What If World Football Had American-Style Playoffs?
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It is a question entwined with so much of the fandom, coverage and playing of sports, so often infused with regret and suggestions of what might have been...
But mostly, it is fun, a chance to daydream about the possibilities in sports we spend so much of our time thinking about.
Whole businesses and groups of fantasy sports league and management simulations games have been built on the back of the notion that the average person could do better if they were in charge, while many a debate has been had over the ramifications over what if a certain player went somewhere else or a team hadn't lost etc etc.
This is all to say that the following article is in no way a call for world football (as it is so termed on this website) to adopt American-style playoffs, merely to wonder what the sport might look like if their seasons ended using the models that conclude years in basketball, baseball and American football.
There are already some similarities—one reason why only club football/soccer will be focused on here, as something like the World Cup or European Championships already runs along similar lines to 'March Madness' in college basketball (excluding the role a committee plays in selecting teams for the latter).
Outlined in the following slides are various scenarios for how these models would best be applied, and indeed, if it would be feasible to actually apply them.
In some cases here, it will require suspending belief to accommodate the rewriting of traditional schedules and formats.
Most of you will already know how the respective playoffs and postseasons work in the various sports, but for those who are not familiar and also so as to explain how they might work as applied to world football, the basic details of each will be explained in each slide (so bare with us here).
First up, what if continental tournaments like the Champions League and Copa Libertadores were decided March Madness style...
A March Madness-Style Postseason Tournament
Kentucky's Anthony Davis cuts down the net after the Wildcats' National Championship victory over Kansas.
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The men's Division I basketball championship, aka March Madness (the term that shall be used from here for reasons of brevity), brings together the college teams with the best regular season records with the purpose of deciding a national champion through a knockout style tournament.
The notion of a season-ending tournament to decide a winner is not new to football—as the culmination of a two-year or longer qualification cycle, competitions like the World Cup and continental versions like the European Championships have been in existence for several decades.
Knockout tournaments are also run alongside league seasons as separate competitions, some of which date back over 100 years (England's FA Cup, for example).
However, there are enough variations in the overall format used for March Madness to ponder a scenario where they might be applied to a continent-wide club tournament like the UEFA Champions League.
Rather than run alongside domestic league seasons, Europe's premier competition would take place at the end of each season, though in reality, this would mean a substantial alteration to the organization of the world football calendar in relation to how this would co-exist with international tournaments (the main reason why in reality, it could never work out).
Football players are unlikely to be happy with the comparatively short amount of time between games their basketball equivalents are used to either, so the tournament would last longer too (which raises issues with where the games would be played and how that could be managed with regards to supporters getting to games).
Assuming such an accommodation could be made, other facets of March Madness can be applied with varying degrees of practicality.
The two tournaments share a similar history in terms of the expansion that has defined them both somewhat in the latter parts of their history.
In basketball, teams qualify from multiple conferences throughout the country, essentially representative of Europe's various countries in the case of the Champions League.
So from a point when the champions of each conference or country made up their respective tournaments, it has now developed to a format where, depending on a team's work during the season, they may find themselves ranked highly enough to earn a spot.
The main difference between the two sports here is that outside of the conference champions, the remainder of the teams in March Madness are selected by a committee.
An obstacle in a committee working for the Champions League would be the difficulty of differentiating between the respective quality of the dozens of national leagues that make up UEFA.
It would make for some entertaining debates in regards to which league was better than the other (Premier League or La Liga etc), but would require an enormous effort from personnel with quite excellent levels of expertise in determining how teams from smaller countries would be seeded.
Even after all that, a vastly expanded play-in round similar to the one used in college basketball would be needed.
After this initial stage, the thought of each game really meaning something would appeal to those who find the group format that opens the real Champions League tedious and may indeed create a greater mentality of potentially upsetting the bigger clubs from those who are otherwise exposed by the length of a group.
And if that thought does not appeal to you, take comfort from the likelihood that the best teams usually make it to the end anyway (four of the last five college basketball national champions were No. 1 seeds at the start of the tournament).
