Primary road priorities in NI

This is not about to become a roads blog (I leave that to the real expert), but last week’s piece obviously struck a chord. Open infrastructure is something we all use, and a classic example of pure politics – balancing the needs of different interests and communities.

Occasionally this is abused. Roads issues can become blatantly sectarian, or more normally they are used by candidates to be populist – most usually by arguing for bypasses which will never be built. In terms of Northern Ireland’s main roads, such politicians can fairly easily be caught out because there is already a list of “current schemes” – if it is not on here, it is not happening this decade or even near it (unless it is a minor link road I have omitted).


I would venture to suggest these are roughly in priority order as far as Departmental officials are concerned – and, of course, the first two are currently under construction and as of later this year the third (A6 Randalstown-Castledawson discussed last week) will be too. It would be no surprise the see the announcement of the first section of the fourth, the A5 Derry-Strabane, within the current Assembly term.

The terms of the Budget following “A Fresh Start” suggest that the fifth is next, although again finances will not permit the whole thing – we will almost certainly see an announcement on the A6 Dungiven Bypass sooner rather than later, and possibly of either the whole eastern half of the project (A6 Claudy-Dungiven) or its western extremity (effectively a Derry Eastern Bypass, from Maydown past Drumahoe).

Beyond that the Budget is silent, but officials have long had the  A12/M2/M3 York Street Interchange top of the priority list (notwithstanding my contention that perhaps it should be built alongside the A2 Sydenham Bypass upgrade, which also appears on the list further down). The A24 Ballynahinch Bypass has also seen significant planning work done.

If this is a list in priority order, it is of course frustrating to see the A1 junctions upgrades so far down, given their absence is costing lives. I would go so far as to suggest that work on the A6 and A5 should be restricted to Randalstown-Castledawson, Dungiven Bypass and Derry-Strabane with the rest of the budget allocated to them reallocated to the A1 gap junctions before more lives are lost at them (with priority then extended to include planning and then development of further upgrades on the Loughbrickland-Newry section, currently unplanned, to complete the expressway from Hillsborough to the border).

In conclusion, I would move A1 upgrades up the list and combine York Street Interchange and A2 Sydenham Bypass into a single project. Otherwise, assuming A6 and A5 mean the three sections noted above in addition to what is already announced, I would suggest the priorities are about right.

But that is open to debate, 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.

The meaning of “to see”

I have written many times before of the need to throw away vocabulary lists when learning languages. Languages do not consist of sequences of words on lists which translate exactly to each other; but rather they consist of words and combinations which have a range of meanings depending on context. That range varies significantly (as explained in the linked article). The consequence of this is that our language learning becomes stilted, and the target language seems to be nothing more than a type of formula to be dryly learned consecutively as we go through a school textbook, rather than a real living means of communicating things, ideas and feelings.

To which you may respond: “Oh, I see.”

Which is interesting, because what, precisely, do you see?

To pursue this further, we are taught that in French “I see” is “Je vois”, but you could not possibly respond to the above with “Je vois”! Genuine misunderstanding would inevitably ensue, as the French speaker demanding to know exactly what it is that falls within your line of vision!

By the way, why do I appear to me putting random words in italics? Sequence, consequence, consecutive, pursue and ensue are among many words in the English language which derive ultimately from the Latin sequor “I follow”, either more or less directly in the first three cases (and indeed absolutely directly in the legal/logical term non sequitur), or via French in the latter two (modern French has suivre).

What has this to do with see? Well, see ultimately shares the same Indo-European origin as sequor, and therefore has the fundamental meaning of “follow”. It was only later than Germanic languages came to assign the more specific meaning in most contexts of “follow, with the eyes”.

Do you see now?!

First Minister position on Easter Rising not unreasonable

If I were the First Minister of Northern Ireland (God forbid on all our behalves!), I would attend at least some Easter Rising commemorations. I would do so because I would be seeking to represent the whole population, and for some of the population the Easter Rising is an important and indeed positive event in their historical narrative. It should be obvious that is not necessary for me to be endorsing that positivity in order to represent people in that way, in the same way that it is not necessary for all RTs to be endorsements.

