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Europeo of the week: Hector Herrera

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Give me goals!

The worst day in any given year is known around the house as CTS - Cold Turkey Saturday. Normally it's the first Saturday after the season has ended with the German FA Cup final. This year, CTS came a week later due to the Euro qualifiers. But it has finally arrived, and I'm kind of mooching around the house trying to find books I haven't yet read.

At long last I settled on 'Moneyball' by Michael Lewis. It's about baseball. Perhaps I'm hit less hard by the always, always abrupt onset of the off-season than many of my friends or colleagues because I'm also interested in a variety of other sports and will thus find something to follow. Still, it's not the same.

I mean, trying to project when (or if) the Pirates will ever have a .500 season again can keep a man occupied for longer than you might think. But it's an acquired taste (or quirk), not an innate one. So let's do some numbers crunching in the field we love and know best, football.

If you are new to these premises let me tell you that the start of the off-season is the time of year when regular readers expect me to do some maths that will prove the German Bundesliga is where it's at. This is not known as wishful thinking, it's called statistics.

Ever since I've been writing these columns, which is since 2002, I use the end of a season to compare the big European leagues - the English, the Italian, the Spanish, the French and the German - in terms of goals scored per game. This is always great fun, and if you want to win a few pints down the pub (or Buds down the bar, depending on where you're from), you should follow my example.

That's because if you ask people how they think these five leagues should be ranked in terms of the goals they offer, hardly anyone gets it right. Most people suppose the Italians are the most goal-shy, but that's no longer true. In the past twelve years, Serie A managed to outscore the English Premier League eight times. (And in another year there was a tie between the two leagues). The stats for the season just past read: England - 2.45 goals per game, Italy - 2.55 goals per game.

It also seldom fails to surprise people that the one league to avoid like the plague if you don't mind celebrating the odd goal is Ligue 1.

The French are not just sometimes dead last but have by and large made the cellar their permanent home. In 2005 and 2006 they even came perilously close to falling below the mythical two-goals frontier, so the 2.25 goals per game they racked up in 2006-07 has to be called pretty good by French standards (though still abysmal by anyone else's).

Finally, and if you're a newcomer you will have guessed by now where this is leading, I'm fairly sure you could win a pint or a pitcher on the strength of the Bundesliga. Not many people will suspect that this is the league which has now won this particular competition for the 17th season in a row. Yes, 17 in a row.

I know there are still two rounds of games to come in Spain, but the Primera División has given us a mere 873 goals after 36 rounds of matches, which translates into 2.425 goals per game. To equal Germany's 2006-07 figure of 2.74, the Spanish and Basque and Catalan teams need to score 167 goals on the final two weekends of their campaign. Of course they won't.

I mention this primarily because it will give you an idea about the differences we're looking at here. France's 2.25 or England's 2.45 may seem, on paper, close enough to Germany's 2.74. In reality, we're talking about quite a lot of times the ball hit the back of the net.

If a French football fan has watched all of his or her team's games, he or she has statistically seen 85 goals. If an English football fan has watched all of his team's games, he has statistically seen 93 goals. If a Bundesliga team were playing the same number of games as their French and English counterparts (there are 18 teams in the Bundesliga), a German fan would have seen 104 goals.

At this point, there are always two things I need to point out. The first is that I don't have a handy explanation for why there are traditionally more goals in the Bundesliga than in England or Spain. The second is that I'm not talking about the quality of a league, perhaps not even about its entertainment value. (Though I'd be willing to subscribe to the theory that goals make up a good part of what is entertaining about football.)

For instance, the one league among the better-known ones in Europe which habitually, though not always, beats even the German Bundesliga is the Dutch Eredivisie. Heck, these guys even get above the three-goals mark every once in while, which is marvellous. But of course I wouldn't claim that Holland's top flight is the best league in Europe. Or the most entertaining.

Also, Germany have now been on top, like I said, for seventeen seasons running. That means the Bundesliga scored the most goals when the national team was World Champion or when, in a single season, two of our clubs won two of the three European Cup competitions. But it also means the Bundesliga scored the most goals when the national team was embarrassingly bad at the European Championships or when none of our clubs even made the quarter-finals in Europe.

So it seems to be more about culture or style than about quality or standard. The longer I'm compiling these end-of-season stats and sharing them with you, the more obvious it seems to become that my English friends who claim the Bundesliga is dour and defensive are not paying attention to hard facts. It also gives me a good reason to always look forward to the next season. You can't expect much more from a Cold Turkey Saturday.


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