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Defending Champions

Posted on 9th October 2009. 3 Comments

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Alex Dibble believes every sports tournament should have defending champions…

519px-Luton_Town_FC-n_logo.svg

“…the winners of a competition deserve the opportunity to defend their title…”

Luton Town began this football season as reigning champions of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Yet, by virtue of their relegation from the Football League, they will not be allowed to defend their title, as the competition is restricted to clubs in Leagues One and Two. Without its previous victors however, the Johnstone’s Paint trophy will be stripped of its value in 2009/10. In 2005 Liverpool lifted the Champions League in Istanbul. By the time they defeated Milan though, they had finished behind Everton in the Premiership: 5th place, and outside the champions league. Despite this, Uefa awarded the Merseysiders special dispensation, and a place in the early qualification rounds. The motivating factor was a universal sporting truism: the winners of a competition deserve the opportunity to defend their title. And surely this was the correct decision: imagine a European Cup this season in which Barcelona were not competing and you have the reason: a champion must be dethroned for a title to possess merit. For an example of this we need look no further than the 2008 Wimbledon Men’s Singles final. As Rafael Nadal held aloft the golden trophy Roger Federer stood in the background with a silver plate – the champion had been defeated. Consider though that the Swiss had been injured and unable to compete. Part of the Spaniard’s prize would have been missing – a doubt would have remained: had Federer played, would Nadal still have been victorious? Similarly, let us entertain for a moment that Ronnie O’Sullivan had quit the game of snooker (a course of action he admits has often crossed his mind) following the 2008 World Championship. Fast forward 12 months and John Higgins has just won his 3rd World Title. You can almost hear the questions in the post-match press conference – “John, massive congratulations on the victory. Out of interest, do you think having Ronnie at the Crucible this year would have changed anything?” The question isn’t worthy of a player of the quality of the Scotsman, and as it happened, The Rocket was beaten by Ryan Day earlier in the tournament, and the question never needed to be asked.

“Champions who retire on top of the world do so to protect their own legacy…”

In scenarios such as we have just imagined, the value of the reigning champion defending their title has been obvious, and it is clear that without them, the trophy is void of value. Let us return to SW19, and July this year. Whenmonty Andy Roddick mis-hit a forehand and Federer clinched victory on the grass for a sixth time, it was the culmination of one of Tennis’ greatest ever finals. And yet, in the cool breeze of the summer evening a few dared to wonder: but for a troublesome knee, would Nadal have changed the outcome? For this reason motor racing fans could be content when Michael Schumacher hung up his helmet at the end of 2006. There had been rumours that the great German would retire after his seventh title in 2004. By 2006 however, the winner of a record 91 Grand Prix had been beaten by Fernando Alonso, and so a season without Schumacher in 2007 was not a season in which the World Championship was meaningless, because the reigning World Champion was Spanish, and was still racing. As sporting careers come to an end and previous champions are defeated there is a reflection of the circle of life: the decline of the old and the emergence of the new. Indeed, new life would not possess the immense value that it does if the aged did not decay. To put it more crudely, death is necessary for birth to find meaning and significance. And so it is with Sport. Champions who retire on top of the world do so to protect their own legacy from falling into a regrettable ‘clinging on’ to waning powers. But in doing so they rob their own game of a meaningful short term future. And so when the decision is not with the winners of a competition as to whether they shall defend their crown, it must be ensured by governing bodies that they do so at all costs. So it is entirely appropriate that FIFA have traditionally given the World Cup holders automatic entry into the subsequent tournament, and it was right for UEFA to award Liverpool the chance to defend their Champions League title in 2006. Should the FA follow suit and grant Luton Town a place in the Johnstone’s Paint trophy this season? I strongly believe so. If the competition is to carry significance, it will need its current champions.

Alex Dibble

3 Comments »

  • Phil D said:

    Like what you’re saying here, I too felt that Federer can’t have been so happy with regaining his title against Roddick. I can imagine that the FA thought that the Johnson’s Paint Trophy wasn’t important enough to kick up such a fuss over but having supported Bristol City to Wembley when they won the then LDV Vans Trophy it really is a big deal to the fans, even if it is a small club. The Luton fans will be disappointed this never happened. But how much of this could be that strange British trait we have of willing on the underdog, sometimes to the point of revelling in the site of a falling champion?

  • delToro87 said:

    Some valid points here, but we’re not talking about the World Cup or the Champions’ League, tournaments that are for the elite teams to compete in, this is a tournament for, and only for, the teams in Leagues One and Two. Consider that the losing finalists, Scunthorpe United, were promoted at the end of last season. Had they won would you be saying the same thing? I doubt it. And when you think about it, shouldnt your argument extend to lower leagues? Should Wolves not be prevented from playing in the Premier League this season in order to defend their Championship title? Should Leicester be held back so they can win back to back League One titles? Of course not, this just seems ridiculous.

    As I highlighted earlier, the defending champions competing idea only works for top level competitions, for tournaments like the Johnstone’s Paint trophy, its not a big deal!

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