Category Archives: Sport

Irish FA right to apologise for lap of honour snub

Paralympian Jason Smyth’s complaint that he had not been invited on the Irish FA’s “Lap of Honour” should not have been the main headline (ahem), but it was legitimate and it was important.

Implicit in the “snub” was the underlying instinct that the only type of “Northern Irish” is “British”. In fact, there are two types of “Northern Ireland” – the other is “Irish”. We agreed to this in 1998 (and it was always implicit).

By the way, there are also too types of “Irish” – “Northern Irish” and “Republic of Irish”. Someone who wishes to be identified as “Irish” may be deemed so by connection either to “Northern Ireland” or the “Republic of Ireland” – neither is less legitimate than the other.

This is important; and it is topical for two main reasons.

Firstly, the Irish FA’s whole case against the FA of Ireland’s ability to select players for Northern Ireland was based on the point that to be “Irish” was not necessarily to be “connected to the Republic of Ireland”. It is quite possible to be “Irish” by virtue solely of a connection to Northern Ireland. It is possible to be Irish and not connected to the Republic of Ireland in exactly the same way that it is possible to be British and not connected to England. I agreed with the Irish FA’s case.

Despite the fact the case lost, the fact is it shouldn’t have. And the logic of it needs to be pursued consistently. It is a reason that the British anthem is not appropriate (as the team represents both British and Irish); and it is a reason that Northern Irish athletes who happen to have represented Ireland rather than Team GB should be invited to events on exactly the same basis as those who chose Team GB.

The Irish FA has, it should not be forgotten, worked wonders in this regard since 1998. It has recognised the mistake, so there is no reason to dwell on this particular incident. But it should not happen again.

Is the sporting media responsible for social breakdown?

I saw an article today entitled “Who could Arsenal get in the Champions’ League draw?”

There are TV sports channels which advertise “All the Build-up to the Champions’ League draw”.


I mean seriously, what?!

How about we just wait to see who Arsenal do get in the draw, and then talk about it? What is the precise point of such irrelevant conjecture?

And how can there be “build-up” to  a draw? “Build-up” to a match is bad enough, full of irrelevant nonsense from “pundits” who have the tactical nous of a tortoise.

And we haven’t even reached “Transfer Deadline Day”, until we find out which Paraguayan defender no one had ever heard of (even people in Paraguay) is going to turn Everton into world beaters (with absolutely no concept that football is a team game and, in any case, we have no idea of the personal circumstances of this random player who may or may not settle in Merseyside, may or may not speak English, and may or may not be any good).

Yet all of this stuff seems to attract enough commercial interest to make it worth producing. In other words, some people must be watching it. No harm, but is that not quite alarming? Frankly, should people not have something more socially useful to do with their day than watch the “build up” to someone drawing bits of paper out of a plastic ball?

There must be something better they could be doing. They could even write a blog…

GB not yet an “Olympic Superpower”

There is no doubt Team GB’s performance at this month’s Olympic Games was outstanding. To edge ahead of the London medals total was a superb achievement, and all those who made it happen should be rightly reflecting in the afterglow.

However, it should not be overstated. The most obvious recent comparison, Australia around 2000, gives food for thought.

When I was growing up, Team GB (although it was not then so branded) typically scored five gold medals in the twenties total medals in a typical Olympic Games (five and 24 in Seoul 1988 was actually above par at the time). That was also the total typically scored by countries such as France and Italy (of equivalent population and wealth), and somewhat behind West Germany (likewise). It was also typically marginally ahead of Australia, a country with considerably fewer people but considerably greater sporting interest.

Suddenly, having been awarded the 2000 Games, Australia burst out of the blocks – at the previous games, in Atlanta in 1996, it scored nine golds and 41 medals, a marked improvement on past performance. When the time came to host the games, this rose to 16 golds and 58, and Australia was talked of as an “Olympic superpower”. Yet, astonishingly, at the subsequent games in Athens in 2004, Australia did more or less as well – in fact improving to a whopping 17 golds, while declining only slightly to 51 overall medals, still markedly better than any previous remotely comparable performance away from home.

At the time, it was thought that hosting the games had seen Australia rise not just temporarily to Olympic superpower status as hosts, but in fact permanently. It was thought the Sydney afterglow would last forever. In Beijing in 2008 there was a slight slip to 46 medals (agonisingly one behind the “Poms”), but this was still better than any pre-2000 performance. Superpower status seemed confirmed.

