Preview: Most valuable game in soccer
It's the most valuable game in world soccer. No, it is not the Champions League. Nor is it World Cup. It's not the Copa America, the Gold Cup, or a cup match at all.
The richest game in the sport is the Championship play-off final (live on FOX Soccer, Monday at 10 a.m. ET), worth a staggering $150 million to the winning team. Welsh side Swansea will face off against Reading at Wembley as both aim to become the final contender in next season’s Premier League. This one-off is in essence the golden ticket of sport.
This match commemorates the 25th anniversary of what once was a daring (and derided) idea: a playoff, modeled on those used in American sport. The brainchild of Martin Lange, a special shareholder of tiny Brentford FC, playoff were a way to bring much-needed money into the lower divisions at a time when revenues were plummeting.
At the time, the idea was passed easily by the Football League but came under intense criticism from the media, who saw it as Americanism creeping into their game. But the playoffs proved to be a stroke of genius: they gave lower leagues a series of big-ticket fixtures and made races for third through sixth meaningful.
Since, an estimated eight million fans have attended the playoff matches, providing a lifeline for lower division clubs under constant financial pressure.
This year, the game at Wembley has something extra to boot: the pride of Wales is on the line, with Swansea hoping to become the first team from that country to enter the Premiership. Reading hopes to play spoiler and return to the Premiership after a three-season absence.
There’s also a bit of personal animosity in this game: Swans manager Brendan Rodgers was sacked by Reading. His replacement, Brian McDermott, remains in charge on the Royals' touchline.
Beyond the money, the game is potentially prideful for the "nation" of Wales, who have never had a team in the modern Premier League. For Swansea, even a taste of the top-flight has been 28 long years in coming. They were last in the top tier of the old First Division in 1983, and in the years since, were forced to survive both bankruptcy and a disastrous fall to the fourth division.
Under manager Brendan Rodgers - whom the club signed on an unusual "rolling" contract - the Swans have become a fast, crisp-passing side that are often called the "poor man's Arsenal." They got here by whipping Nottingham Forest 3-1 in the return leg of their semifinals after gritting out a scoreless draw with just 10 men when Neil Taylor was sent off in the first minute at Nottingham.
In an intriguing twist, Rodgers will be facing a team that unceremoniously sacked him two seasons ago. He led Reading only six months, a tenure that left the Royals just a point outside of the Championship drop zone. Reading actually had never even been in the top-tier of English football until 2006, and their two-year stay in the Premiership is the high point in a history that is devoid of major silverware.
Reading got here by shocking Cardiff in Wales in the second leg, with clinical finishing by Irishman Shane Long leading the club to a 3-0 win. Long was man of the match, and with the fitness of winger Jimmy Kebe still in doubt for the final, he'll be called upon by the Royals to lead the charge against a Swans side that can hold the ball and move it at pace.
In the regular season, Swansea beat Reading both home and away in tight 1-0 matches that will give manager Brian McDermott some hope. Indeed, against Cardiff, Reading frequently looked the poorer side, but their devastating counterattacking acumen earned them a justified win. Hal-Robson Kanu will also be available for Reading (e had to be removed in Cardiff after a groin strain).
The Swans will rely heavily on loanee Fabio Borini, a 20-year old Italian striker on Chelsea’s books, and Glasgwegian Stephen Dobbie, who scored the winner in the semifinals. In a twist, Dobbie was actually on the field in last year’s play-off final, a loanee to Blackpool, when they beat Cardiff 3-2 to go up. He must be hoping that history can repeat itself.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.