Superb Champions league game last night. Arsenal played wonderful flowing adventurous football in beating the mighty AC Milan on their own patch, becoming the first English team to win in the Champions League holders den. Check the first goal out here, if only for the beautifully wild foreign commentary!
Whatever about the often stale group stages, the knockout stages of the Champions league is right up there in terms of greatest sporting entertainment available right here, right now on this good planet earth.
I was thinking about the tournament this morning, and how beautifully simple the knockout phase is, and it got me thinking, 'What is the best tournament in the world right now?' Let's chop it up! Ground rules. I am going to stick to the sports I know something about. This rules out cricket, sailing, hockey and ten-pin bowling. I suppose I should preface this by saying, this is a list of my own personal favourite tournaments, the ones I invest in emotionally and the ones that interest me.
16. The Ryder Cup
I am only starting to come around to Golf as an enjoyable viewing experience. Sure, it's painfully slow, rather elitist and sometimes just pure boring, however there is some enjoyable elements to it, including the Ryder Cup. It ticks most of the tournament boxes. It's spread out in gaps that make you actually look forward to it, and has the added advantage of being Europe v USA, an interesting showdown to say the least.
15. The NCAA BCS Bowl series
I love College Football. I really do. So why are the Bowl games ranked comparatively low on my list? Because the system is more screwed up than Britney Spears. It really is absolutely pathetic, and resembles a drunken country wedding in terms of organisational intelligence. The ONLY way forward is to completely scrap the current system and introduce something fresh and imaginative, but also fair. Would it be that difficult to come up with a simple end of season knock out tournament? As it is, the early games are often more exciting than the later games. Having said all that, the absolutely sensational Vince Young Rose Bowl of 2005 was about as good as sports gets.
14. The UEFA Cup
The 'other' big European club level soccer knockout tournament. Kind of a Champions League lite, if you will. The starting, group phase is about as turgid as it gets, however the final stages often throw up surprisingly enjoyable matchups. This tournament throws club teams from all over Europe up against each other, and the knockout stages, while lacking the drama of the Champions League, are still plenty colourful.
13. The NBA playoffs
Did anyone actually watch the NBA playoffs last year? Apart from Bill Simmons? I want to love the NBA, and the Celtics current revival has certainly caught my interest, but last years NBA playoffs were about as exciting as Swedish art-house movie making. The whole system is flawed as it is, with too many teams allowed into the knockout stages. There are some truly brutal low seeds making the playoffs the last few seasons. They need to whittle this down, which would lift the standard of play in the first round immensely.
12. The Rugby World Cup
This has nearly everything you could look for in a tournament. It has an abundance of colour in the form of various nations gathering to play the game, with legions of fans from the countries adding flavour to the event. Added bonus? The renditions of each countries national anthem. For whatever reason, the fans never hold back on these at the Rugby World cup. If you ever feel you have lost your lust for life, and need a boost, just check out any of either the French fans belting out the wonderful 'La Marseilles' or the rowdy, earthy and vibrant Scottish fans singing the uplifting 'Flower of Scotland'. The big drawback? The terrible early stage games. Nobody needs to witness New Zealand 106 Japan 3, or Australia 112 Namibia 5. Report card says, 'Good but could do better'.
11. La Liga (The Spanish top league)
If you like your soccer, and I do, and love your drama, and I do, La Liga is the place for you. The games take on an almost cartoon like quality, with great skill, goals and high jinks a plenty. The referees hand out yellow and red cards liks candy, and the players spend half the time dazzling the passionate crowds with their skills, and half the time trying to con the referees with flopping on a scale not seen since, well, since the last time Chelsea played a match (Chelsea have three of the greatest flop artists of all time, Ballack, Drogba and Robben). The top games are fantastic, and every serious sports fans list of 'events to see' should include Real Madrid v Barcelona. Often wild, always entertaining, La Liga's only serious drawback is the ridiculous 'acting', or simulation as FIFA call it.
