A Gripe about Modern Soccer Programming

Last night I’ve mustered enough of the inconvenient will to go to the common TV room at work to see if maybe, a big IF, they had the game I wanted on. This doesn’t happen often. In the past that usually came with the risk of that proposition (of the game I want on) blowing up in face with another game being on, and then me having to feign an interest in hanging out with the fellas. It’s a group I don’t particularly enjoy spending time with unless there was something else to occupy me. Like the game I want on. The game then becomes the prop for conversation. The risk of having my pretense exposed the moment I walked in, frankly, is too immense to justify the reward of the viewing experience. Here, the payoff hinges heavily on circumstance, the chance of the game being good. And delayed gratification is a reality I have only recently matured enough to consider. I never thought myself to be that deliberate on a subconscious level, but I guess nothing like your thoughts leering back at you from a computer screen for some self-discovery. This is what I do.

Now, I’m not exactly timid. But every now and then I’d go on one of my hostile, contrarian diatribes, admonishing the mainstream for falling for the old tripe of tuning in to only a select number of games because they guarantee a safe and expected outcome. People don’t like things to deviate from a script. And they’re pathologically averse to taking risks. It’s the Hollywood studio mentality practiced by the consumer. It’s odd, and often reminiscent of a pervasive ideal not restricted to the realm of sports. The sad thing is for a bunch of teams foreign to us, here, the status quo they operate in is a reflection of the economic systems and realities we in the Middle East daily contend with and lament. That is the concentration of wealth among a select few as to provide very few viable options to justify years of preparation. What people like this tune in for is goals galore. Goals from the Messis, Ronaldos and Neymars of the world, who to be real with you are so one of a kind it warrants a rephrasing; they tune in for one of either Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar to do their thing. Not a bad thing to root for but considering there are eleven players on a team, you’re not asking for much from life if that’s your idea of a weekly dose of entertainment.

Another unfortunate thing is, with the proliferation of games, and the league calendars playing out most of the year, the product is diluted beyond any redeeming value. At the domestic level, it’s nothing but a handful of Goliaths going up against an infinite number of Davids, only there to make the numbers and serve as a punching bag to pad stats with, both collective and individual (I’m looking at you, Spain). Except David never won a marathon. And team sports are a marathon, not a one-off. Now, with the annual awards season up on us, I urge you to look at the candidate shortlist, where they play, and what their positions are to illustrate my point. As I write this, PSG and Barcelona, and Manchester City and Roma will lock horns at simultaneous kickoff times. These two are very intriguing matchups. And while I’m decided on which game is worthier of attention, I’m not articulated enough yet to dispute the guys if the other game was on. Now, I understand, your rooting interest as a fan will dictate which game you’ll have on. But, here’s the problem; keyword is fan. Not the fan of the sport. The fanatic that follows one team. Or pines for certain narratives. Everyone else, pundits, scouts, i.e., those with a nuanced eye for the subliminal or tactical underpinnings of sports, are fans of the sport.

There are a lot of issues in the UCL that need reform. Taken as a standalone tournament, the UCL functions a lot like a certain NFL league. Seven years ago I managed to conquer my mistaken notion of the diluted product that is the NFL, and started paying attention instead of worrying where (and what) to start paying attention from (and to). In life just like in sports and TV, it behooves one to take a leap of faith at some point for the outcome may surprise us. The Giants terminated an historic season by any sport’s standards and I immediately became a fan of the sport. The kind that’ll wait for the week to go by 18 times a year as opposed to the casual one latching on to a sport briefly in Super Bowl parties. It expands your horizons having an open mind and it was exactly one full season until I was familiar with all the penalties. The ones that matter at least. After that, I figured I knew half the rosters on every team from watching the broadcasts alone. It’s amazing how simpler things become once you start doing them.
Now is the UCL the European equivalent to the NFL? The UCL can be seen as either an extension of the feeder tournaments (the eligible domestic round-robin leagues in Europe) as the regular season and divisional football is the preliminary venue for postseason play. Or if you aren’t so complex mentally then every UCL group is the preliminary venue to decide who plays in that tournament’s later rounds. One’s myopic, the other hyperopic. Shit, if you proclaim yourself to be a soccer fan, you’d sooner realize all tournaments worth squat involve a long road to the tournament proper (the Euros, the World Cup, the UCL, Intercontinental Cup, etc.) and acted accordingly. But if you were of the myopic view, suddenly the idea of the UCL as an individual narrative you can dive into at any stage and not miss a thing is a comforting antidote to the diluted product dilemma. Except the CL, all the way to its showpiece game, allows a maximum of 13 games spread over 9 months, so you’d better come up with something in the way of filler. Except, again, there’s so much to keep up with to take it all seriously enough.