Yet, by 2016, Australia had slumped to just 29 medals. This is still historically respectable and is not a bad total for a country with less than half the population of England alone. However, it is just half the Sydney total and nothing like the heights reached even away from home in 1996-2008.

Team GB did something similar. In 2000 and 2004 the team improved slightly, but still only to an average ten golds and 29 medals (in line with the likes of France and Italy, as in the past). However, having been awarded the games, the team then improved dramatically even at the previous games, with an at-the-time-astonishing 19 golds and 47 medals in Beijing in 2008 for fourth place in the medals table. As hosts, performance then took another leap up to 29 golds and 65 medals and third place, and this was then retained (as was more or less the case with Australia in 2004) to secure 27 golds and 67 medals at the subsequent Olympics in 2016, good enough for second.

If Team GB were to track Australia – and that is a reasonable proposition – performance in Tokyo in 2020 would remain marginally better than it was in Beijing in 2008, but inferior either to London 2012 or Rio 2016. This would still, by historical comparison, be a good result and would probably be reported as such. However, the subsequent 2024 Olympics would be expected to see a sudden dip, still to slightly better than the historical average but markedly worse than anything since 2004, before settling back at a more typical performance from then on (which, given the wider range of sports now at the games, would probably mean around 10 golds and 30-35 medals, similar to Italy and marginally better than Australia as in the past, from 2028).

In other words, it is by no means yet established that Team GB is a true “Olympic Superpower” as some have reported. Vastly improved coaching and facilities must have had an effect, of course, but the test is whether they really put the British up with the Russians and Chinese a decade from now. There is much still to do if that is to be achieved!

Ireland needs to think again re Olympics

“Team GB” had a staggering Rio Summer Olympics. For many, including me, it was a marked comparative improvement on the last one, given that it came away from home and was so far in excess of what past comparable hosts (cf. Australia 2004 after 2000) have managed.

It was, however, “Team GB”. Northern Ireland contributed not a single medal to the haul.

Most Northern Irish competitors were, of course, competing for “Team Ireland”. However even that entire team, with a population higher than New Zealand and comparable to Denmark, mustered just two silvers. Let us even leave aside the disgrace around its Chief, who ended up arrested.

To be clear, to reach the semi-final of the 1500m at the Olympics or reaching the latter stages of the archery is a fantastic achievement; and if you do it, it should be cause for much local and family pride. One boxer was, of course, outright robbed in the quarter-final. Individuals have no cause for disappointment – many performed admirably given the resources and facilities available.

There, perhaps, is the issue, however. “Team Ireland” (and “Team Northern Ireland” in Commonwealth Games) has consistently now won only a handful of medals, and even those have usually been confined to one or two disciplines. Sure, therefore, when it comes to Olympic sport the island of Ireland needs to think again – just as the UK did in 1996 having won just one gold medal (imagine!!)

Ireland, even as an island, cannot of course hope to match Great Britain in terms of the availability of resources and facilities. It can, however, copy much of what has proven so successful there, or in other comparably sized countries such as Denmark and New Zealand. It can identify talent more efficiently; it can invest in world-class facilities (which have potential community as well as “elite” benefit); most of all, perhaps, it can focus on funding coaching.

“Team Ireland” at the Olympics (as Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games) has some reason for pride, but fundamentally it is second rate. If it wishes to close the gap with the real first-class performers, it will need to reform fundamentally how it operates. It will also need to aim considerably higher.

[Just one slight niggle – we can’t have it both ways re GB’s result. Either positions are determined on total medals (in which case GB’s performance in 2016 was better than 2012 but it came third, not second, in the table) or on golds (in which case GB came second in 2016 but its result was narrowly worse than 2012, when it won 29 golds). According to the IOC, it is the latter.]

#Olympics – who is coming second?

With the United States (39 gold, 106 medals) well out in front, and Germany (16, 39) and Russia (13, 48) well back, the question over the next 24 hours or so becomes which country will come second – Great Britain & NI (26, 63) or China (23, 67)?

The likelihood is that it will be GB on golds and China on overall medals – but perfection on one side and disaster on the other could yet change that. It will almost all be decided by 3am (UK time).

Gracenote Sports tried to project it but already a number of predictions have not gone to plan.

