Leave it for an ugly American to suggest football correct its ills by creating a playoff system, right? But I have an excuse, what with having been conditioned to experience nearly all my sports finales after clubs slog through a post-season playoff scheme that many would consider lessens the importance of playing well consistently over an entire season of play. Despite this obvious argument against playoffs, perhaps echoed most loudly in the United States, our sports have become ever more enamored with this system in some form or another, as over the decades baseball, American football, basketball, and now Major League Soccer have expanded their original playoff formats to include even more clubs. This perhaps waters down the competition for titles and makes it possible for average or (gulp) below average regular season teams to become champions.
So, argument doomed from the start, eh?
Not necessarily, as even though there have been some exceptions with poor clubs in these sports perhaps catching a good run of form at just the right time, for the most part the cream still rose to the top in the end. Playoffs seem to operate as their own closed season with the best clubs having the best players performing as they did in the regular season and quite often afforded a decided advantage based on good league play either with having to play fewer games to reach a final or having all their games played at home. I cannot deny there is a bit more of an egalitarian feel to the whole procedure, though, and that is precisely why such an institution might benefit your European football leagues. While a concept such as the draft, whereby the worst-performing clubs from the previous year get the opportunity to sign the most talented youth products available in a given silly season would be impossible to implement, a playoff would be a way to break up the slightly static nature we see in several leagues these days and provide for the chance of seeing other clubs hold aloft a cup every so often.
First, let’s try and get that bad taste out of your mouth over the idea of playoffs. For that, why not engage in a bit of rewording to make the idea palatable? You lot like your Champions League, European Championships, or possibly World Cup finals, right? Were there to be a playoff in say, the English Premier League, consider the 38 game schedule the group stage where each team plays in a round robin format. Once that group stage concludes, a certain number of clubs would be eligible to advance to the next round. That next round might be a two legged tie or perhaps a knock-out phase FA Cup-style (however it’s fashioned) with the winning sides moving on to face one another in a winner-take all final. The staging of the final could be decided ahead of time at one of the home grounds of the league’s clubs, or perhaps the stadium of the remaining club that finished highest in the league. Either way you slice it, I would consider it preferable to staging another final at Wembley and thus giving London yet another showcase match, but that decision could be left to the powers that be.
Still with me? Okay, so if the EPL were to have a playoff yet make an effort to ensure performance over a league season were not entirely inconsequential, let us consider the number of clubs that might progress. The top eight finishers might be a good place to start, but this could allow for the eventuality of a regular season champion to be eliminated early, which could be most distasteful. This would also seem to reach that entirely despicable feeling of too many clubs getting in and the idea that a rather average squad could be the champions of the “greatest league in the world.” We could have seven teams then, with the club that finished top of the league automatically granted a spot in the semifinal round (and guaranteed a Champions League spot, perhaps?). Stage quarterfinals at the home of each of the better performing clubs in the regular season, with the regular season champion hosting the lowest remaining club in the next round. Were this to transpire, some integrity for finishing well in the league remains preserved while at the same time admits the possibility of a club from areas other than Manchester or London taking the league.
Consider the matter from the 2010/11 final table. Manchester United finished 1st, and would have thus been given a semifinal at Old Trafford, with Chelsea hosting Everton and Liverpool traveling to the City of Manchester Stadium for quarterfinals while North London hosted a massive derby between Arsenal and Spurs. While the odds would have been long, consider an English Premier League where a club like Everton would be given a chance to win the league, or go back in later years to imagine Aston Villa or Fulham chasing tangible glory. Were there a playoff, might Liverpool have picked up another title post Ian Rush porn ‘stache? Could you imagine the potential classic match-ups brought about through a small batch playoff in England?
How, you may still be asking, could this fix football? Well, you open the possibility of clubs other than those funded by oil money or regurgitated debt to actually winning the league. This might be particularly appealing not only to fans of clubs in leagues not only in England, but also now France, where Qatari investment is funding a potential PSG monopoly on Ligue Un. Might you be tired of seeing either Rangers or Celtic always winning the league, Scottish football fans? Institute a playoff–after you’ve expanded the number of clubs in your top flight–and see what can be done. Would La Liga be a bit more than a two club league were an Athletic Bilbao or the other major club from Madrid in with a chance? Not only would there be more interest from football neutrals were a playoff in play for league titles in Europe, but there would be a greater number of supporters within a league invested in how which club wins the title.
This second point–the supporters of clubs within a league–might be the one that is truly a fix to the fits the modern game finds itself. With the amount of cash sloshing around only the upper crust clubs, there seems to have been created an even more massive divide between the haves and have not’s within a league. There is becoming a further detachment away from supporters of clubs outside London, Manchester, and the red side of Liverpool that this league is no longer their own. With such a disengagement comes a bit of apathy, and an erosion in the importance of winning a title anyway. If Villa, Everton, Tottenham, or Newcastle can never win the league, why should their fans care who does? Should these clubs be in a playoff run to a title, though, this should reinvigorate their fan bases, who rather than grousing about finishing in a Europa League position near the close of a season could be fighting for the chance to win some earnest silverware.
Well, that should be enough to be getting along with for now. Surely there are drawbacks, but might there be something else that could tweak league structures as they are at the present without upsetting too much of the apple cart? Some leagues have become so predictable that there’s not much separating pre-season predictions and final league tables these days. Further, with the influx of money in many leagues fortifying and solidifying finishing positions for some time to come with the recent news they will likely be unpunished by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, a playoff might at least shake up league play and knock down those which might have thought their trophies were already purchased.
Also, wouldn’t be fun to see a club like Everton win the league once in a while, just to find out if David Moyes is physically capable of smiling?
By Jason Le Blanc. Jason is a connoisseur of European football and can be found writing about the sport on a number of fantastic websites. You can follow him on Twitter @OutsideMid.