As we enter the coldest months of the year, European football is just beginning to heat up. Reaching the midpoint of the season in domestic leagues, fans are getting a clearer picture of who the title contenders are and who will be facing relegation; moreover, there’s now ample evidence to discuss which teams can kick it into high gear and which teams will begin to fade. With the last group matches being played last month in the Champions League and Europa League, it’s now time to begin discussing the knockout phase. Additionally, with the announcement of a third-tier tournament – given the working title of Europa League 2 – the under-represented-yet-still-football-mad fans of lower ranked teams may have more reason to follow and support their favourite teams.
Before getting too ahead of ourselves thinking about what BATE Borisov can do to stand up to Arsenal or who will be left standing after the clash of the titans – Liverpool and Bayern Munich – let’s have a look at the organising word that makes all of this possible. After all, without this word’s structure and planning, you’d have a bunch of teams randomly playing anyone, anywhere, and anytime they wanted. So, what’s in a league?
Entering English from the Middle French ligue, our word originates from the Latin verb ligare, meaning ‘to tie or bind together’. In an abstract sense, tying or binding things together for a common purpose or reason is essentially what a league does.
Though we have come to almost universally associate the term with competitive team-based sports, the original use is related to something a little more dire. Originally used to denote a military, political, or commercial pact between mutual parties for protection and assistance against a common enemy, the term was first used by Patrick Fraser Tytler in The History of Scotland (1864), where he references a passage from 1452 which states: “I..bind and oblige myself, that I shall make no bond, no league..which shall be contrary to his highness.”
As the word gradually trickled down to more widespread usage, it began to be applied to more civil and domestic matters, such as individuals or groups of people joining together for a common cause. The first usage in this sense comes from none other than Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, writing: “There were no persons in that assembly capable of sustaining in debate the existing Corn Law against Cobden and the League.” in correspondence with John Wilson Croker from The Croker Papers (1884).
In sporting terms though, particularly football, the term can first be found in the 1889 edition of Whitaker’s Almanack, which notes that: “A Football League has been formed, including twelve of the leading North and Midland clubs… These clubs play a sort of American tournament for the League Championship.” Properly though, ensuring quality and standardisation, amateur footballer Gilbert Oswald Smith, writing on the beginning of the Football Association, in Montague Shearman’s comprehensive 1899 work Football, recounts: “It was at this stage Mr. MacGregor..brought forward his idea of a football union between the leading clubs of the day… The following twelve clubs were invited to form a union between themselves… Thus was the League formed.” A mere 2 years later, in the 4 January 1901 edition of The Dundee Advertiser was the first mention of a league championship: “That [sc. Guiseley] Club winning the League championship.”
Regardless of who you’re cheering for – even if your team didn’t make it this year – remember that virtually every aspect of what makes the beautiful game so thrilling to watch on every level, from rules and substitutions to promotion/relegation to planning and tournaments, is all the product of the league.