I have a thing for sports teams that outshine expectations, teams that put it up to the big guns and battle the fiscal realities of modern sport to make an impact. I feel there’s less glory in winning when you had all the advantages, and it’s what everyone expected. I guess I’m a sporting romantic.
I’d argue it’s never been harder, in football, for the up-and-comers, the relatively unestablished clubs. Of course, there’s always an exception, like Leicester City’s magnificent Premier League win a few seasons ago, but the reality is that most sides in Europe’s big football leagues these years, winning something is a pipe dream, and being stripped of your best assets for a large chunk of money – which in turn you can use to bring through a another team – is arguably the most likely of positive outcomes.
Has this always been the case? Well not always, but in modern-day football, arguably so. There have certainly always been periods of dominance in football, but the dominance on display at the moment, is, perhaps, as substantial as its ever been. As an illustration, here’s where we currently stand in Europe’s top six leagues (in my view) over the last ten years:
England: Manchester City (4), Manchester United (2), Chelsea (2), Liverpool (1), Leicester City (1)
Spain: Barcelona (6), Real Madrid (3), Athletico Madrid (1)
Italy: Juventus (9), AC Milan (1)
Germany: Bayern Munich (8), Borussia Dortmund (2)
France: PSG (7), Monaco (1), Montpellier (1), Lille (1)
Netherlands: Ajax (5), PSV (3), Feyernoord (1), void (1)
The above is not what excites me. In all of the above leagues, you’d probably get 50/1 on anyone outside of the top five or six clubs (and in some cases two or three clubs) winning the title, and those clubs change very ltitle season on season. The bottom, frankly, is more interesting.
So I’ve decided to spend a season learning about some of the teams at the other extreme. I’ve picked the five European leagues most likely to produce a Champions League of Europa League winner, in my view (with apologies to Ajax and the Dutch – victims themselves of the asset-stripping I talked about above). But instead of following Liverpool, Bayern, PSG, Real Madrid or Juventus, I’ll be keeping a close eye on whichever team the bookmakers say are the favourites for relegation on the first day of the season, and I’ll be following those five teams all season long.
This in part out of a desire to back those who struggle at the back end of the leagues, but also out of a belief that unlike the consistant rotation of the same teams at the top, the bottom half of the top-tiers in major nations are more competitive, and often more exciting. I guess – as far as you can from a one-season snapshot – we shall see.
Obviously I largely can’t reveal who those teams are just yet, until the first day of the each season when I check the odds. Based on the above, the team I focus on in each league will be the favourites for relegation on that day, and most of the seasons are a week or two from kicking off. I will focus, effectively, on the favourites to come last on that particular day in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. I will likely start off knowing little about each of these teams, but hopefully that will change throughout the season.
There is one team I can reveal already:
FC Metz (1/6 on for relegation in France at season kick-off, on August 21)
Ligue One, in France, is the first European league to get underway this year, which means I can reveal the first team I’ll be following this year is FC Metz, who are an astonishing 1/6 on to be relegated from the French top tier. As it happens, Metz won’t play in the opening week of the French season, so I’ll return to them next week, ahead of their opening game against Monaco.
Following that, I’ll bring in the Premier League (from September 12), La Liga (also September 12), Bundesliga (from September 18), and Serie A (date to be confirmed). That, essentially, is the plan.
It may be a season of five different doses of relegation misery, or throw up some fascinating stories. I’ll probably be being forced to follow a team that’s in direct conflict with my own club, Aston Villa, who are currently third or fourth favorites for Premier League relegation, and I’ll try not to do so too half-heartedly. It feels utterly unpredictable. To the underdogs!