Another reason why I love (hate) English soccer

RELEGATION also known as THE DROP. Each year the bottom three teams in England’s Premier League are sent down to the division below, trading places in with three teams from that division. The process is similar for all four professional divisions. One team from the bottom division is actually cast out of professional football into what we would call semi-pro status. Relegation is the most devastating experience a sports fan and his or her club can experience. For example, a relegated club’s top players usually demand to be sold, since it is too difficult to advance their careers playing in a lower division. The clubs often have to sell their next tier of players because they don’t have the money to pay them their Premiership-based salaries. Clubs must lower (or at least can’t raise) ticket prices. Clubs that mortgage their futures buying expensive players to try to stay up face the prospect of bankruptcy when they go down. Supporters no longer get to welcome mighty Arsenal; instead, they have Reading’s visit to look forward to. They can’t travel to Old Trafford (“the Theatre of Dreams”) to watch Manchester United. Instead, they get to visit Rotherham. Imagine the Washington Wizards being booted from the NBA; the Twins after one of their bad seasons being sent to the Pacific Coast League; or John Kerry being forced to run for the nomination of the Green Party. That’s relegation.
Relegation exists throughout European football, which raises an interesting question: why does Socialist Europe punish failure, while rugged individualist America does not? There are number of possible explanations. The one most favorable to our self-image (but not entirely convincing) is that our sports industry expresses its rugged individualism when rival leagues are formed from time-to-time, at least in American football. Another theory is “historical accident.”
Speaking of accidents, the club I support, Everton, has, I believe, the second longest run of consecutive years of top-flight soccer — about 50 years. This is longer than Liverrpool, our hated and more successful rival, and longer even than storied Manchester United. But the dark side of the story is that, almost every year, we struggle to survive. In seven of the past ten seasons, we have faced a serious relegation scrap. In two of those years, our survival was not assured until the final kick of the season. In one of those years, we had to come back from 2-0 down to beat Wimbledon in order to survive. The goal that kept us up was so suspicious that the Wimbledon goal-keeper stood trial for fixing the match. I believe he got off on a hung jury. There has never been any suggestion, though, that Everton was part of any fix.
I unburden myself of this because, going into tomorrow’s match, Everton finds itself (for the first time this year) in the bottom three — the drop zone. However, as part of my annual ritual, I have identified at least three teams I’m pretty sure we will finish ahead of. The ritual starts towards the end of the previous season, when I root for fluke teams to come up to the Premier League so they can be promptly relegated instead of us. You might say that I’m obsessed with relegation. You might say I’m nuts.
But I’m lucid enough to understand that few teams are truly “too good to go down,” and that Everton certainly is not one of them. And so the nail biting begins. It may continue until early May. Let’s hope not.
HINDROCKET adds: One of the interesting things about the two weeks I just spent in England was that the sports pages were almost completely incomprehensible to me. Papers like the Sun, England’s largest selling daily, had extensive sports sections that did not cover a single sport that I understand. Yet the passion of the British sports fans was obvious. Last Sunday, the English rugby team played Denmark, I think it was, in the semi-final of the world rugby tournament. (Australia and New Zealand were the other bracket.) The match was played somewhere far away, so that it started at around 9:00 on Sunday morning, British time. The pubs were all opened for the occasion, and around mid-morning we could hear joyful shouts on the street as England ran or kicked or passed, or whatever you do in rugby, to victory. An interesting experience, to see fans passionately devoted to sports that are a mystery to most Americans. And, of course, we haven’t even touched on Tim Blair’s penguin team in a sport that we finally identified (with help from Tim) as Australian rules football.
Reading about relegation, by the way, makes me wonder whether Deacon’s formative years as a Washington Senators fan have condemned him to a life of sports-fan misery. Maybe it’s time to start rooting for those damn Yankees.
DEACON responds: Never! As we Evertonians say, you don’t pick your team, your team picks.

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