However, we should also be very clear that the First Minister has every right not to attend any. For many people in Northern Ireland, even frankly some of Nationalist background, the Easter Rising is an anachronism from a century ago. Others prefer as a matter of course consistently to look forward, not back. Others regard it as a markedly negative event, and they do so for a wide variety of different and even competing reasons (from regretting the break with Britain, to regretting as a matter of principle to use of terrorism, through to regretting the inevitable division of the people of Ireland caused by the Rising and the reaction to it leading inevitably to partition). The First Minister, it is often noted, is a dual office, and the deputy First Minister will no doubt attend where relevant – so her absence does not leave her office unrepresented.

There is also something else here that, judging by a recent debate on the BBC’s Nolan radio programme, at least some Nationalists and even Progressives have not grasped about the 1998 Agreement. The document itself is very clear – the “people of Northern Ireland” may opt to be “British, Irish or both”. It is therefore clear beyond any doubt that they may opt to be exclusively Irish (i.e. not British) or indeed exclusively British (i.e. not Irish). There is also a requirement for “mutual respect”, i.e. for respecting that someone may opt not to hold a particular national affiliation in any way at all. The very reason there is a First Minister and a deputy First Minister is to cover that accepted fact of our identities.

I ran a recent course on “identities and symbolism” (and such like), at which I did a class on “Remembrance”. In advance, I asked someone from a Nationalist background (whom I know to be a supporter of the SDLP) what “Remembrance” meant to them. “Honestly? Nothing.” It may be hard for Unionists and indeed even Progressives of a broadly British background to tolerate that response, but under the Agreement (as well as the basic requirements of tolerance in a diverse society) it must be regarded as genuine.

Therefore, it may be hard for Nationalists and indeed even Progressives of a broadly Irish background to tolerate that if you asked many Unionists what they thought of the Easter Rising, you would get the precise same response. For a vast bulk of Northern Ireland’s population, it honestly means nothing at all. Again, to be clear, that is not my view, but it is not unreasonable for that opinion to be represented.

As ever, we are struggling in Northern Ireland with the basics of democracy. We have to learn – more than anywhere – to tolerate the expression of opinions with which we vehemently disagree, and to debate issues (including our history) without simply cutting off those who come at them from a different angle. The struggle with democracy is far from unique to us, of course.

What we are unique in struggling with is that we are forced to manage particularly exclusive and frankly selfish expressions of identity, as we come to terms with something simple but consequential: there is absolutely no requirement in the Agreement for “British” and “Irish” identities to overlap.

You know what? There probably should have been

Household debt a real crisis in NI

The Belfast Telegraph has not been having a great run recently in its choice of news priorities, but it did hit the mark on Friday with a piece on household debt in Northern Ireland. We need to have a much more practical discussion about this, as it may be the single biggest socio-economic problem we have.

I wish to return to the subject on this blog next week, but today I wish to establish two things – debt is a driver of poverty and we all have a role in overcoming it. I will look at these separately.

To be clear, this means debt is a driver of poverty as much if not more than the other way around. Thus it affects people of all income levels, and can do them serious harm in a number of ways (there is significant evidence, noted in the article, that in fact a higher percentage of people in work are affected by debt than those not it work).

This is an issue poorly served by quoting statistics, but we do need to look at some which have already appeared on this blog: Northern Ireland economic product per head is only 75% of the UK average; wages are only 89%; yet household spending is 96%. We need to be very clear about this means: we are not earning enough to spend the amount we wish to spend.

This is where we all have a role in overcoming it comes in. We are allowing public policy to be developed and public debate to take place towards a society in which retail and leisure constitute our “economy”, and the focus is solely on “spending”. In functioning economies, the “economy” clearly means the creation of valuable products and services, not least for export, and the focus is thus on productivity and value.

Let us put more bluntly what this means: Northern Ireland residents do not produce or contribute enough economically to enjoy the standard of living to which they believe they are entitled. The issue is not that they do not get enough to spend what they do, but that they do not earn enough to spend as they do. If they wish to maintain a standard of living at around the Western European average, they will have to produce and contribute as much to the global economy as other Western Europeans do.