If on the other hand you wished to acknowledge the bigger picture, you’d then realize plenty of the league streams are not on a similar footing. This is all the work of Michel Platini, UEFA’s President and his initiative at inclusion and hollow attempts at parity. So far it has only worked in providing the occasional upset in qualification. Or early round elimination, if you’d like a cynic’s angle. Just last night, Liverpool was eliminated by Basel. It plays into no team being a minnow but realistically, the Swiss outfit is content with achieving its season’s objective so early in the year. In their eyes, their the real winners, here. So, the notion of the UCL being Europe’s answer to the NFL in that here we have a single tournament to serve as the be all, end all, again falls short.

In the event I appeared to have blathered on about rationalizing why I pick and choose when to follow and when to step away, let me make it up to you by… yakking some more on what to fix in this tournament. Jesus Christ, how about multiple kickoff times even when you’re not the home team and you’re Russian? How simple is that? Russian and Ukrainian game venues get to kickoff two hours earlier. That’s three games per participating team, which usually denotes six total days we have multiple kickoff times. Two kickoff times. It’s about time the UCL raked in better advertiser money by spreading out the games. Or instead of having each round taking place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays of a single week, spread half the action to the following week like they do with the Round of 16. Here’s the problem, it would cut into FIFA’s exhibition games slates in the fall and spring. Considering the tug of war that always happens between club boards and national associations before each series, I say settle this once and for all. The scorecard is already leaning UEFA’s way, just tip it over all the way and end this nonsense. The only exhibition game worth the logistics and spectator engagement is Argentina and Brazil. Oddly enough, it doesn’t figure often into FIFA’s events schedule.

The logic behind this move is, and I’ve encountered arguments for the conservative out of not changing a thing from — who else? — the same assholes at work, for the first time in a long time, if not ever, in many groups plenty of second placed teams are also heavy weights. Here are the names you should be concerned with from finished games from Round 6: Juventus (Group A). Bayer Leverkusen (C). Arsenal (D). Of the remaining teams yet to play all six games, only one doesn’t stand to gain or lose anything from either outcome; Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine. And they’ll play this one at home. That’s Group H. Meanwhile in Group E, the aforementioned Roma and Manchester City are both fighting for the number two spot, or survival. That’s a murderer’s row of second place teams we’ve not seen in a while. Also, consider Group F where PSG and Barcelona create an intriguing quandary of being punished for their group stage success or actually getting a reward from deliberately settling for less. Would you want to potentially face Chelsea or Bayern Munich if you were Barcelona, since you’re already guaranteed of not being paired against Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid? If yes, aim for a tie and finish second, because the alternative as a group winner is actually a more difficult first bracket (They get one of Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen, Arsenal, Donetsk, or Roma/City). As PSG, you’re options are severely limited, or rather open to a wider selection, so you’d want to stay in first place and avoid defeat. That’s because the alternative is Atletico, Real, Bayern Munich, Porto, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea, or Monaco. The odds of landing a series against Porto or Monaco, the weakest group winners on paper, are at two-to-five.

You know what this means, don’t you? One of PSG and Barcelona will be joining that list, too. One game is played for survival, the other for the mere, brief reassignment of status. A perceived notion outside the field. And that will all happen at the same time, so forgive the occasional antipathy. Like the one preceding this piece. I don’t know which game is more deserving of the opportunity cost, but I know which one the uninformed is interested in. They did have the game I wanted on. It was a stalemate but not without offering some compelling takeaways for both sides. And yes, the guy who watched it with me kept asking to intermittently switch to the Real Madrid game. Against a Bulgarian team he’d never heard of before this year. It finished 4-0 for Madrid. So, I win.