Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech told Sky Sports that he believed Chelsea to be the underdogs going into the Champions League Final showdown against Bayern Munich. Cech is not breaking any prophetic ground in making such a claim, he is more uttering the sentiments that much of the footballing community has had since Bastian Schweinsteiger scored his penalty shot to send the Germans home for a chance at the club’s fifth European title.
However, my love (and narcissism) for attacking the contemporary framework of beliefs has me asking a very simply question—why are Chelsea the underdogs?
The easy answer is that they are not as good as Bayern Munich on paper and arguably on the field as well. They have had some horrendous losses this season, including a 4-1 drubbing by Liverpool a week ago in what was the worst performance I have seen by the club in the past decade. But this term “underdog” still escapes me in matter of significance, yet it is one of the great descriptors of competition and most basic plot motivators throughout most cultures, theologies and literature.
I think to begin to understand the concept of the “underdog” we must first uncover its origins, some 600 years ago in the English blood sport known as bear-baiting.
Bear-baiting was a common Tudor pastime where a captured bear was chained inside of a pit and had to defend itself against a never-ending stream of pit bulls that were trained to kill the animal. Once one dog tired or died, he was replaced with another, giving the bear the same odds of survival as many Gladiators in ancient Rome.
One dog was trained to go after the head and neck, while the other attacked the bears much tougher and muscular backside. This dog was known as the underdog and often stood a lesser chance of survival. The erratic movements of the frightened bear would often trample the poor dog, as opposed to the top-dog who could see attacks coming.
Thankfully, we as a society have come a long way from our blood lust and such a spectacle would be of the utmost social indecency. But the term that was once used to describe the dog that had the least chance of survival has stuck around and the meaning has become less of a noun and more of an adjective. Like all good similes it soon found itself becoming a metaphor that speaks more toward the nature of the sports/life symbiosis than anything else games have to offer.
But more specifically, outside of the culture of sports (or perhaps deep in the heart of it) “underdog” has become most closely associated with gambling. A once insider, but now clichéd way to ask who is not favored in the betting line is to ask who is the underdog. Today, this is the most popular use of the term and the one that appeals to the most invested (literally and figuratively) viewers.
With this brief mini lesson on the origins and meaning of the term, it is easy to see how Chelsea are the “underdogs” in the match. Most betting sites have Bayern to be heavy favorites with Bayern paying out 4/9 and Chelsea 15/8 on one site, 2/5 and 14/8 on another and 4/9 and 13/8 elsewhere. These numbers are not randomly chosen out of a hat, but rather an incredible amount of research and analytics that look at the teams, their form, the matchup, weather, the betting lines that will generate the most revenue and much more.
But what it does not take into account is the one and only thing that really matters in this—it’s only one game.
I will be the first to admit that Chelsea is not superior to Bayern Munich in any way. Even against Barcelona they matched up better given their strength and physicality. Not to mention that as subtle as it may have been, the game was really decided at the one position Chelsea had the clear advantage, in net. But that will not be the case against Bayern Munich.
With the very fact that they have as strong of an aerial game as Chelsea and shooters who welcome blasts from 25 yards out, the Blues cannot simply park the bus and rely on their stalwart defense. They will have to come out into open play and match Bayern chance for chance. Though in a one-game series, taking advantage of chances is infinitely more important than creating them.
You need to look no further than Bayern’s defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal Final this past weekend.
I am not going to suggest that Bayern is a better team than Dortmund as three losses to them on the season would point the other way, but I think it is fair to say that they are also not three goals worse either, plus the odds makers had Bayern as slight favorites to win the title. The two team’s previous Bundesliga matches ended 1-0 and were not statistically favoring any one side. How Dortmund beat Bayern 5-2 is more of a result of coincidence and happen stance as much as the talent and ability of the players themselves.
Out of the five goals Dortmund scored, four were off of bounces or deflections that were not intended by any of the players on the pitch. There just happen to be an opportunistic Dortmund player on the other end of it that capitalized on a chance when presented with one.
This in no way is meant to devalue the victory by Dortmund. After all, they still needed to put the ball into the net, which they did excellently and with the utmost efficiency. But it does point out that a single-game playoff is in no way indicative of skill, talent or who the better side may be when the teams are within a reasonable level of one another.
Do I expect these 1,000 words to ultimately change the landscape of a time-tested standard of storytelling? No, not at all.
The truth is that we need the idea of the underdog. It is one of those subtle little tricks we use to make the utter irrelevance of sports meaningful to the point where we are going to construct our entire Saturday around watching a bunch of grown men kick a ball around grass. It is one of those cultural connectors that where sport meets life, giving the vague impression that I too can overcome odds and have my own day of glory.
Chelsea fans too would love the ability to boast their own egos through and underdog victory. Sure, it is great to win when you are favored, but even more so when you are not. Then you can stick your thumb to your nose and wag your fingers at the world in the kind of braggadocios bravado that only seeing your sports team win can give you.
But for the anti-fan like myself the term “underdog” will be nothing more than an empty gesture for the gambling populace, void of meaning beyond that which we apply to it. The teams will play it out; the one with more goals at the end of the match will raise the trophy and be the better side no matter what argument dissenters may come up with.
Though in the end this meaning we apply to sports beyond the results is all that really matters in the first place.
Perhaps I am the one who is empty and void.
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