Monday, January 30, 2012

On to Wembley

I thought this article about Craig Bellamy getting a goal against his former club, Manchester City, to propel his current club and the one he dreamed of playing for as a boy, Liverpool, into the Carling Cup final at Wembley Stadium against his hometown team, Cardiff City, was a nice segue for this neophyte English Premier League fan to talk for just a moment about soccer -- gulp!
I've never been much of a soccer fan (I find the game dull and can't stand the flopping and diving) but have to admit that watching the high level of play of the EPL has changed that a little.  When the same ownership group that owns the Boston Red Sox bought Liverpool, I became curious as to what all the fuss was about.  When I read about the fact that the team they bought was the most storied, and infamous (read about Hillsborough and Heysel), in English pro soccer history, I became interested to learn what the league was all about.

So I've adopted Liverpool as my favorite team, even though I watch very few games (I'm not that big a fan) but what fascinates me much more than the game play is the history and, for lack of a better word, format of European soccer.  I'm going to attempt to explain, with a small base of knowledge, how this works and why I find it fascinating.  Hopefully the other EPL fans here will bail me out.  Every European league has a tiered system where the best teams play in the top tier, the next best in the second tier and so on.  In the English League that amounts to four tiers with around 20 teams per tier.  Every year, amidst the regular EPL season, there is an elimination tournament played amongst all the teams of the four tiers, 92 teams, that is the Carling Cup or League Cup.  The championship game will be played at Wembley Stadium between Liverpool and Cardiff City, a "second tier" team that came all the way through.  Liverpool has won this tournament a record seven times.

Liverpool defeated Manchester United (har har, Rick!) this weekend to advance to the quarter finals of an even bigger English soccer tournament, the FA Cup, where they'll take on Brighton.  Aside from winning the League Cup, which is won solely by accumulating the most points during the season, the FA Cup or Football Association Challenge Cup is the most prestigious in the EPL.  From The Wiki:
The FA Cup was first held in 1871–72. Entry is open to all teams who compete in the Premier League, the Football League and in steps one to five of the FA National League System, as well as selected teams in step 6.[3] This means that clubs of all standards compete, from the largest clubs in England and Wales down to amateur village teams. The tournament has become known for the possibility for "minnows" from the lower divisions to become "giant-killers" by eliminating top clubs from the tournament and even theoretically win the Cup, although lower division teams rarely progress beyond the early stages. The qualification rounds and a system of byes mean that the very smallest and very biggest teams almost never meet.
Obviously what makes it fun as a fan is that your lower tier teams get to take a shot at the big boys and sometimes even knock them off.  Imagine a semi-pro baseball team that has played in your neck of the woods for a hundred years getting to play in a big tournament every year with the likes of the Yankees.  As a sports history buff, it is this kind of thing that makes European soccer interesting to me.  Manchester United has won the most of these cups.
But wait, there's more -- one more that I'll describe but there's even more than that.  What's notable is the UEFA Champions League, which is another tournament that runs during the regular seasons of all of the major European soccer leagues that pits the top teams (1 to 5 teams depending upon the strength of the league) from each league in a battle to determine the champion of all champions.  There's nothing else like this in any other sport.  The championship game of this tournament is the largest viewed annual sporting event in the world, even bigger than the Super Bowl.  It would be like a dozen countries each having a Super Bowl and then a tournament ensued after that pitting all the Super Bowl champions.  It's like the World Cup, except it's played every year and pits professional teams against each other rather than country all star teams.  Real Madrid has won this tournament the most times, 9, with Liverpool having won it 5, the most of any EPL team.
Liverpool is obviously favored to win its 8th Carling Cup and is in good position in the FA Cup tourney, although there are still many good teams remaining at this point.  Since Liverpool did not finish high enough in the EPL last year to qualify to play in the UEFA Champions League this year and are not going to win the EPL league title this year, winning the Carling and possibly the FA would be a very big deal for this storied club.
I'm also writing this post as my punishment for not having the guts to blog challenge Rick regarding this weekend's match between Liverpool and Manchester United...missed opportunity.  I won't hesitate if that opportunity presents itself deeper in the tourney, RJ.

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