Last weeks opening paragraph;
Bit of a dead spot sporting wise right now, eh? With all due respect to the NBA, and of course Premiership football, this is a bit of a blind spot sporting wise, the gap with the Superbowl finished, and baseball still a decent stretch down the line.
I was thinking about tournaments this morning, thinking, 'What is the best tournament in the world right now?' Let's chop it up! Ground rules. 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. I am going to stick to the sports I know something about. This rules out tennis, cricket, sailing and ten-pin bowling. I am also leaving out sports that are not enjoyable. So, you won’t find NASCAR here. It isn’t even a sport! They just drive in circles! Somebody stop me using exclamation marks!
2008 standings and comments included, and keep an eye out for the brand new entries!
9. La Liga (The Spanish top league)
’08 standing: 11
In 2008 we wrote: 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 update: One of the big gainers this time round, La Liga has become essential viewing, at least in my house hold. La Liga is part soccer part soap opera, and I love it. There is a general slide in popularity towards it too, away from the EPL, with Ronaldo and others joining its ranks. By the by, Chelsea are now reduced to two of the greatest flop artists of all time, Drogba and Ballack!
8. The Six Nations tournament (Rugby)
’08 standing: 5
In 2008 we wrote: 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 traveling 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.
’10 update: Something of a faller, simple problem here, it’s too short! It’s hard to get emotionally invested in a tournament when it is only 5 events long. Ireland, for example, are now looking at something of a re-building year after getting totally demolished in France, only two games into the tournament. Sure, beating England this coming Saturday will be a big lift, but for all intents and purposes the joy of the Six Nations is short lived.
7. The NCAA BCS Bowl series
’08 standing: 15
In 2008 we wrote: 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.
’10 update: You know what, who cares how bad the BCS system is, the games themselves are fantastic! The big winner this time round, charging up the listing, December is a great month made even better by the College Bowl games. It’s exciting, dramatic and each game has its own little set of twists and turns. Finding out about and diving into those early session, ‘less important’ Bowl games is tremendous fun. You can only think it will be even more enjoyable next season without the whole asinine Tebow bandwagon casting its big self righteous shadow over the whole season.
6. The English Premiership
’08 standing: 8
In 2008 we wrote: 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.
’10 update: Still the same old EPL, still with the same enjoyable elements and flaws as ever. The big problem with the EPL is basically only one of four teams is going to win it. The others are scrapping to avoid relegation or finish high enough to claim a spot in the next seasons European club competitions. That’s not exactly a wide open tournament now, is it? The big thing is, it is always compelling viewing, and it is always there. Dull Monday night with nothing on TV? Not a problem, the EPL has you covered with Man City v West Ham. Lazy Sunday afternoon? Not anymore! Arsenal v Chelsea at 4pm! And so on. Sky Sports, the main carrier of the EPL, has us all whipped into such a frenzy about it, a big clash sees entire cities come to a stand still. Manchester United v Arsenal a few weeks ago felt like a truly global event. The EPL probably could feature higher on this list, however it doesn’t have the dramatic impact of shorter, sexier tournaments. Still, it’s like a reliable old friend, always there in the background ready to entertain you.
5. The NCAA 'March Madness' tournament
’08 standing: 7
In 2008 we wrote: 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.
’10 update: One of the ‘purest’ tournaments around. A relatively short schedule, no confusion at all, win to stay in. High drama in every game, and full on 100% effort from everybody all the time. March Madness does not screw around. Not long to the ’10 version, and like ’08, can’t wait for this one already!
4. The NFL playoffs
’08 standing: 2
In 2008 we wrote: 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.
’10 update: The big faller of ’10. Well, to some extent. It’s still quite highly placed at number four. The last couple of years a big problem has popped up, namely suspicious games. It all started with the Pittsburgh game in ’08, the $66 million dollar swing game.
The problem there was;
100 million in legal bets were placed on this game in Vegas. Two thirds of those were on the Steelers. That's 66 millions dollars as opposed to 33 million on the chargers. Legal bookmakers went from minus 33 million dollars to plus 33 million dollars in the blink of a bad call. That is a 66 million dollar swing. That's what they should call this game, 'the 66 million dollar swing'.
