Monday, May 16, 2011

Russian Soccer's Long Season

There are many, many different ways to structure a sport. But  nearly every structure has one thing in common: it determines one winner each year.

This annual cycle of sports seems natural to us. One Super Bowl a year, one Champions League, one Nascar points title, one World Cup skiing circuit.
There are some special events like the Olympics that are held less often, but the basic national leagues nearly all follow a year-long cycle.

Mexico and some Central and South American soccer leagues defy the tradition by holding two championships a year, generally called the Apertura ("opening") and Clausura ("closing"). Two champions every year means there's more silverware to go around.

Now Russia's soccer league is going in the other direction, stretching its season to a year and a half..
The reason for this odd long season is that Russia is shifting its soccer system from one based on a calendar year to the more typical European structure running from Fall to Spring. The 2010 season began in March and ended in November. The 2011 season again began in March, but will continue all the way into Spring 2012. Then the next season will be on the standard European calendar, beginning in Fall 2012.

Stretching the Russian Cup competition for an extra six months is not that difficult; more time will be put between each round. But a new ad hoc system had to be found for the league. There are 16 teams in Russia's top division, and ordinarily they play each other twice each for a 30 game season. That's not nearly enough for this special 50% longer season.

For 2011-12 then, teams will begin with the 30-game double round robin. Then they will be split into two groups: the top eight will play each other twice more in a championship group, while the bottom eight will do the same in a relegation group.  The old format will resume for the 2011-12 season.

You might say this special format is half good. For the eight teams at the top, there will be an exciting 14-game race to the championship, with every game against a good team. But the eight other teams, especially those with enough points that relegation is unlikely, will be in for a long slog against poor teams with little on the line. (Two teams are relegated, with two others sent into relegation playoffs.)
In most sports, even a team off to terrible start one can look forward to a new chance in 12 months' time. For some Russian teams this year, there will be an extra six months of doldrums.

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