Playoffs Like the MLS and NFL
The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots in action during the AFC Championship Game, January 2012.
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American-style playoffs for a sport that is not one of the country's traditional favorites is not a completely new thing—after all, Major League Soccer's championship is decided by one.
Compared to other American sports, MLS' playoff bares most similarity to the National Football League's playoffs.
Like other professional sports leagues, their championship games are contested between the champions of their respective two major conferences.
Unlike the others, the MLS and NFL playoffs are substantially shorter, with only the conference semifinals of the former going beyond one game (and they are only two legs).
Similar-type playoffs are not unusual to world football. For example ,in countries like England and Italy, they are used in those countries' second tiers, contested by teams who finish between third and sixth to try and win promotion.
The main difference, of course, is that those teams do not compete with teams solely from their own conference within the playoffs.
To even contemplate the possibility of an MLS or NFL-style playoff, you have to imagine many of world football's league divided into two, perhaps according to geography or some other type of pre-amalgamation split. (Argentina's Primera Division is an interesting case and worth reading up on separately if you are unfamiliar.)
On that basis, there are some intriguing possibilities.
In a country like Italy, where a level of divisiveness exists between the north and south (especially when it comes to football), it is a simultaneously thrilling and worrying prospect to imagine equally (if not more) hostile regional rivalries fought out before attentions returned to the bigger picture.
Whether it would work effectively as a competition is debatable.
Larger-sized countries like Brazil or Russia might fare well (though then again, many of Russia's teams are concentrated in the west), perhaps less so in smaller nations like Italy and Spain, where the current formation is probably more suitable.
NBA, NHL and MLB-Style Multiple Games Series
Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat compete in the NBA Finals.
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The postseasons of the NBA, NHL and MLB are similar to those of the NFL and MLS discussed in the previous slide, with the major difference being most of their playoff rounds are contested over multiple games (i.e. a best-of-seven series).
Time constraints would make this a difficult one for world football leagues (even imagining for major differences in how the sport's calendar worked) going beyond a best-of-three series, but that in itself is either an enticing or unappealing prospect depending on your point of view.
With replays in Domestic Cup games and two-legged ties in competitions like the Champions League, teams do often play each other more than once in the space of a few weeks, perhaps three or four times if these fixtures were to coincide with league meetings.
Seeing sides face off against each other multiple times can make for a great watch as you look to see how they change their game-plan or look to up their performance after a previous meeting.
However, watching the same players face, and become overly-familiar with each other, can become tiring after a time.
As great as the El Clasico fixture between Barcelona and Real Madrid can be, there were occasions in recent years when these two kept being thrown together so much that the tension and skill on display made way for theatrics and general unpleasantry.
College Football-Style Bowl System
Oregon and Wisconsin compete in the 2012 Rose Bowl.
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The last thing any of you college football fans out there need is another reminder of the debate over the respective merits of a playoff versus the existing bowl system or a combination of the two that might come into existence from 2014 yadda yadda yadda.
For the purposes of this article, however, the potential of a bowl system applied to world football is, in some ways, quite exciting.
If you imagine it applied over a single continent where teams from the various national leagues (here subbing for the conferences) are ranked overall and then organized into specific bowls according to said ranking...then, well, it would be as equally frustrating and divisive as it can be in college football.
However, there is something to be said about the prospect of, say, Europe's best teams, facing off at the end of each season in prestige games at some of the continent's best stadiums.
Chelsea taking on Barcelona at the Stade de France in Paris for the right to be crowned champions of Europe, Paris St. Germain and Real Madrid playing in the San Siro or Juventus and Borussia Dortmund in the Estadio da Luz.
It is a notion that holds some romance to it, but the difficulty of selecting who would face who seems too difficult considering there is little to separate Europe's best leagues as it is.
Though at first you assume fans might baulk at the prospect of traveling abroad for a solitary game at the end of the season, there is something to be said about the guarantee (should your team finish high in its league) of a prestige fixture to finish off the year.
But that only seems realistic in a world where they aren't already used to the excitement of the multiple games they will witness in a European campaign that co-exists with the weekly entertainment of their domestic league.