What’s the best game of the season? Stop scratching your chin. Don’t overthink the question, because the answer is easy. It’s Middlesbrough versus Norwich.
That game doesn’t kick off until Monday, but even if the teams didn’t end up being Middlesbrough and Norwich, Monday’s final was always going to be the best game of the season. That’s because the Championship playoff final is always the greatest club match of the year, even when it’s goalless, even when it’s ugly, and even when we haven’t cared about the teams involved all season.
The occasion is also known as the Richest Match In World Soccer., with the winner earning a spot in next season’s Premier League, a spot that’s estimated to be worth at least $180 million in additional revenue. In comparison, starting next year, winning the Champions League final is worth only $16.5 million in prize money. There’s something wonderfully crazy about the fate of so much money resting in the feet of players who are mostly unknowns, players who, since they’re at second-tier clubs, have mostly proved to be not good enough for the top level.
There is, of course, more glory in winning the Champions League. Or the FA Cup, La Liga, or any number of trophies across Europe. But glory such just a nebulous if luxurious concept, something to create a warm glow of happiness. It’s a privilege, an enhancement of status. The Championship playoff final’s prevailing emotion is desperation. Its significance is rooted in economic and practical realities that can be transformative in a way an appearance in a Champions League final can’t.
The average annual player wage in the Premier League is $3.5 million, while in the Championship it’s $750,000. For players, winning can provide long-term financial security (or just a really big house and a car that can do 180 miles per hour). For owners, the income might be an escape route from financial ruin. And for fans, it’s the difference between games against Arsenal and Chelsea or against Reading and Cardiff, a bit like emigrating to an exotic foreign land without leaving home; going through the gate and finding yourself in Narnia.
The second-tier game is the biggest Premier League fixture of the season, burnishing the top-level league’s prestige like no other match. Every crying fan and player lying prone on the grass at the final whistle, every jig of joy on the podium, serves to reinforce the importance of the Premier League. Every tear shed is a homage to the EPL’s preeminence.
Nine months of work bet on the spin of a roulette wheel, the playoff final is the ultimate expression of English soccer’s addiction to volatility. Promotion and relegation not dramatic enough for you? How’s a 46-game regular season, a two-leg semifinal left in the distance as this season and next are defined by a single match? And all that played at one of the world’s more prestigious fields, Wembley Stadium, in front of up to 90,000 fans?
The occasions can provide astonishing drama, create local lore, enduring heroes. Take Manchester City, 2-0 down to Gillingham in the third-tier final in 1999, scoring in the 90th and 95th minutes and ultimately winning on penalties. Or Steve Claridge scoring the winner for Leicester City against Crystal Palace with his shin in the 120th minute in the 1996 second-level final. Or Charlton beating Sunderland on penalties after a 4-4 draw in 1998. Or look that short way back to last Saturday’s League Two final, which saw Southend overcome Wycombe 7-6 on penalties after equalizing in the 122nd minute.
See last year’s League One game, where Leyton Orient was 2-0 up against Rotherham United, who equalized with two goals from former Orient player Alex Revell, then won in a shootout. Now Orient, a year after they had one foot in the Championship, has just been relegated to the fourth division.
However good or bad the match, at the end one side will be overjoyed, the other devastated. And there will be no game next week. There’ll be no game for nearly three months, no shot at redemption. The finals are defined by the stark contrast of emotions – images of one end of the stadium, crammed with singing, bouncing fans, and the other, where the beaten are filing out in silence, or sitting and staring blankly as they try to process the horror of what just happened.
They are sadistic events; psychological torture for everyone involved. We watch for the stakes and the stress, not because we expect high quality. It’s why, when I lived in England, I went to them every year, whether as a fan, reporter or a neutral. No other matches reinforced my belief in soccer’s importance as the playoff finals, because I saw their power etched in the faces of fans and players alike.
At heart, there are only two reasons to watch soccer, and only two reasons why it’s the world’s favorite sport: because it’s beautiful, and because it matters. Lacking aesthetic appeal because of the crippling tension and the limited ability of the teams, the playoff final delivers very little of the first quality, yet it has more of the second than any other match. Forget the money and it’s still the richest game in the world.