Then came the ’10 playoffs and the Saints, quite literally, unstoppable drive to the Superbowl. The Vikings game was a complete joke, the Saints hit Farve illegally seven times, one which the NFL actually apologies about after the fact, and the final winning drive was kept alive by two shocking calls. The NFL literally forced the Saints into the Superbowl. Therein, they ensured the Saints won the game by allowing the Saints to hold Dallas Clarke at the line of scrimmage on virtually every play, hit the Colts receivers downfield late and often and most shockingly, allow a serious block in the back on the final play of note, the big interception.
If you are in any doubt at all about the NFC Championship game and the Superbowl, just go have a look at the penalty counts for and against New Orleans (lets just say it is lots to less!) and check out the block in the back the whole world saw but no one called.
I have been watching the NFL since I was 12 years old, avidly, some would say a little obsessively, and never before 2008 did I even consider a game being rigged. Then came the issues the last couple of years, and now I just don’t know. Call me Fox Mulder and mock me for having an opinion on this, but for me, there is a dark cloud hanging over the NFL right now.
3. The Champions league - Final knockout phase
’08 standing: 3
In 2008 we wrote: 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. 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.
’10 update: There wasn’t anything quite like it in ’08, and there is still nothing quite like it in ’10. The Champions League latter stages provide some of the more exciting sporting moments every season. I wrote about the atmosphere in Milan in ’08 and once again last night, with Inter Milan playing Chelsea, the atmosphere was quite simply sensational. Several times the commentary team had to shout to be heard above the noise. ’10 promises to be a dramatic tournament with several teams in with a chance to win it all, in fact right now, you can’t really say someone is definitely going to win it. Barcelona look strong, but so do Manchester United and Chelsea, but how can you rule out Inter under Jose Mourinho and Arsenal could catch fire and go all the way. If I had a cheesy sporting dream, it would be Sunderland somehow slipping into the Champions League and making the latter stages. Now that to me would be the highest sporting drama possible.
2. The MLB playoffs
’08 standing: 4
In 2008 we wrote: 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.
’10 update: Well, we didn’t get the enjoyable World Series the even needed, however ’10 promises to be as good a MLB season as there has been in a long time. The big teams are ready to go, as always, but several other outsiders are going to make a splash in ’10. Keep an eye on Florida and most of all, Seattle, who have very quietly assembled a team that could get deep into the playoffs. Boston and New York will be at each others throats all season, Tampa will be hoping to sneak in the back door. The Phillies will be very interesting with Doc Halladay leading the way and the Dodgers will definitely be in the running on the basis of those big bats in their lineup. As a Red Sox fan naturally I will be rooting for the latest Theo Epstein experiment (pitching and defence over big bats) to get Boston into the Series, but as a baseball fan I think it’s not outside the realms of possibility that we could see one of the most exciting playoffs ever in ’10. Potentially finishing with two outsiders playing for the big prize. If it happens, don’t say I didn’t warn ya’ll!
Coming to a 2010 playoffs near you.
1. The World Cup
’08 standing: 1
In 2008 we wrote: 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.
’10 update: And here we are, just like that, a World Cup year. This is the single greatest tournament in the World. There is simply no competition. No other tournament can match the World Cup for colour, drama, importance, enjoyability and finally the international totality of the event itself. No other tournament can drag you in and keep you in its clutches for the duration of same like the World Cup. Literally the entire World comes to a stand still, well, with the exception of the United States.
That’s part one of my three things to watch for the 2010 World Cup. The United States will take more interest in this World Cup than any other before it, yes, including the one in the United States! I was there in ’94, and 90% of the Americans I dealt with on a daily basis had no clue there was a World Cup on. On the day Ireland shocked Italy 1-0 in New York, my good friend Andrew and I were walking down a sandy Cape Cod street. A local degenerate drug dealer hippy of note drove past us and shouted from his convertible, ‘One nothing Ireland, yeah baby!’ – that was the only reference we heard from anyone we saw that day to the World Cup, all day.
