Soccer

Column: Relegation is football's teacher of hope

  • From left, Stuttgart's Timo Baumgartl, Christian Gentner and Daniel Schwaab walk on the pitch during the German Bundesliga soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and VfB Stuttgart in Wolfsburg, Germany, Saturday, May 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

    From left, Stuttgart's Timo Baumgartl, Christian Gentner and Daniel Schwaab walk on the pitch during the German Bundesliga soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and VfB Stuttgart in Wolfsburg, Germany, Saturday, May 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)  (The Associated Press)

  • Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez during the Barclays Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle. during the English Premier League soccer match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur at St James' Park stadium in Newcastle, England. Sunday May 15, 2016. (Owen Humphreys/PA via AP) UNITED KINGDOM OUT - NO SALES - NO ARCHIVE

    Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez during the Barclays Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle. during the English Premier League soccer match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur at St James' Park stadium in Newcastle, England. Sunday May 15, 2016. (Owen Humphreys/PA via AP) UNITED KINGDOM OUT - NO SALES - NO ARCHIVE  (The Associated Press)

  • From left, Stuttgart's Timo Baumgartl, Christian Gentner and Daniel Schwaab walk on the pitch during the German Bundesliga soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and VfB Stuttgart in Wolfsburg, Germany, Saturday, May 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

    From left, Stuttgart's Timo Baumgartl, Christian Gentner and Daniel Schwaab walk on the pitch during the German Bundesliga soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and VfB Stuttgart in Wolfsburg, Germany, Saturday, May 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)  (The Associated Press)

Those who have experienced relegation, football's annual ritual culling of the weak, say the pain of being sent to the next league down is almost as intense as the grief of death.

Players weep together in their changing rooms. Those that can, flee in the offseason to other teams. Heads roll. Jobs are lost. Salaries are slashed. When Leicester City, the team that thrilled this season by winning the Premier League, suffered the indignity of dropping to the third tier of English football for the first time in its 124-year history in 2008, angry supporters hurled beer mugs at the garden gate of manager Ian Holloway, who was then let go by the club.

"Absolutely horrendous," Holloway now recalls, speaking in an Associated Press interview. "For me it was worse than any supporter because I cared that much and I was trying to build a career."

Yet here is the curious thing: Holloway and others in the industry say they wouldn't have it any other way. You get a resounding "no," every time, when you ask if football should offer the same safety net as pro sports in the United States, where leagues don't relegate teams no matter how atrocious they are.

After one of the worst seasons in NBA history, losing 72 games, winning just 10, the Philadelphia 76ers will still be in basketball's showcase league next season. The Detroit Lions lost all 16 of their games in 2008, making them the worst team in NFL history, but weren't banished as Leicester was — a lower-league spell in the wilderness that made this season's Premier League triumph only sweeter and more remarkable.

Not having the threat of relegation hanging over their heads, keeping them on their toes, is unthinkable, undesirable even, for Europeans.

"That is like flat-lining," Holloway said. "It wouldn't float my boat at all. I would not have my jiggle, as I call it, when I wake up in the morning."

The reason for that, in a word, is hope.

Stuttgart, the Bundesliga champion just nine years ago, tumbled out of Germany's top league this weekend with a 3-1 loss in its final game, at Wolfsburg. In Italy, Carpi dropped back into Serie B, having won just nine of 38 games in its first season of Serie A. In England, Newcastle, Norwich and Aston Villa will trudge next season to Brentford, Reading, Huddersfield and other towns in the second-tier Championship having bid sorry farewells to the glamour of the Premier League.

All the while, they and every other team that rode downward snakes in dozens of leagues and divisions across Europe will all be hoping for the same thing: to climb ladders back up again.

The financial cost of relegation can be immense. SC Freiburg's budget shrank by at least 15 million euros ($17 million) after its relegation from the Bundesliga last season, forcing it to sell players and cut salaries, club president Fritz Keller said in an AP interview. Closed American leagues, in contrast, offer teams greater financial stability.

Keller equated the "horrible" feeling to relegation to the death of a family member or friend. The upside: because of the pain, the pleasure was doubly intense when Freiburg earned promotion back into the Bundesliga this season.

"I feel great!" Keller bubbled.

Holloway says his whole outlook on life, even his approach to the disability of his three daughters who are deaf, was in part shaped by the experience of being relegated, both as a player and manager.

"Without having bad things, you don't know how good things are," he said. "You don't really understand what joy is until you've had some despair."

Had he not gone down with Leicester, Holloway believes he wouldn't have subsequently dissected his coaching methods and approach to football, which then helped him bounce back at Blackpool.

"Would I have done that autopsy on myself, would I have improved at all as a person? I don't think so," he said. "I don't mind being last sometimes because it's not about where you are now it's about where you are going to be."

Few fans have suffered quite like Blackpool's of late. When Holloway guided the modest club into the Premier League in 2010, the seaside town in northwest England started reaping the benefits of coach-loads of supporters coming with their big-name teams from Manchester, Liverpool and so on. The club's Bloomfield Road stadium was packed.

Then came the fall: to the second tier in 2011; the third tier in 2015 and, this year, to the fourth tier. That is where the club will play next season, with Kevin Boroduwicz, a social worker who is also secretary of the Blackpool Supporters Trust, sitting in the thinned-out crowd, "with a little hope in the back of my mind somewhere that maybe we'll make it back to the big time."

"That journey will be an incredible one to be on," he said in an interview.

And one he wouldn't swap for football without ups and downs, because "one of the joys of life is to experience pain and grief. We have the capacity for it."

"Life is given its piquancy by death. If we didn't die, would we make so much of what we have?" he said. "The same thing is true of football: anything, literally anything, can happen with an open league system."

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester