A reprint from the groundbreaking Psrhea Magazine literary website.
This article saw first published in April 1996.
The Worlds Most Civilized Game
The Games People Play
by Abdullah Shabazz
Read Part One
I love how soccer is run as a business. Here in the US we have the franchise system. The leagues themselves are the business, and rich individuals or consortiums buy a franchise in that league. The main benefit of this is that it guarantees a certain degree of business stability; when was the last time a major sports franchise in America went out of business? They don’t. Entire leagues like the USFL, WHA, and WFL may go out of business, but franchises do not, because the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL will keep them in business; they can actually operate at a loss. Conversely, soccer internationally operates on the club system.
In the club system, athletic clubs not unlike the Downtown Athletic Club, Capital Athletic Club, or 24-Hour Nautilus form their own soccer teams – with youth development squads. A bunch of clubs get together and play each other in a league. Unlike the franchise system where the league controls virtually every team’s existence, in the club system the league only makes the rules for competition. Furthermore, there may be so many teams in the league that the league is broken down into several levels of play.
Lets use England as an example. There are 92 teams in their major league, the Football Association, or FA. Because it is impossible for every team to play each other at least once, the FA is broken down into four levels, the top 20 teams being in the top level, the Premier League. Those twenty teams play each other twice, the team with the best record being the league champions. The next level of 23 teams is Division One, and so on down the line for all 92 teams, four divisions in all.
Any team not in the Premier division of the FA can get there by playing into it. Let’s say you have a club in Division Three. If you are one of three teams with the best record at the end of the season, you move up – or get “promoted”– to Division Two. In order to make room for you in the next level, the three teams in Division Two with the worst records at the end of the season are sent down – or get “relegated” – to Division Three. Keep finishing in the top three in each proceeding league and you eventually make it to the Premier division. As a result, the season is everything. That is, there is no playoff to decide a league champion; those 38 league games decide the champion, who gets promoted and who gets relegated. Every game is important. That means that if you lose the championship by one point then that stupid loss against the last-place team at the beginning of the season did as much to contribute to you losing the championship than that tough last-second tie to the third-place team towards the end of the season. There are no early season honeymoons; one misplaced goal allowed could be the difference between promotion to the Premier division and staying in Division One, or one goal scored could mean the difference between staying in Division Three and relegation out of the league. And have no illusions – there are scores of non-league teams waiting to take your place. In England, there are quite a few former league champions who for some reason have played their way out of the league.
While the Premier division winner is the winner of the league (recognized as the best of all 92 teams) there are in-season league-wide tournaments played in which every team at all levels of the FA play each other in an elimination format and win a league wide championship. The two major ones in England are the FA Cup and the League Cup. The early-round games usually pit a Premier division team against a lower division team, and it’s not unusual for the lower division team to not only beat their higher division counterpart, it has happened in the past that the eventual cup winner has come from a lower division.
The reward for all this is international exposure. The Premier division champion is recognized at the English soccer champion, and they advance to a tournament in Europe, consisting of the soccer champions of 15 other countries, called the Champions Cup. The Cup winners are recognized as the English tournament winners, and they advance to a tournament in Europe, consisting of the tournament winners of 31 other countries, called the Cup Winners Cup. The next four finishers in the Premier division even are rewarded for consistently good play by playing in a tournament in Europe, consisting of the top four finishers in 15 other countries, called the UEFA Cup. In essence, throughout the FA there is always something to play for, so there is no “being out of it by mid-season”. The mantra in every European country with pro soccer leagues is “Get To Europe.”
Playing other teams from other countries is the ultimate result and is made possible by the fact that there is an international soccer organization, FIFA, that insures that every soccer league world-wide plays by the same rules. Which means that interchanging players is commonplace – but there are no trades. Players come and go by “transfers”. Unlike the franchise system, under the club system a player’s contract is with his club not the league. If another team wants your player, you set what is called a “transfer fee”, for which the other club must agree to pay it. Once they agree to pay it, you get the transfer fee and the player’s contract is voided. The player then negotiates a new contract with his new club. If you have a player whose contract has expired, and you don’t wish to resign him, then he gets what is called a “free transfer”, and is free to sign with whomever he wishes (remember, these are less teams and more clubs).
Now this is a system that I think would work well in the states. Let’s use the just completed football season as an example, using the NFL and NCAA’s Div I-A, Div I-AA, Div II, and Div-III as an illustration. Since the season is everything, that means that the Kansas City Chiefs, as the team with the best record, would be the league champions. If there was an international tournament of football league champions, the Chiefs would go. For lack of any other tournaments, the Dallas Cowboys, as winners of the post-season tournament culminating in the Super Bowl, would be the cup winners (in this case, the Lombardi Trophy; we’ll call it the Lombardi Cup). If there was an international tournament of football cup winners, the Cowboys would go. The four teams with the next best records to the Chiefs and Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, and Buffalo Bills, would go to an international tournament with 15 other country’s four best teams (if it existed). The New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Arizona Cardinals, by virtue of having the worst records in the NFL, would get relegated to NCAA Div I-A. The Nebraska Cornhuskers, Florida Gators, and Tennessee Volunteers, by virtue of having the best records in NCAA Div I-A, would get promoted to the NFL. It would work the same way for Div I-AA, Div II, and Div III, with teams being promoted and relegated depending on how good or bad they were.
Now who could not get behind this? Who wouldn’t want to see the Cornhuskers (a pro team anyway) play the Cowboys in a game that mattered?. Who gets tired of seeing the Cardinals play like shit year-in and year-out? The promotion/relegation system would force the Cardinals to do the best they can to put the best team on the field at all times without any thought to cutting costs or making a profit. Winning games would be objective one. If Bill Bidwell can’t do that, then Arizona gets sent down until they prove that they can by winning their way back up here. If Bidwell doesn’t have the money to sign quality players in order to maintain or improve his competitive standing in the league, tough shit! Either he figures out a way to compete, or the Cardinals keep getting relegated until they are at the bottom of the food chain.
You can be the richest person in the world and have the wherewithal to sign the best players in the world; in the club system, if you introduce a new franchise, you have to start at the bottom division and spend years working your way up. You don’t get to just come in at the top level or anywhere you please. It’s survival of the fittest – social Darwinism at its civilized best. That’s Life!
Which is exactly my point. Sorry, Mr. Boswell, but life imitates soccer more than it does baseball.
© 1996 Accurate Letters Enterprises/Psrhea Magazine