A Fool’s Errand: Finding Faith in the Underdog

"Billy Beane is not my lover..."

There are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap. And then there’s us.

In the opening scene of 2011’s Moneyball, director Bennett Miller recounts the Oakland Athletics’ historic burnout in the 2001 AL Divisional Series. The A’s find themselves trailing two runs in the 9th and, unbelievably, on the verge of elimination, despite opening the series with a pair of wins. A radio announcer’s voiceover narrates the perilous scene – Home fans are on their feet. Mariano Rivera leans over the mound. He reads the catcher’s sign, winds up, and delivers the final pitch. Fly out to center. Yankees win.

And then two sets of numbers fade in – the final scoreline, 5-3 to the home team, and the aggregate salaries of each side:

YANKEES  $114,457,768 – $39,722,689 ATHLETICS

There in crisp typset, the formula for supremacy. Cash translates to runs. Runs translate to wins. And wins translate to championships. Small wonder that the Yankees have won 27 World Series – and are the most expensive franchise in the sport by some margin.

It’s all about the Benjamins.

Should the A’s have expected to get as far as they did? Consider that the plot of the film revolves around a GM rebuilding a tattered team on a shoestring budget. It’s the kind of fodder that cries feel-good movie. A hackneyed, small-time team pulls it off in the end even though they never deserved to be there in the first place. But Moneyball isn’t Remember the Titans (and neither was Oakland’s season), and the protagonists don’t pull it off in the end. In fact, despite 90 minutes of Sabermetrics-driven dialogue, managerial tete-a-tetes, and player transformations, the Athletics make it exactly as far as they did the season prior: the opening round.

Moneyball is a film tailored for underdog fans (that’s everyone, right?), but it isn’t the first instance in sports history of a Cinderella story cut short. Nor is it the most recent. For that, you’d need to turn to Valencia, Spain and a soccer team that plays in the shadow of the city’s namesake club.

On Sunday, Levante Union Deportiva conceded more goals than they scored for the first time this season, which is significant precisely because they are Levante Union Deportiva. For those of you who don’t follow La Liga, they’re something like a Spanish Wigan – wallowing in the lower divisions for decades at a time, popping up into the premiership here and there but only to swim against the currents of relegation. Levante have spent six and a half seasons in the top flight and haven’t finished higher than 10th. Frankly, the only time you’d likely hear their name mentioned before this month was at trivia nights devoted to football esoterica (Q: Which Dutch superstar nicknamed Pythagoras in Boots spent half a season at Levante in the early eighties? A: Johan Cruyff. He  played ten games for the Frogs, scoring two goals).

The point is, they’ve never been contenders. But at the quarter point of this season, Levante were looking down the table at nineteen other teams (Barcelona and Real Madrid among them) and enjoying the superlative of being the best in Spain for the first time ever (and in spite of a pretty daunting schedule). They handled it admirably, winning seven on the trot, including 3-0 scorelines against Malaga and Villarreal and a 1-0 humbling of Madrid. It seems that all signs point toward Levante as this year’s dark horse contender.

But that isn’t the case –and not because I’m telling you, but because they are.

Nano, who partners with Sergio Ballesteros in defense, responded to reporters who asked if they had any chance of winning the league. “No,” he said. Not even a European spot.

The whole squad is coy about their chances. Manager Juan Ignacio Martinez stated at the beginning of the season that avoiding relegation would be good enough for him, and they still believe that, even now. Most of them (like most of us) believe that for the team to stay on form would require a miracle. Coming from the oldest squad in Europe, you’d probably call that wisdom. Good things don’t last for clubs who can’t afford them.

But are they right to dismiss their chances, or should they have a little faith? Is there rationality in being irrational?

The dichotomy for underdogs is one of pragmatism and idealism. They can accept their limitations or choose to ignore them.  To be sure, the resource disparity in Europe’s top leagues rightfully elicits cynicism. After all, Barca’s, Madrid’s, and Atletico’s average summer spending (55m) compared to Levante’s (300k) makes the MLB cash gap seem a paltry difference. But soccer is a competition, and what the hell’s the point of competing if not to win?

Francesco Guidolin set Udinese's bar at European qualification.

Today’s smaller clubs suffer from a supreme lack of idealism, setting goals which they believe to be realistic – avoiding the drop zone, finishing in the top half, beating the cross-town rivals. The problem is that, in setting these goals, they ascribe a self-fulfilling prophecy to their fortunes. Clubs that aim for mid-table end up in mid-table. There may not be a causal relationship between objective and outcome, but a little self-regard is still an asset that too many clubs overlook.

Levante are only the most recent in a string of teams to play down their chances despite playing impressive football. Last season Udinese’s ascent in Serie A was underplayed by the club president, who ruled out any title hopes in spite of a thirteen game unbeaten streak. The Zebrette had closed the gap to six points with nine games remaining when Pozzo claimed: “The Scudetto is something which does not regard us.” They lost their next game. So did Levante, by the way, the match after Martinez called European qualification a dream.

It’s not that Udinese, Levante, and the rest of Europe’s so-called minnows are pessimistic. On the contrary, these teams tend to define their outlooks as hopeful. But that’s a misleading sentiment to have. Hope places the onus on something else – God, Providence, Luck – and that can be distracting for a team whose chances, however fleeting, depend on having a good measure of will instead.

Soccer has never been a game of numbers, at least not to the extent that other sports are, and yet numbers dictate how smaller clubs envision themselves. For once, I’d love to see someone like Juan Ignacio Martinez handle a press conference with aplomb. Imagine: “Our historic winning streak proves that we’re title contenders.” Who cares if it’s irrational? The better question is: what would’ve happened in Pamplona on Sunday night?

Is chasing the title a fool’s errand for clubs like Levante UD? What does it take to win it all when your resources aren’t enough? Comment below and don’t forget to follow us at @O87Minutes.

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3 Responses to A Fool’s Errand: Finding Faith in the Underdog

  1. Wachhz says:

    (You guys deserve more feedback and traffic for the fantastic writing you’ve been doing. Keep it up!)

    To the point, I am in absolute agreement with regards to the rationale or being irrational. Counter to the norm, I followed the domestic game before venturing into the internet-fueled waters of euro footy. And something that boggles my mind is how mid-table clubs overseas tend to be so content with being mid-table, simply avoiding relegation. In American sports, just about every team starts the season saying, “this is our year.” From the pirates to the lions to the cubs. Granted their season hopes may crumble just a few games in, but at least the sparkle of championship hope existed for a moment. So in soccer, where the numbers are fewer and the mental game can play a larger role, why wouldn’t every club grasp on to some motivational clouds? That brief bit of unrealistic skygazing is the gust of wind in the sails that pushes the cinderella team into scoring that one extra goal, getting that one tiny point to achieve that unachieveable next level. I firmly believe that the result in Pamplona would have been different. Maybe they come together and get the win? Maybe their hopes in the clouds come crashing down catestrophically? By targetting mediocrity, we’ll never know.

    • Adams Sibley says:

      Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, there is definitely a difference between domestic clubs and European clubs (maybe it has something to do with revenue being a little more equal in the states). But you’re right, MLS teams subscribe more to the American sporting philosophy that any year can be your year. You get the impression that players on clubs like Levante are just happy to be playing with some of the best clubs in the world, but shouldn’t they be hungry for more than just being along for the ride?

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