The certain medalists for either team are:

2300 (Sat) CN gold or silver – women’s team (volleyball)

1900 (Sun) GB gold or silver – Joe Joyce (boxing)

Thus, the worst GB can finish is with 64 medals, and China 68.

The likely medalists in addition are (all on Sat eve/Sun morning UK time):

2200 CN – Chen Aisen (diving)

2200 CN – Qiu Bo (diving)

0200 GB – Mo Farah (athletics)

0215 GB – women’s relay team (athletics)

Of these, you would say the first three are almost guaranteed. Notably, however, China‘s cannot both be gold as they are in the same competition; but conversely GB‘s are less likely to be golds and silvers anyway.

Of course, there can always be surprises elsewhere – to move ahead on medals, GB will probably need one; to move ahead on golds, China will definitely need one!

Ultimately, we could see it all decided by taekwondo. On the men’s side, there is only one possible (not necessarily likely) medal for either in the last event as of the quarter-final stage:

2030 GB – Mahama Cho [quarter-final match]

Indeed, there could be a mouthwatering (and conceivably even decisive in terms of second place in the official medals table) final in the women’s last event:

0215 – Shuyin Zheng (China) v Bianca Walkden (GB)

The bet is both teams will have their fair share of wins and losses, leaving GB ahead on golds and China on medals. It will then be pointed out that the IOC officially places teams by golds…

How Northern Ireland reaches last 16

I was not a fan of a 24-team European Championship, because it makes qualification from the group phase both too complex and too fortuitous (as was the case with the 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups, played under the same format).

Nevertheless, I did work out that three points may well be enough to advance. I also reckoned they were likeliest to come against Ukraine, so I took it upon myself as a keen fan of football, languages and roads to, er, drive to the match and back…


Good calls so far, but let us say the Northern Irish lose narrowly to world champions Germany… who else should we be supporting to sneak through to the last sixteen (thus proving we would have qualified for a sixteen-team tournament anyway)?

Basically, the GAWA army would need at least two third-placed teams to have a worse record than Northern Ireland (let’s assume Northern Ireland has three points and an even goal difference).

Group A looks hopeful. A draw between Romania and Albania would mean neither made it to three points. A narrow Albania win would also probably help, given its goal difference would remain inferior to Northern Ireland’s.

And a narrow Albania win it was – meaning Northern Ireland can afford to lose by up to three goals and still be ahead of the Albanians. One down, one to go!

Group B is less helpful. Wales and Slovakia both already have three points; Wales plays Russia and one or other of those teams, plus England, must end up with more than three. The only hope, really, is that Wales gets some sort of result (eliminating Russia) and that England thrashes Slovakia, weakening its goal difference.

Didn’t expect much from Group B, and got even less! Slovakia third with four points, meaning Northern Ireland need a draw to progress for sure. Interestingly, the likeliest opponent upon progressing would now be Wales!

If Romania doesn’t win and England does, it is possible Northern Ireland will already know that a certain margin of defeat will already suffice to progress.

So, the precise basis of this blog post has happened – thanks to Big Mike Shovel Hands Northern Ireland lost 1-0, and thankfully only 1-0!

Group D also carries some hope, with the Czechs and Turks playing each other. As with Romania-Albania, a draw would mean neither reached three points (so it is already the case, as it stands, that if both the Romania-Albania and Czech-Turkey games are drawn, Northern Ireland will progress). A win for Turkey would mean three points but, probably, an inferior goal difference to Northern Ireland (though the Turks will by this stage have the advantage of knowing the margin they need at least to have some chance of going through) – we now know Turkey would in fact have to win by four. A Czech win, however, would mean this group carried no more interest!

… and Turkey wins by two goals! Last 16 it is for bravest team and best fans in the tournament!

Group E was also hopeful. In this case, the bottom two teams are not playing each other. If neither Sweden nor the Republic of Ireland win, then neither reaches three points; if either does, it secures at least four points. A Swedish win would leave Belgium on three points, but possibly with a better goal difference (there were several reasons for Irish fans north of the border to curse Belgium’s big win yesterday).

We hoped it would not come down to Group F (although actually it concludes before Group E). Appearances were deceptive here, because there is a fair possibility that both Portugal and Austria will win thus taking three teams to beyond four points; even if this does not happen, the third-placed team will have at least three points, barring an unlikely Hungarian win over Portugal.