This time, things are going to be different, just watch. Why? Easy, the main-stream US sporting media has suddenly started to champion soccer football. Who knows why, but ESPN has started putting soccer headlines on its main page, and the ESPN soccernet sub-site is actually now a go-to site for soccer on the Internet.
ESPN and others are quite literally bludgeoning the average Joe Punter US sports fan into an appreciation of soccer. Gone are the cheap jokes at its expense, replaced with main stream sports journalists like Bill Simmons writing long(ish) pieces and seemingly taking a genuine interest in soccer.
Part two? I can not wait to root against Brazil. This is a major about turn for me. I used to love Brazil, and their ’02 tournament win was a thing of poignant, swashbuckling beauty. That Brazilian team was full of rogues and pirates like Ronaldo who had somewhat murky private lives and still produced football of sublime quality. The current incarnation? Something of a schmaltzy, syrupy, tasteless mess. The celebrations after Brazil beat the USA in the Confederations cup final were like a particularly psychotic sect throwing a particularly scary party. Why oh why do Brazil think it is important, no, essential, to ram their religious beliefs down our throats? After every important tournament win, or even after individual goals, the current Brazilian squad seems to feel it essential to rip off their jersey to reveal a t-shirt with crayon writing a five year old would be embarrassed by featuring headlines such as ‘Jesus loves me!’ or ‘I score for Jesus!’ Okay I made the latter up but, the religious fervor that Brazil have been championing lately is nothing short of disgusting.
Before you say ‘each to their own’ – that’s the entire point, each is not being allowed their own here, instead Brazil are using a World stage to inappropriately and aggressively deliver their religious message. Ask yourself, if a team all removed their shirts to reveal pro-scientology messages scrawled on them, would you find that appetizing? How about if an African team triumphs and starts screaming verses from the Koran at bewildered members of the international sporting press?
I used to enjoy watching Kaka and Brazil play.
Now, I can not wait for that smug, patronising and arrogant grin to get wiped off their faces by a team of vagabond scoundrels at the World Cup. Please God, Allah, Buddha and the Force, let there be a Portland ‘Jailblazzers’ team of under dogs out there waiting to take Brazil down.
Give me a fucking break.
Finally, and undeniably a highlight of every single World Cup, England’s inevitable demise is always something worth looking forward to. Every single tournament the English find new and interesting ways to self destruct. Why is this so enjoyable? They actually believe they are the best team in the world. Seriously. They are their own pre season favourites. This year, England are getting started early, with their plans falling apart faster than a John Terry alibi on a Friday night. With Wayne Bridge admirably retiring from the squad rather than team up with Terry, and Ashley Cole injuring his ankle sending lewd texts, England are down to their third/fourth string left side full back. Opposition wingers are already licking their lips. Meanwhile, Manchester United are busy running Wayne Rooney, their sole effective striker, into the ground. When England come calling this summer, it is entirely possible Rooney will have nothing left in the tank.
The perfect ’10 World Cup? The incredibly entertaining, swashbuckling, party animal Danish team of the 80s comes back and beats Brazil 5-0 in the quarter finals, Michael Laudrup scoring a scintillating hat-trick. Meanwhile, England fail to move on from the group stages, after a stunning opening 0-3 setback to the United States, where Landon Donovan captivates with two well taken goals, both after dribbling past John Terry.
The latter is actually a possibility. The athletic, up and coming USA takes on England in their first group game.
World Cup ’10. It’s the best tournament in the World.
The full list
20 The Ryder Cup
19 Serie A (The top Italian soccer league)
18 The Stanley Cup
17 The UEFA Cup
16 The NBA playoffs
15 The World Baseball Classic
14 The Rugby World Cup
13 The English FA Cup
12 The Heineken Cup (Rugby)
11 The European Championships (Soccer)
10 The Cheltenham Festival
9 La Liga (The Spanish top league)
8 The Six Nations tournament (Rugby)
7 The NCAA BCS Bowl series
6 The English Premiership
5 The NCAA 'March Madness' tournament
4 The NFL playoffs
3 The Champions league - Final knockout phase
2 The MLB playoffs
1 The World Cup