I just witnessed football history as Liverpool clinched its first league title in 30 years and became English Premier League champions for season 2020.
How did I witness this? I was watching the game live on TV and saw the caption on the screen and heard the commentators tell me.
If you’re reading this and wondering what the winning-game scoreline was for Liverpool, well, I can tell you that I wasn’t watching Liverpool play, I was watching Manchester City versus Chelsea. The Liverpool players and coach were not playing or present, or on camera, but rather they were watching from their hotel rooms.
So the EPL champions are Liverpool, and they were not playing or visible. So you could assume that is the end of the newly resumed post-COVID-19 interrupted EPL season for 2019-20? Far from it. There are still seven rounds of play remaining or 18.4 per cent of the season still to be played out, and in empty stadiums. Sounds like engaging fun.
Cynical sarcasm aside, that actually could have been a Q-and-A between myself and a curious non-football savvy sports fan, who is genuinely wondering about this historic sports news out of England.
This dynamic is commonplace in football: league titles being decided with a month-plus, and with many games, left in the season, and with the championship team not even playing at the time of their crowning. It is a dynamic that is traditionally accepted and routine to European and international football fans, but one perhaps that warrants an urgent review, given the international competition between the top sports leagues vying for and competing for eyeballs emanating from the same audience base.
Imagine in Australia what it would be like with no playoff or finals series in the NRL or AFL. Envision a season where, say, Geelong wrap up top spot by Round 18, and then we – the fans – must sit and endure a month and four rounds of pointless footy.
With teams taking their foot off the metaphorical accelerator, imagine the implications for sports betting and the absence of urgency and win-at-all-costs athlete mentality.
The world recently watched the Michael Jordan documentary series, The Last Dance, in awe, chronicling the incredible run of Air Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and their six championships in eight years. To this day, it is astounding, it is incredible, hence the captivating documentary series, which was ESPN’s greatest ever ratings winner in the US.
Newsflash: Bayern Munich recently won their eighth consecutive championship and their 16th in the past 22 seasons. Never mind a couple of measly three-peats by the Bulls, we’re talking eight-peat here! Surely the iconic producers of The Last Dance, Peter Guber and Mike Tollin, are scrambling to Munich to get the rights to this thing. Surely!
Paradoxically, the answer and reality is no, not at all. In fact, Arsenal’s German goalkeeper Bernd Leno came out and publicly stated that he found Bayern Munich’s dominance of the Bundesliga “sad and boring”. If you’re confused about how Leno can call the Bundesliga “sad and boring” because of Bayern winning eight straight, when the Jordan-Bulls era is considered legendary and epic, let me try and explain.
There is no player draft system in European football, it’s all about money and buying players. The more success you have, the more access to the best players you get.
It’s the exact opposite of American sports recruiting structure. It’s like if you win the NBA championship or Super Bowl in any given year, you then get the top five draft picks and best free agents available as a result. The term ‘rebuild’ is rarely used for European football powerhouses. They just spend more money and go out and pay hundreds of millions of Euros buying established stars.
The masterful Bavarians at Bayern have simply carved out a monopoly in Germany exploiting this dynamic. And they shouldn’t be shamed or lamented for it, but by the same token, they shouldn’t be celebrated the way Jordan’s Bulls were. The same can be said in Italy’s Serie A, where Juventus are the Bayern Munich of Italy, also currently on a seemingly effortless eight-year championship winning streak. You know, that whole nutshell.
Things are not that much more competitive in that other mega European league, which is considered by many to be the best in the world, Spain’s La Liga. While there hasn’t been quite the winning streak in Spain that Bayern and Juventus enjoy in their countries, this place is more of a two-horse race.
In the past decade, La Liga has been home to arguably the biggest five stars in the world: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Luka Modric, all of whom play or played for the two biggest teams in Spain, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Despite this tantalisingly enticing all-star cast, I have still found it difficult to watch La Liga because of the fact that it is a two-horse race.
In today’s saturated world of football leagues and tournaments – and the off-field battle for clicks, visibility, streaming and ratings – like many others, I’ve become very selective about what I watch, and increased excitement, unpredictability and competition is my ever-heightening benchmark.
Even though there are 20 teams in La Liga, you know that it will almost certainly be either Real Madrid or FC Barcelona that will be winning the title in any given year. So I only watch two La Liga games per year, the El Clasico. For those who don’t pulsate on a football frequency, the El Clasico is ‘The Classic’ that happens twice a year when Real and Barca play their regular season home-and-away games against each other.
With an absence of a draft pick system, player trades, salary caps or playoffs, the major domestic leagues of Europe have become vastly uncompetitive, as highlighted by the ongoing eight-peat streaks of Bayern and Juventus, and by the ridiculous ease and speed that Liverpool’s title clinching this year demonstrated.
With seven rounds to go in the EPL, and no crowds, why would viewers like myself want to watch these games? The remainder of the season are basically dead rubbers, apart from the jostling for Champions League berths or to avoid relegation. It’s like a Test cricket series wrapped up with a couple of them left to play.
As a lifelong football fan and EPL fanatic, I felt empty and short-changed experiencing Liverpool’s 30-year title drought coming to an end, watching second-placed Manchester City lose to Chelsea, making it mathematically impossible for City to catch Liverpool with seven games remaining.
There was not even a live feed of any Liverpool players watching the game. It was like watching the Academy Award for best picture, and the winning team of producers and performers were not there to accept the award. This is not acceptable in 2020, in our world of voyeuristic and saturated visibility and access.
Minutes later we got to see Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp shed tears of joy in an interview, and then some current and past Liverpool players chiming in. That was it. Am I the only one who thinks this is so anticlimactic and deflating as a fan of the game and the EPL?
Am I the only one who thinks it’s time for these leagues to evolve, and consider options such as a final four or eight playoff series to avoid these sterile and anticlimactic situations, where eight-peats are the norm, and champions are crowned a month before the end of the season?
Time will tell. If not, eventually money will.