August 2010

1,500 Words on the EPL’s First Three Weeks

In a culture where we readily deploy American sporting metaphor in everyday conversation, there’s little reason to embrace the English Premier League. It opens, at least in terms of its general reception by the American “sports as sacred” public, with three strikes against it, or at the very least, on fourth and long.

Strike one—Americans long for the underdog and all its attendant emotive, heart-string tugging glory. One George Mason makes every victory by a heavy favorite bearable. You don’t have to believe me, you just have to listen to sports talk radio or (God forbid) read a newspaper. We enter college football season this week in America, and public outcry and demand for the little guy has resulted in the coming disaster: America’s sweetheart Boise State sixty to one-hundred twenty minutes away from a berth in the National Title Game. And this on August 29. The English Premier League boasts no lovable loser, no wretched outcast whose plight contains just enough seeds of hope to serve as a conversational rallying point. No, the table is set, and it’s a shuffle for four spaces, with five true contenders and a group of three-to-four “This is our year” pretenders, whose year, it invariably, is not. All this is true on August 29, and it is hardly breaking news that the league will be won by Chelsea, Manchester United, or Arsenal. Your underdog stories exist in the FA Cup of course, but nary a fan is invested enough to follow that competition, even if they recognize it exists. The embrace of an underdog can’t be isolated to an individual Saturday or Sunday, or even a few such days. Americans demand an end-result level of hope, and in the EPL, there is none.

Strike Two—Building on strike one, the problem with the underdogs one might embrace. Forget for a moment there’s as much hope long-term for these sides as there is for decent pop music in the decade of Glenn Beck and Barack Obama’s failed efforts to bridge the hope and genuine change gap—alas we are condemned to more Coldplay (also British), the world’s biggest band and perhaps its most feeble, and more passive-aggressive “Please sleep with me” solemn John Mayer albums that are less rock and roll, once an institution serving as a defiant fist in the face of fading youth, and more weak-minded, coffee-shop dirge. The genuine reality is there’s less and less hope for them on any particular weekend. The EPL used to be able to offer the observant American sporting fan the same “Any Given Sunday” refrain they embrace (with only tangible justification) in their favorite son, the National Football League. Darren Bent’s stoppage time penalty this weekend against Blankcheckster City and Hugo Rodallega’s 80th minute Wigan Athletic stunner against (now properly qualified) Champions League side Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane this weekend aside, we’re still left with a widening rich-poor gap befitting the double dip recession that leaves many of us at home Friday evenings, awaiting our cable televisions and soccer packages on Saturday mornings. No—we’ve seen one too many six-nil bloodlettings to think this weekend was any more than aberration. Can you genuinely turn a new fan on by encouraging her or him that this might be the weekend West Brom wins at Chelsea, or the imminently lovable (if only they had a prayer) Blackpool will win at Arsenal? It’s hard to make that argument when even their managers begrudgingly (or drunkenly, in Ian Holloway’s case) proclaim in pre-match pressers that the idea is to avoid “humiliation.”

Any Given Sunday…you can get beat six-nil, or better yet, you can get beat 3-1 by a team who isn’t even at the top, as hapless, pointless West Ham learned against Aston Villa in the season’s opening week. As the great Jonathan Wilson writes: “This isn’t US sports with a franchise system, salary caps, drafts and collective negotiating for TV rights that help to ensure the general equality and thus competitiveness. This is the dog-eat dog, every man for himself European model, in which the big boys beat up the little kids on a regular basis”, or, on any given Sunday.

Strike Three, of course, is really strike one for most Americans—it’s soccer. And yet, maybe it is only fourth and long. Ratings are higher than ever in the States, even if it is “the other football” and the results are increasingly as formulaic and pre-packaged as an episode of Lost. At least there are no commercial breaks. Like the smooth antihero Don Draper in an episode of Mad Men, the one who’ll sign a contract only if it lacks his real name, how wonderfully un-American are forty-five minutes without commercial interruption. The bottom line is we watch anyway, for the love of the game most who read this site and others like it consider sacred.