Who next? If Republic of Ireland and/or Sweden win and Portugal does not lose, it is Wales v Northern Ireland; otherwise, it is France v Northern Ireland.

Congratulations regardless to Michael O’Neill and his team.

Leicester won the League; Arsenal didn’t lose it

I have read some commentary expressing disappointment with Arsenal’s season despite the finishing position (not entirely unreasonable), and often suggesting Arsenal “should have won the League this [particular] season” (unreasonable – and disrespectful to Leicester).

This century, no team has won the League on fewer than 80 points. Arsenal has mustered this only once in ten seasons at the Emirates (83 in 2008, coming third). Since 2008, Arsenal managed 79 in 2014 (coming fourth) but has never otherwise managed more than 75, occasionally even dipping below 70. Arsenal is, in other words, a club which typically scores in the low to mid-70s, when the champion team is always on at least 80 (and often rather more than that).

Although Leicester’s 81 points is a relatively low total for the table topper, it is worth noting that 42 of those (more than half) came in the second half of the season – following in from a first half which was already astonishing. After a gutting injury time loss with 10 men at Arsenal on match day 26, Leicester went on a solid twelve-game unbeaten run to wrap up the championship. Such was Leicester’s performance, Arsenal would have had to win all ten of its last ten games, including trips to White Hart Lane and the Etihad, to win the title (something which has only ever been done once in the history of English football), and even then only on goal difference.

So, firstly, a lot of plaudits must go to Leicester, a genuinely very good team. This is far from a fluke. For nearly 50 games now back to March 2015, Leicester has been comfortably the most consistent team in the Premier League. Yes, the big teams have struggled during this time, but Leicester’s achievement is down to its own strengths, not just others’ weaknesses.

Secondly, Arsenal’s failings are nothing to do with the fact “only Leicester” ended up ahead. Since the Invincibles, with very very few exceptions, Arsenal has been a 68-75 point team – enough to qualify for the top four and the big bucks that flow into Stan Kroenke’s bank account as a result, but nothing like enough to win the League regardless of who did.

So leave Leicester out of it. The question is how does Arsenal go from typically winning 20 games a season to typically winning 25? A defender like Huth, a midfielder like Drinkwater, a striker like Mahrez, a manager like Ranieri and a team spirit like Leicester’s, perhaps…?!

FA Cup needs Champions’ League spot to survive

There was a lot of discussion about FA Cup replays last week, but frankly it missed the point. The competition’s problem is not structural; it is more fundamental than that.

Yesterday saw the tie of the round: Premier League Champions and 2012 winners Chelsea played Premier League runners-up and 2011 winners Manchester City in a clash between the two most recent champions and two of the richest clubs in the world.

The game was a farce. City fielded a youthful team so second string that its shirt numbers added up to over 400. The youngsters were outplayed by a Chelsea first team out to retrieve its only hope of domestic honours this season. There was never the remotest chance of a replay, as the London side could even afford to miss a penalty and still win 5-1.

This has implications. For the competition, it renders it close to meaningless. For fans, it devalues matches played in the tournament. For sponsors and broadcasters, it surely makes them think again. Some teams are motivated; others are not; the trophy itself is stained. There was no “magic of the Cup” on display at Stamford Bridge yesterday.

This has nothing to do with replays.


There is an obvious way around this. The FA Cup winners should qualify automatically for the group stages of the Champions’ League.

There is no reason this should not be allowed. The (English) FA selects its Champions’ League representatives and is free to do so in any means it wishes as long as it is on merit. Although League position is the most common means of deciding qualifying teams, it does not have to be – the Dutch FA has a playoff system, for example.

The specific reward needs to be not just a place in the Champions’ League playoff (as per fourth place currently), but directly into the group stages (as per top three). That way, even a team which was relatively confident of a top four challenge would have added reason to take the Cup seriously (currently fourth-placed City yesterday being an obvious example).

This would do no harm to the Premier League either – fourth place would still earn Champions’ League qualification of sorts if the Cup winner came from the top four, but it would no longer guarantee it, making the “medal places” the real objective as they should be. Most of all, however, it would restore the FA Cup to its rightful place as a prestigious competition more than worth winning.

With replays. Of course.

Unionists making NI less British, not more

I was on Nolan again last week at short notice to discuss the decision in the House of Commons in support of a specifically English anthem (implicitly) for English sports teams. This came in the same week as the first vote taken in the House under the new “English Votes for English Laws” measures. This followed on from an article in the Newsletter about how sport continues to divide in Northern Ireland and how Northern Ireland needs its own anthem like Scotland and Wales. (I note lots of charming and persuasive comments underneath…)

This was, in other words, a week when growing English self-consciousness was further demonstrated, and the push towards at least federalism was continued – driven by the English. This has long been predictable and people in Northern Ireland, with less than 3% of the population, are deluding themselves if they think they can (or should) stop it.

An inevitable consequence of this will be a continued surge in Northern Irishness. As Nationalists seek to make us more dependent on the British public purse, and thus more distinct from the Republic of Ireland, this will only continue. It is bizarre, however, that the people in Northern Ireland most dedicated to keeping Northern Ireland distinct from the rest of the UK are Unionist politicians.

Increasingly, it seems the only purpose of any Unionist politician is to stop anything happening. Reform same-sex marriage as in the rest of the UK? No thanks, we’ll define marriage differently from everywhere else. Align blood donation policy with the rest of the UK? Not us, let’s just openly discriminate. Sort out abortion regulations? No, let’s just pretend it’s not happening. Bring NI into line with other countries of the UK in having its own anthem for its own team? Ah no, bringing flag flying policy into line with British norms was already too much for us, er, British people… we will have the British anthem but stuff British social norms, eh?

It is already frankly bizarre that Scotland and Wales have their own anthems while Northern Ireland uniquely retains the same one as England. If England switches too? Northern Ireland will simply look ridiculous, clinging on to an anthem which it well knows represents only half its population.

I am British, and frankly I’m fed up with looking like a desperate hanger-on within the UK. It is time those who claim to be British took on the full responsibilities which come with that. Federalism (at least) is coming, and it is not just economically that we need to be prepared for it.

English club football honours – what are they?

One of the big advantages Association Football has over other versions of “football” with significant followings (notably rugby and gridiron, whose history and comparisons I wrote about here) is its beguiling simplicity. No “down-and-distance” rules, or “play-the-balls” infringements, or any other array of weird technicalities. The laws are straightforward; anyone can play anywhere; and the sport has a genuinely global reach (perhaps as a result) that none of the others remotely has (for all the pretension of super bowl “world champions” or rugby “World Cups”…)

Where Association Football gets complicated, however, is when it comes to working out what its various competitions are. North Americans rightly raise complete bemusement about working out what tournaments as bizarre as the “Europa League” or the “[Insert Sponsor Here/League] Cup” are – leaving quite aside the fact that Europe’s premier competition is neither for champions nor a league, and yet is referred to as the “Champions’ League”…

What is this all about?

As ever with anything originating in the British Isles, it is a good start to look at the history.

When associations, schools and clubs were finally getting their act together regarding the laws of the game (see aforementioned link), they also decided (albeit sporadically) that it would be a good idea somehow to determine the champion team. The obvious way was for the newly formed regulatory body, the Football Association (FA), to set up a knock-out (“straight elimination”) competition – two teams meet, one is eliminated and one advances, until you have two left in the “final”. The FA called this its “Challenge Cup”, referred to simply as the “FA Cup”, whose first Final was played in 1872.

As with rugby (again, see aforementioned link), there was a swift divide between the London-based “Football Association” (equivalent of the “Rugby Union”) and the needs of the more northern-based clubs in industrial areas. A knock-out competition was all very well for amateurs, but for professionals opting out of (typically industrial) careers whose clubs would pay them train and play full time, the risk that all that effort could be over after a single game was too much. What they required was a “Football League”, with a round-robin format meaning that you were not eliminated just for losing a single game, and thus that professionals would play for a whole season. Thus, they would play each other team in the League home and away, with the team with the best balance (initially determined by two points for a win, one for a draw, and goal average separating teams level) deemed the “champions”. Association Football, therefore, was lucky that the “Association” versus “League” division did not result in two different sports (as was the case with Rugby), but it did effectively result in two different champions – one for the originally amateur knock-out competition (the “Cup”), and one for the always professional round-robin competition (the “League”). Of course, (semi-)professional clubs were in fact already dominating the “Cup” by the time of the League’s first season in 1888-9.

This situation arose effectively by accident, but it is arguably advantageous. Most North American and Australasian sports combine both, having a “League” initially followed by play-offs (a “Cup”) based on final position in that League. There is one champion – actually, in effect, the winner of the “Cup”. This system has the advantage that there is a single champion each year (the New England Patriots are the current American Football champions; the Kansas City Royals the current Baseball champions; and so on). However, it has the disadvantage that a team which starts poorly can be out of the race right from the beginning, with no alternative competition available for them to win; and it can also be the case that the best team overall does not become the “champion” (the most obvious example being the 2007 New England Patriots, who became the first team ever to win 16 out of 16 regular season “League” games only to lose for the only time all season right at the end of the “Cup” play-offs, thus ending the season empty handed).

Clearly, there is a potential benefit in allowing an “upset champion” to maintain interest, but that is the beauty of the system accidentally adopted by Association Football in Britain – it in fact allows both. This is, perhaps, why almost every other country adopted the same system (one top “League”, one main “Cup”). At the end of any given season, the winner of the “League” is unquestionably the “champion” team in that country; however, any team which starts poorly still has the chance of competing to win the “Cup” (which starts half way through the season in England) – a significant consolation particularly in the case of the original, which has the added glamour of being the world’s oldest competition in the world’s most popular sport.

The first complication, though an understandable one, arose in the 1950s when different countries began to wonder how their “champion” teams would get on against each other. It was decided that each country’s champion team should play off against the others in Europe to decide the “European Champion club team”; and, indeed, that each country’s cup winner should do likewise. Inevitably in the case of a sport whose season lasts over nine months, however, this “play-off” series had to take place the following season, meaning in effect that each country’s champion (league winner) qualified for the following season’s “European Champions’ Cup”, and the cup winner qualified for the following season’s “European Cup Winners’ Cup”. For a variety of reasons and to cause a significant further complication, there emerged an additional, third competition (known latterly as the “UEFA Cup”) which came to be for clubs which had placed well in their league but not won it (the exact number varied depending on the success and size of each country and its league). Initially, all these competitions were knock-out but played over two legs (each team at home once), with a one-off Final at a neutral venue determined in advance in the case of the “European Champions’ Cup” and the “European Cup Winners’ Cup”.

This makes sense, but there also emerged an array of further competitions, often promoted by sponsors to make further money. One that stuck in England was the “League Cup” – highly confusing, as it was a “Cup” competition run by the “Football League” (whereas the “FA Cup” is run by the “Football Association”). Numerous countries also adopted what is normally known as a “Super Cup”, a play off between the “league champion” and “cup winner” played the following season (in England, this is played at the beginning of the season and is now referred to as the “Community Shield”); there is also a European version of this, initially a play-off over two legs between the “European Champions’ Cup” winner and the “European Cup Winners’ Cup” winner. These games are all notably less prestigious, however, and the timing and even format of the various finals can change dramatically from year to year (as they have to fit in around the more established competitions).

Therefore, at national level, for all the attempts at additional competitions, it remains the case that the winner of the “league” is universally acclaimed as the “champion club” (regardless of other cups and subsequent follow-up competitions); additionally, the winner of the “European Champions’ Cup” (which came to be known simply as the “European Cup” given its status as the most prestigious European competition) was regarded as the “European champion club”. In each country, the “Cup” is clearly the second most prestigious domestic honour, though exactly how prestigious varies from country to country (and over time).

There has been a dramatic alteration in the European club competitions since the early 1990s. To add “interest” (er, money), the game’s governing body added a group phase to the “European Cup”. Initially this was only at the quarter-final stage (where teams were split into two round-robin groups of four, with the top two advancing to semi-finals which reverted for the most part to the usual two-leg format), then came to be used in two separate rounds, but it has settled for some time now at the last 32 stage only (thus eight groups of four with two advancing, and then knock-out over two legs as before from the last 16 onwards). The tournament also soon dropped the requirement for teams to be “Champions” (seeing the interest and, er, financial merit in “Real Madrid versus Juventus” or “Bayern Munich versus Manchester United” potentially taking place most seasons regardless of who had won last season’s league championships), now allowing up to the top four teams from the larger leagues to enter. In effect, the “European Champions’ Cup” merged with the “UEFA Cup” in modified format to form the “Champions’ League”, taking up more of each leading club’s time in international competition. For all that, there is no doubt the “Champions’ League” is now the predominant club competition in the global game.

This advance of the “Champions’ League” soon rendered the “European Cup Winners’ Cup” redundant, as many “cup winners” qualified for the so-called “Champions’ League” in any case. Thus, it was merged with the remnants of the “UEFA Cup” into an incredibly complex tournament, itself involving a group phase with 48 teams and additional teams added from those eliminated from the “Champions’ League”. This tournament is itself now known as the “Europa League”. No one is quite sure what the point of this competition is, aside from the Spanish club Sevilla, who seem to win it every year!

The complication does not end there either, of course, because on top of that there is international competition. This too used to be straightforward – every two years European teams would play off in groups of (recently) six or seven teams to reach, alternately, the 32-team World Cup or the 16-team European Championship, themselves played in the summer of even-numbered years with an initial group phase followed by straight single-game knock-out. This is about to be complicated too by the addition of a “Nations’ League” which no one understands, but which at least cannot be won every year by Sevilla.

Over time, domestically, “league championships” have come to predominate over the “cups”. This is notably the case in Germany (whose champion was decided by a series of play-offs based on regional round-robin competitions until the 1960s, but which now has the powerful 18-team “Bundesliga” at the top of its league system) and England (where the “Football Association” took over the running of the top division in 1992, now branding it the “Premier League” with 20 teams). Across Europe, Leagues vary in exact size (though 18-20 teams is now typical) and format (all now have three points for a win but some go to goal difference in the event of equal points, others use head-to-head records or single-game play-offs; promotion/relegation from other tiers also varies).

In Europe, there is now established in the media a so-called “Big Five” of leagues, although on the field this designation is dubious. There are in fact a “Big Four” – Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A. Added to this list often is France’s Ligue Un, but in fact French teams have only ever lifted two European club trophies of any kind, and France’s league trails behind Portugal’s even in current rankings. Another challenger would be the Netherlands, whose clubs have not seriously competed for honours this century but are among the most successful historically (particularly comparative to national population).

Frustratingly, perhaps, different countries also rate less established competitions differently. Spaniards take all of them, including “Super Cups”, fairly seriously. The English do not rate “Super Cups” at all, and some cast serious doubt over the “Capital One [League] Cup” in which bigger clubs currently tend not to field their best available teams; the “FA Cup” has unquestionably also diminished in value (whatever the broadcasters like to claim) since the establishment of the big-money Premier League also run by the FA.

(For the record, the Spanish language uses the word “campeón“/”champion” to refer to winning teams both in the league and in the cup – there is in Spain a “campeón de la liga” and a “campeón de la copa“. Most other languages reserve the word “champion” specifically for the league, thus having a league champion, and then referring distinctly to a cup winner.)

Though diminished, “Cups” are still important everywhere. Unlike North American sports, most leagues are now totally dominated by a small range of clubs (in the most extreme case, only two Portuguese League titles have been won by anyone other than Benfica, Porto or Sporting); although in most cases clubs can emerge apparently from nowhere to challenge over a period of time (such as Bayer Leverkusen or latterly Wolfsburg in Germany, or Chelsea and Manchester City in England). This relative domination means that “Cup” competitions (with the greater element of chance implicit within them) can be the only realistic way for clubs to attain wins in established tournaments.

Certain clubs also historically come to be good at one or the other, at least over a period. Athletic Bilbao has won the Spanish Cup more often than the mighty Real Madrid, yet has not been crowned “league champions” anything like as often (and not since the early 1980s); Tottenham Hotspur is a “Cup” team (ranking third in England historically for “Cup wins” with eight, but nowhere in the list of “league champions” with two), but Liverpool is a “league” team (ranking second for “league championships” with eighteen but behind Tottenham for “Cups” with seven). “Cup” wins do tend to be more evenly spread about – there is a greater degree of chance, after all, but in some ways (or at least in some conditions) that makes for greater interest.

In conclusion, it is complex. The addition – for reasons good or bad – of competitions themselves (such as “League Cups” and “Super Cups”, which for the record I personally ignore as they have no historical basis), or of complexities to existing competitions (such as the emergence of the mighty “Champions’ League” and the utterly confusing “Europa League”) does bewilder even seasoned followers of the game.

However, the existence of a “league” and a “cup” is a tried and tested system which allows the determination of a definite “champion team” while also allowing for the odd surprise tournament victory (as “cup winner”). Whatever happens to international competitions and various other sponsored club tournaments, the standard staple of a “league” and a “cup” will surely stand the test of time!