This is not remotely a condemnation of people who have run up vast household debt. It is a condemnation of public policy and public debate which is predicated on presenting as an optimum a certain level of expenditure rather than a certain level of productivity or value. We are all guilty, at least up to a point – even those who are not actually in debt – for allowing policy and debate (and frankly social norms) to be skewed in this way.

For the week between now and the next post on the subject, I will leave just one question hanging (I would be grateful for any informed answers), but I would be grateful if readers let me know if they disagree with the premise (not for the first time, I may be wrong).

The standard “middle-class” lifestyle is seen to be a detached house (ideally in the suburbs); two cars on the driveway (one probably a premium brand); children in grammar school (and ideally the odd sports team); two holidays a year (probably both international); and frequent leisure (eating out etc) – this is the one presented in the car, insurance and holiday adverts, after all.

Yet I reckon to live such a life, particularly if there are no grandparents or other family to assist with the children, you need a household income of at least £100,000 or very close to it.

What percentage of Northern Ireland households have such an income?


A6 Toome Bypass must be grade separated

I was delighted to see the announcement last week that construction of the proposed expressway from the M22 at Randalstown to the A31 Magherafelt bypass (the “Castledawson Roundabout) will proceed this year.

This particular stretch is one I have long campaigned for, because:

  • it is the narrowest and most dangerous stretch of the Belfast-Derry road (particularly the “Moneynick” section east of Toome);
  • the road actually serves not just the North West but also Mid Ulster, so it assists a significant section of the population; and
  • construction will relieve a very particular daily congestion black spot (again, at Moneynick).

However, there is a problem. The new road will be expressway all the way (i.e. left entry/exit only with entirely “grade-separated junctions”, i.e. bridges/flyovers on roads crossing it) except at Toome. Although the initial proposals for the new expressway involved removal of the roundabouts on the Toome Bypass (which should never have been constructed on the main line of the road in the first place), this was subsequently revised to leave two in place. This is an astonishing lack of foresight, because traffic which is almost universally passing Toome will have to compete, twice, with traffic going in and out of the village and to minor adjoining roads. It does not take a genius to work out that this will inevitably create a significant bottleneck, as it will restrict the ability of the mainline to flow. Thus, the congestion on the current road will be relieved, but not eliminated (as it would be if the roundabouts were removed).

The roundabout at the eastern end of the Toome Bypass will be enlarged - but we may be sure that, within months, road users will be demanding its outright removal. They'll be right...

The roundabout at the eastern end of the Toome Bypass will be enlarged – but we may be sure that, within months, road users will be demanding its total removal. They’ll be right…

Therefore, constructing the road as currently planned will inevitably lead to calls to remove the roundabouts (relatively easily doable simply by constructing an overhead bridge at the two roundabouts and connecting west-facing slip roads at one and east-facing at the other). It will in fact be more expensive to leave it to later – to construct the new expressway (actually new expressways, as there will in effect be one either side of the existing Toome Bypass) and subsequently return on a different contract to sort out the roundabouts will cost much more in terms of time and money than it would have done just to construct the lot (including roundabout removal) at once.

The fundamental error “Transport NI” is making here is placing the focus solely on capacity, rather than flow. It has already made such a mistake, in carrying out the A12 Westlink underpasses without at the same time sorting out the York Street lights. The basics even of traffic light phasing require consideration of flow as well as capacity (indeed a roundabout on the A2 Bangor “Ring” Road has recently been converted to add lights precisely to aid the flow). This basic principle is hardly new – the M1 in Co Armagh still does the job half a century on precisely because such foresight was displayed then. Why not now?!

None of this should delay construction of the new A6 expressway because it will still have safety and capacity advantages. But, as work gets under way, it would be prudent to reconsider and change the decision not to remove the Toome roundabouts. They will be removed eventually – why not just remove them now, and maximise the benefit for the millions of our money being allocated to this otherwise worthy project?

The fact is this is a second rate road – albeit replacing a fifth rate road. We seem to accept this too easily in Northern Ireland – with nearly all public services, well beyond roads. But really, we should by now be expecting first rate. It is time to raise our ambitions and expectations!