We watch, even if something is rotten in the state of Denmark, or in this case, England. Don’t get me wrong, I find it riveting. There are story lines, and some of them are sublime, even among the icebergs of shit the unbalance of the league must navigate. Nothing is more central to Anglo and American culture, for example, than internal resentment for “new money.” The nouveau riche just doesn’t know how to act dignified. There’s a centuries old fear their new class will make them more Daniel Plainview and less Fitzwilliam Darcy. The beauty of it though is after a few years in the new class, the resentments still fester but one can earn his or her rightful place in the aristocracy. The champions Chelsea fit this mold, fourteen goals to none to start and while no one is referencing Arsenal’s “Invincibles” just yet, it’s hard to identify where defeat lurks for the Blues.

Manchester City, the latest deputized as “new money”, is still desperately seeking acceptance and admission to the gentleman’s club, but thus far is simply living up to the attendant newly-rich stereotypes. It played the part of refined and distinguished in dissecting Liverpool last Monday evening, only to suffer the indignity and embarrassment of losing to Sunderland days later. Worse yet, they blamed a busy week, the very thing that accompanies being part of the big boys club, for the defeat. Citing fatigue, the Citizens played the victim. Of course, in an American society that has rejected the proud masculinity of writers like Ernest Hemingway in favor of the Jonathan Safran Foer’s of the world, who write like an incorrigible thirteen-year-old girl denied a pair of 7 For All Mankind jeans by a mean, domineering mother—perhaps the “Oh poor us, we played three matches this week” victim-card will garner affection from the legions of new, post-World Cup American viewers.

Speaking of Arsenal, they may rue their opening draw with Liverpool, but they ought to thank Pepe Reina it was just that and move forward. There are entirely too many Frenchman running around at the Emirates to think anything but gut-wrenching surrender will be their terminal fate, but the Champions League draw was Christmas in August and they are part of a compelling storyline in North London that also involves their archrival, Tottenham Hotspur. Shocking, “moving furniture” defeat to Wigan aside, Spurs are set for Champions League play and are certainly good enough, man for man, to stay in the race for the long haul.

For all the dirt buried on Aston Villa’s grave after a week that included a six-nil defeat to Newcastle and a disgraceful European exit at the hands of Rapid Vienna, the claret and blue sit on six points in the league after holding Everton at bay at home yesterday morning. Fourth position is not shameful for a club in disarray and lacking a manager. And yes, I can read the table too. I know there is other reason for joy in Birmingham, where the Blues sit on five points after two hard-fought away draws, poised for another run at the top ten.

There’s other storylines just getting into the hopper. Wayne Rooney of Manchester United finally scored after his Nike Advertisement this summer. It only took a shade over one-thousand minutes and it came on the penalty spot after his teammate, the ageless, sublime Ryan Giggs, of Wales, was fouled by an American, who can by nationality be tied to Rooney’s fall-from-glory so well-documented this summer. It wasn’t quite this ugly, but he’s moving forward. Write the Future, indeed, Wayne.

The Rooney saga is fascinating enough, but in the end, doesn’t it come back to the desperate search for an underdog, even one doomed to fail? I think it does, for the same reason I and so many twenty-to-thirty something American men embrace Michael Cera films even though he plays the same, nonthreatening character in every picture. There’s something lovable about loserdom, about rallying behind weakness. Enter Blackpool. It helps that they play in a town that is essentially Coney Island in England; that their home is a “stadium” that beckons us to Friday Night Lights, unquestionably the greatest sporting television program ever and one that gives lessons on why it is still okay, despite commercial glam, mega-stadium Jerry-World luxury boxes and cheesy outfield bars, to think of sports as sacred. Seventeen thousand finally packed Bloomfield Road this weekend, and the Tangerines didn’t disappoint, earning a well-fought point against Fulham. The revenue from that fixture likely was just enough to pay a few bills and launder those marvelous fruit-shaded kits. That’s four points thus far, for those keeping track at home, as many as the Daniel Plainview character in this drama, Manchester City. That’s enough underdog for me to raise an eyebrow through three weeks, even if I know the ending will be tragedy. It’s the search that matters.

