FOX Soccer Exclusive
Biggest prize up for grabs at Wembley
If you think the Champions League final was the biggest game in soccer – think again. A whopping $200 million is on the line Monday evening in a game featuring two second-division clubs from London.
Watford and Crystal Palace battle for a slot in next year’s Premier League in the Championship Playoffs at Wembley Monday. The game has long been called the richest in sport because of the trappings of the Premier League – but nothing like what is on the line in this match.
Last season, promotion was worth an estimated $90 million, hardly chump change. But an improved Premier League TV rights deal, combined with an increase in gate revenues and sponsorships, has made this single game the richest one-off ever in the sport. Adding to the tension is that the loser of the match will take home just $4 million – or in other words, will take a loss of $196 million.
Yet promotion can be ruinous. Of the 21 Championship playoff winners since the start of the Premier League (not counting this year’s crop) 14 of those teams lasted two seasons or fewer before slipping into oblivion. Several of them have flirted with insolvency since, ripped apart by the pressures of quickly building a strong squad at great expense.
Palace manager Ian Holloway spoke of the pressure surrounding his team on Thursday from Palace’s training ground at Beckenham. He said: "Winning would mean total joy – but then total panic about what we would need to do to catch all the other teams."
Holloway knows: in 2010, his newly-promoted Blackpool side became the toast of the Premier League season for their almost reckless style of play. They played actual soccer, but were clearly outmanned and out of their depth. Blackpool finished 19th and went straight down.
Palace have already flirted with oblivion: they were bankrupt three years ago, and it was not until a wealthy group of local fans purchased the club that the team was able to get back on stable footing. Yet finances loom large: the club has already sold its best player, striker Wilfried Zaha, to Manchester United for $24 million and will lose key man Glenn Murray for almost all of next season after he tore ligaments during their playoff match against Brighton. Holloway has been promised a budget of $65 million if he gets the team up, but his player pool is likely to be slim.
Watford, coached by Chelsea great Gianfranco Zola, enter as the favorites. They nearly secured automatic promotion only to lose to Leeds United on the final day of the season. The Hornets also have a swirl of controversy about them: owner Giampolo Pozzo also owns Serie A side Udinese and La Liga side Granada and loaned a combined 11 players from those teams to Watford. The move drew withering criticism from other league teams, but it worked, and if the club is able to secure promotion, Zola hopes to retain the core of his team.
Zola has never been in a play-off final, but expects his team to enjoy the match. Speaking to the media from Spain, where his Watford side went for training this week, Zola also tried to spin his team as the underdogs.
"No one expected us to be here," said Zola, "I would say we are more the underdogs, and I’m expecting Palace to be the more difficult team to beat."
In the run-up to the final, both teams have been in the newspapers for dubious reasons.
Watford are the subject of a transfer ban due to the former ownership’s financial irregularities and it is uncertain if the Premier League will lift that. If it stands, the Hornets will not be able to sign players until August 31, but the thought is the top-flight will waive it on the grounds that they don’t want an under-strength team in the league. This has drawn furious protests from other Football League teams and fan groups, who point to a perceived double standard.
Palace were the subject of a nasty incident before their game at Brighton that left both clubs fuming. Police are investigating the invasion of Palace's dressing room which was smeared with excrement before kickoff. Palace subsequently beat Brighton thanks to two goals from Zaha, and Holloway confronted Brighton’s manager Gus Poyet post-match. (Poyet and two members of his staff were subsequently suspended by the club after Poyet sent a blistering email calling for members of the club’s security staff to be fired.)
Both dressing rooms are sure to be locked up tight pre-game at Wembley.
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