By J Hutcherson (Jun 15, 2017) US Soccer Players - The NBA finals came to a close this week with many people feeling that the league blew an entire season of games and four rounds of playoffs to get to the obvious conclusion. We all knew who the best team was in October. There's more to this than what we now expect in the era of hot take sports coverage. It's asking fundamental questions about a league in a time where it and sports in general have never been worth more as businesses. It also should sound familiar to soccer fans.
When the 2016-17 Champions League concluded with the obvious team winning again, it was a similar response. Is it possible to copy the Real Madrid model? The consensus is no, it isn't. Would anybody want to? Again, other than stacking up trophies, the consensus is no. Real Madrid isn't selling style or a new approach to the game ala Barcelona a few years ago. They're great at winning games right now. We get that. What that doesn't make them is great in the big picture sense.
You can normally tell a lot about a league by their best team. In the NBA, hitting as many three point shots as possible is the new priority. That's because of how well it works for the NBA champions. In soccer, it's not as clear. The era of focusing on stringing together as many passes as possible is not only over, it borders on cliche. Teaching the "Real Madrid method" would seem to require utilizing elite players and recognizing the lapses of opposition tactics. There's not much new there.
What's interesting about the generation of superstar players now seasoned veterans at the highest levels in Europe is their age. A lot of them came up in an era of European club soccer seen then and now as not exactly inspired. The early-2000s in Europe shouldn't be the stuff of nostalgic documentaries stressing just how good it was. It wasn't, the last ebb in a game that's had plenty of them.
The Champions League recovered, but there's still the feeling that maybe we're in an era of predictability. We know the handful of clubs in Europe capable of winning the trophy. We also know the handful of clubs that some of them replaced. It's a predictability that seems locked in right now. If it's not Real Madrid, it's another super club that has the same issues making that broader statement. Here's how we won. It's unique to us, but feel free to try and beat us at our game.
That's what made the Barcelona era under Pep Guardiola entertaining. There's a Lionel Messi video clip making the rounds where he answers "organization" when asked if that or the individual is more important. Of course he would. The entirety of his club success is built on organization even when he's the obvious catalyst. It's tougher for a team like Real Madrid where the honest answer would be something like "it depends."
It's not that this difference necessarily drags the game down. It's not even that we're in an era of negative tactics. Instead, the current era of the game is marked by two things. We know what great is. That's Real Madrid right now. We're not so clear on what very good all the way down to average is.
That's made clear by the recent installments of the transfer market. We've seen silly money spent on players, in part justified because all the Premier League clubs have so much of it to spend. That's distorted the entire transfer market, the Premier League tax as some describe it. If the Premier League has all that money, it behooves everybody else to alter prices accordingly. That it's 2017 and we're still talking about attaching transfer fees to professional soccer players aside for the time being, that as much as anything describes the issues with contemporary soccer.
In an era of statistical modeling, better scouting, and massive amounts of coverage and reporting, too many clubs operate as if very little of this gives them an advantage. We still see clubs spending a premium on players that probably won't make them any better or their nearest rivals any worse from missing out. We still see coaches that should know better getting in their own way at super clubs with all-star squads. We also see games across domestic and European schedules that look like throwbacks to an earlier era of stifling play and bad ideas. It's an old safety first approach that builds laudable effort in playing not to lose.
We're deep in the sports broadcast rights era, with leagues all over the world raking in the cash. That in turn requires offering entertainment. The Premier League already has a ratings issue domestically and in emerging markets like the United States. There are ancillary reasons that certainly play a part in the ratings drop, but that shouldn't downplay a simple response. Less people are watching because the games, the product for those who can stomach describing the sport in business terms, aren't as entertaining.
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 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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