Protests have to be relevant

The DUP/SF regime is hardly the most oppressive in history, probably not even in the history of Northern Ireland. However, it is an alliance of populist incompetents marked by what is at best a dubious and at worst an outright hostile attitude towards the Rule of Law and equality for all. During its reign, Northern Ireland’s economic performance has declined despite the buffer of the large public sector; Peace Walls have remain steadfastly in place with money tossed away propping up segregated education rather than targeted carefully to move towards integration; and reform of everything from Health to Education has become gridlocked.

They get away with it because the opposition is incoherent, disorganised and unmotivated.

This is not the first time I have quoted the outstanding 1973 ITV documentary the World at War. I was struck by the self-critical attitude of someone identified only as “R M van der Deen”, a member of the Dutch Resistance from 1940, who said [direct quote]:

We failed. Having a sense of protest is not the same thing as transferring it to relevant action.

This was interesting because I also happened to watch the series The Man in the High Castle before Christmas, which for me poses the same question. It depicts a world in which the Axis won the War and occupied the United States; and it depicts a resistance which is much smaller than we might expect and also, more importantly still, much less effective – engaging merely in peripheral irrelevance.

The scale is of course totally different, but among all of us opposed to the continuation of DUP/SF misrule, I would suggest we need the same self-criticism and the same realisation.

Are we actually transferring our distaste for the leaders at Stormont into relevant actions to replace them, or are we just doing things to provide a pretence and make ourselves feel good?

Protest is one thing – relevant action may be quite another…

United States the best superpower available

The United States’ rise to global power was something of a fluke (primarily to do with almost unbelievably favourable geo-political circumstances in the second half of World War Two) and it is a country with astonishing failings (not least around crime and health). As we enter 2016, however, we need to be clear about one thing: it is the best superpower available to us.

It is worrying and in fact dangerous how many people do not grasp this, not least the current leader of the Labour Party and his supporters. Countries which do not allow elections by secret ballot (I am not sure I could quite describe US elections as “free and fair”), which do not have an independent justice system, and which have opponents of the government regularly brutalised are not the sort of countries we should want influencing global affairs any more than is absolutely necessary. It is also worrying and dangerous how many people who claim to care about “human rights” do not seem to care about them in places like China and Russia when it comes to backing people who excuse those countries’ leaders’ behaviour.

Compared to the United States, we should be in no doubt that countries such as China and Russia, under their current regimes at least, are brutal, unenlightened backwaters. Their “success” depends on depriving their people even of basic rights. They are not, in any way whatsoever, a model to be admired or mimicked. It is worrying and dangerous that there are people who cannot instantly see this.

The United States – with its marginalisation of particular minorities, its militarised police services, its gerrymandered elections, its outrageous homicide rate, its incoherent foreign policy and its ludicrous healthcare system – is a hugely imperfect country. Its population remains, however, fundamentally free – a freedom which produces achievements in areas such as technology, science and media which quite possibly qualify as the greatest in the history of humankind and, most notably of all, are to the benefit of us all. The United States is therefore a vastly more reasonable and positive influence on global affairs than any of its rivals for global predominance. It is worrying and dangerous that some people seem not to be able to see that – because it is not to be risked for the alternative in any circumstances.

* I omit Europe from consideration in this article because there will be quite enough of that in 2016…!

Resolve to take an interest in politics in 2016


As you travel around Berlin, as I did before Christmas, you cannot miss the sense of history – and, to a degree, new-found freedom. A city once oppressed by Nazis and then in part by Communists (while the rest of it lived under effect siege) is somewhere which makes you think. And it makes you realise that freedoms we take for granted should never, ever be taken for granted.

The defence of those freedoms – of freedom of expression, of the Rule of Law, of representative and competent government – is being taken on in Northern Ireland and elsewhere by too few people. Too many are prepared to sit aside from it all, even making a virtue of their disinterest. That isn’t good enough.

In 2016, more people should resolve to get interested. They should stand up in defence of democracy and freedom. Because those who did not, for example in 1930s Berlin, failed us all.

Opting not to see the danger is no defence. It is time to participate, now more than ever.

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!


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