And finally, the love of my life, you ask? Well, that would be Everton FC, who lost exquisitely 1-0 to Aston Villa this weekend, winning eighteen corner kicks. We’ve got “them” right where we want them, I say, only eight points off the lead.

Neil W. Blackmon is a co-founder and the Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at or found on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Kevin in Denver

    You’ve made good points, and that’s why I advocate all soccer-loving Americans to pick a Championship side and follow them, too. Mine is Derby County. Conor Doyle, if he decides to join US Soccer over Ireland, has got it – whatever it is.

  • The polarization of the English game has become its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. And I’m simply talking about the haves and the have nots. Much like an urban city in the United States or England, the Premier League has become an epicenter for multipolar cultural influences. Clubs like Everton, Wolves, Tottenham, and Sunderland embody your average, generation-old majority that has seen success through their style of play back in their glory days (emphasis on Tottenham).

    Liverpool should naturally go into this category if it were not for their decision to turn to globalization, whether it be Spanish or French, to attain success. Liverpool’s decision to “turn against English football” has been echoed by everyone from Arsenal to Chelsea to West Brom. And what has happened as a result? Well, the Premier League’s caliber of play has only risen in class.

    Masochistic, it may seem, being that there is now a paradoxical, yet natural urge for Englishmen to turn against their nation’s historical power-and-pace over finesse brand of football for one that, quite simply, produces more aesthetically pleasing interplay.

    We see it with immigrants in the UK, they’re clearly not liked by your average countryman. And yet, immigrants fuel their universities, private firms, and even local governments. Sure, these are jobs being maintained by foreigners, but any educated Englishman, aside from healthcare issues, realizes that England’s entrepreneurs, doctors, and businessman are from LA just as much as they are from Leeds and are pushing the country forward to keep up with your Germanys and Japans.

    The same concept can be applied to football. Sure, English players may be sitting on the bench and English managers may be reduced to the Championship, but football in England is unanimously considered some of the best in the world. Men like Roy Hodgson and Chris Hughton are necessary and should always have a presence in the Premier League to pay homage to the good old days of the English game, and, to be fair, good lads like Woy have learned quite a bit from being around the Joses and the Arsenes. But if we were to see 20 Alan Curbishleys would the world really care about England? Would there be this appeal to watch Blackpool’s novelty “go out, play hard, have fun” style of play?

  • And, as if I haven’t said enough already, maybe have a look at this compelling argument about Mikel Arteta for England by Oliver Sparrow. Sort of goes along with what I wrote above.

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    No question you’re right about globalization helping the EPL and being a curse. I think Blackpool is interesting because it beckons to a time where sport was sport and the stadium was the place where you lived that experience. This is precisely why, for example, places like Fenway and Wrigley Field are still the best at what they offer. It’s just different, and it’s special for that reason.

    There’s certainly protectionist sentiment that’s swirled around English football for years. The most famous argument is of course the one about “if we didn’t let as many global players in, we’d have a better national team bc our players would play at the highest level”. This is, of course, rubbish, but there’s a suspicion of the foreign in their culture, and lately that’s happened stateside too (see the heated immigration reform debates and xenophobia surrounding the American right). I digress. But I agree with the general point. Even Everton, as you note above, relies heavily on its two best players– an American goalie and its playmaking Spainard– to keep them in contention. Outside of Sir Alex, they have the best British manager, but his inaccess to the global market handcuffs him. So you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

    Love the Arteta piece. Want him to play for England. Join the facebook group !!

  • Sed

    Still can’t believe that Pienaar’s shot hit the post. 🙁