10. The English FA Cup
One of the purest tournaments in world sports. Every single club football team in England can enter the FA Cup. They start playing regional qualifiers almost the day the tournament ends! Eventually the field is cut to 64, then 32 and so on. The best part if the third round, when the clubs from the higher divisions in English football are added to the field, creating freakish matchups like Yeovil Town against Liverpool, which would be like The New York Yankees playing a semi pro side from Mexico. Lately some of the bigger clubs, Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea, have diluted the respectability of the tournament by fielding weaker reserve or youth sides in order to keep their 'A' team fresh for the more financially important Champions League. Apart from that though, a great tournament with buckets of exciting games.
9. The Cheltenham Festival
Another one of those events that all serious sports fans need to attend once, if only to experience it. The Cheltenham horse racing festival has approached legendary status in Ireland at this stage. Males aged 19-90 get all glassy eyed and giddy if you mention it to them. Days off work are taken, pints are downed and the festival may as well be held in Dublin considering the level of participation over here. The wild roar that lifts up over the massed Cheltenham crowd when the first race takes off on Tuesday afternoon is one of the single greatest moments in sports. Some serious racing enthusiasts complain that the festival is diluted by being so long (four days), while others complain that they are forcing too many low level bad races in amongst the crackers to try and make yet more money. Minor drawbacks really to a very exciting week of sporting action.
8. The English Premiership
The Premiership has been a part of my life for so long now that maybe I take it for granted sometimes. There are very few sporting events that can match a great Premiership matchup, like Arsenal against Manchester United. Each team is steeped in history and has it's own style and calling card, from Liverpools incredibly passionate fans to Arsenal's magnificent, flowing football. The great moments in the last decade alone are stacked higher than Yao Ming. The list of superb players that have come and gone is longer than Randy Moss's legs. The wonderful Thierry Henry, the majestic Patrick Viera, Eric Cantona and many more. The team I root for is Sunderland, and they have had a yo-yo existence in the Premiership, sometimes surviving, sometimes relegated to the backwater known as English lower division football. However, when they are in the Premiership, as they are this year, every game is essential viewing in their battle for survival in the top tier. Drawbacks? That's easy. Greed. The rich (Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and a couple of others) are getting richer as the poor, smaller clubs, struggle to co-exist. A simple salary cap would solve this in a hurry, but will never be implemented. The Premiership may have become a little stale with only four teams in with a realistic chance of winning it every year, but it has sure given some incredible moments to us in the last decade plus in particular.
7. The NCAA 'March Madness' tournament
I have to admit I have only got into this in the last five or six years, so I am a relative rookie in terms of March Madness history and lore. It is essential viewing, however. The enjoyable early upsets, the dramatic later rounds. A nice element is the simplicity of the tournament, 65 teams in, knockout, you lose you go home. It's enjoyable simple. From over here in Ireland, you can follow it without any big issues bar the time difference. The only draw back is for every good game, there is a poor quality blowout, but without the large field, you wouldn't get dramatic upsets. Already looking forward to later this month.
6. The European Championships (Soccer)
The World Cup lite, basically. Same concept, same length of time between games. Almost as good, just lacking that little extra bit of colour provided by teams from the far corners of the globe.
5. The Six Nations tournament (Rugby)
This tournament has taken on a new lease of life with the addition of the Italians in the last few years. Now France, Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales and Italy battle it out by playing each other once to try and win the title of Six Nations Champions. The games are generally exciting, however the most colourful aspect is the support provided by the fans from the Six Nations. Be it Scottish fans in kilts walking down O'Connell street, or Irish fans in their green jerseys strolling down the Champs Elyse, game day has become a truly international affair, with hordes of fans travelling to each game. It has got to the stage where French fans will travel to Ireland to watch the games simply for the atmosphere in Dublin bars on gameday. This, combined with the fact that Ireland are pretty damn good, make it an exciting, entertaining and unique tournament.
