greater degree of control. No FC Basels to beat a super club twice. Chelsea advance with a game to spare, not just fully on its terms.
It’s the same for Barcelona. It’s the annoyance. The relative stakes. The idea that it might not be worth it to even allow for the shock upset story lines. One Super Club losing to another is rarely a shock. That doesn’t mean games featuring the big clubs against each other aren’t entertaining.
Eventually, the top of the business of professional club soccer will move on. They’ll decide bureaucracy and third-parties aren’t necessary. They’ll make their own decisions, moving from imposed to imposer. The drop of facade shouldn’t be surprising. UEFA didn’t just decide to revamp the European Cup. Pleasing the elite clubs is the story of European soccer over the past three decades, and it isn’t complete.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him email@example.com.
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