4. The MLB playoffs
There is a sense of 'importance' or something about the MLB playoffs, the better games anyway. The history, the deep laying history and drama, is almost overbearing. Personally, I have a stock of memories from MLB playoff games that I will never forget. The Sox amazing ALCS comeback in '04, the Marlins enjoyable run in '03, the Sox tearing it up in '07 and Pedro coming out of the bullpen in '99 against Cleveland. One of the single greatest sporting performances I have ever seen. How on earth is this not number one? Simple. For every enjoyable World Series, there is a brutal one, like the Yankees whipping the Padres or the White Sox destroying Houston. The main event has sadly left little impression in recent times, and the only reason I enjoyed '04 and '07 was the Sox won, however I can see how Boston going 8-0 in the World Series those years wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea. We need a run of tight, enjoyable World Series finals for this to be ranked higher.
3. The Champions league - Final knockout phase
The atmosphere in Milan last night got me thinking about this piece in the first place. 70,000 fans singing, cheering, an atmosphere that US sports, for example, simply can not touch. Shivers up the spine stuff. The game itself, Arsenal @ Milan, was another excellent advertisement for the Champions League. A vibrant young Arsenal team took the game to the old masters, regal Milan, and one of the next big superstars in training, the superb Cesc Fabregas, scored a dramatic goal to send Arsenal on their way. The finals are generally superb, be it Liverpool coming back from the dead to beat Milan, or the excellent Barcelona v Arsenal game in 2005. It's all about the incredible atmosphere though. Be it the Liverpool fans singing 'You'll never walk alone', the Barcelona fans incredible, game long participation or those freakish, vibrant and almost scary Turkish fans! Actually, you know what, you want a taste? Check this out. the pre-match atmosphere before Celtic against AC Milan. You may have not seen anything like this before.
The atmosphere at a Champions league game can not be matched, and those 'European nights' down the years have provided some of the best games I have ever seen.
2. The NFL playoffs
As a lifelong Patriots fan, the NFL playoffs used to be an enjoyable diversion from normal life. '85 and '96 provided a peek into the future, as playoff games became vitally dramatic. Then Mo Lewis put Drew Bledsoe in hospital and everything changed. The super charged drama of Patriots v Colts, Patriots v Chargers is hard to match. The enjoyable unpredictable wild card rounds, the winter weather late round showdowns and the dramatic Superbowls all add up to one of the greatest tournaments in the world. I asked myself, how would I view the NFL playoffs if the Patriots hadn't even made them at all the last decade. The answer? The Superbowl is still essential viewing. The playoffs themselves, you become attached to teams and their stars, someone always steps up come playoff time. I can absolutely see how so many unbiased NFL fans became attached to the likable Michael Strahan, for example.
The bottom line is, very few tournaments can provide the drama and excitement that the Superbowl brings, year in, year out. The Tampa win, the Patriots surprise in '01, the incredible Tennessee v St Louis game, the back-and-forth Patriots v Panthers game and yes, the Giants upset win not so long ago. Very few tournaments can touch that level of drama. In fact, only one...
1. The World Cup
You just can't beat it. Held every four years, the time gap between events means that by the time the tournament rolls around, fans are practically frothing at the mouth in anticipation. The concept? So simple. The best soccer teams in the world meet in one country to play for the title of world champion. No BCS rubbish, no wild cards, no inherent greed driving the event or changing it's format to suit it. The group phases are still interesting as you get to know the teams, the hopeless losers, the dark horses, and the regal favourites, or in other words, generally Brazil. The group stages often throw up entertaining upsets that send shock waves around the world, like Senegal beating France, Cameroon beating Argentina, and who could forget the USA beating mighty, mighty England in 1950? After the group games the madness really kicks in during the knockout phase. Ireland have been involved in a couple of the last World Cups and the only way to describe it is that the entire nation comes to a complete standstill when Ireland are playing. This is echoed throughout the world, creating a unique and rare feeling of world-community that no other sporting event, bar perhaps the Olympics, can come close to replicating. The games themselves are truly dramatic events. As the semi finals draw close entire continents take sides and root passionately for their chosen ones to reach the final. The more dramatic games stay etched in your memory forever. The wonderful, exciting French win in '98 or Brazil sweeping everything before them in 2002.
Next World Cup? 2010. And no, I can't wait.
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