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Shi: Playing for fourth place gets you fourth place

I don’t find myself agreeing with Piers Morgan often, but when I do, the idea terrifies me.

The CNN talk show host and Arsenal soccer fan occasionally spouts irritation on his Twitter account when Arsenal plays. He is often — and correctly — described as a downer and excessively negative, but occasionally he has a point. Every sports fan knows somebody like this.

Morgan’s most recent bit of intelligent commentary occurred after Arsenal defeated Newcastle on Sunday to secure fourth place in the English Premier League, and more importantly, become eligible for the European Champions League and the 30-or-so million euros that come with it.

If you saw the photos of the team celebrating, you might have thought they’d actually won the Champions League. Photoshop in a nice trophy and you might think that it was 2004 all over again.

“No Manchester United team would ever celebrate coming [in fourth],” Morgan tweeted, referring to the newly crowned champions of England. “That’s the difference.”

Why does Arsenal act this way? Since Arsenal’s miraculous undefeated season in 2004, a new breed of billionaire owners has taken England by storm and driven up the prices of superstar players.

In order to stay financially independent, Arsenal has been selling off key contributors at the rate of around two per year. Armed with a talented youth and scouting network, the team always ends up gelling by the end of the season, but the lack of chemistry in the early going dooms its chances of winning trophies.

For this reason, Arsenal has come to consider qualifying for the Champions League a victory, believing it’s the only championship that Arsenal can realistically play for.

Perhaps this is true — there are many financial subtleties to the matter  — but it is certainly a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many elite players that would consider signing with Arsenal have chosen other clubs instead because the opposition supposedly offers them an actual chance to win.

As is, Arsenal will never be able to financially compete with the petrodollar-fueled titans of Europe, who can afford to lose hundreds of millions of euros each year.

But in terms of pure revenue, the club is the fifth-biggest club in Europe. Arsenal is certainly competitive with independent clubs that are sustainably run like Bayern Munich or Manchester United — both of whom won national championships this year.

Money is not perfectly correlated to winning, so Arsenal’s relative lack of money is not an excuse for the team’s lack of winning. Arsenal is certainly in Bayern or United’s league at the bank and it ought to be the same on the field.

In particular, the success of the German clubs — given that Germany has strict laws about its teams operating sustainably — serves to illustrate that a sensibly-run independent team can truly contend, even in Europe. This year’s Champions League final will be an all-German final, between Bayern and Borussia Dortmund. Neither of these teams has a stereotypical Middle Eastern/Russian sugar daddy. Both live within their (considerable) means. Both built expensive new stadiums as Arsenal did and paid off their own debt as Arsenal is doing right now.

Arsenal does not need to sell out to a foreign billionaire in order to win. However, it has to shake the idea that fourth place is acceptable in any way for a self-professed giant of Europe. Manchester United’s American owners do not pump money into the club  — in fact, they do the exact opposite — but United wins anyway because it refuses to accept losing.

The lowered expectations have not been completely lost on Arsenal’s players. After the celebration, starting goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny pointed out, “We celebrated a bit like we had won the championship, which is a bit weird.” But when your championship is fourth place, I suppose you can’t complain.

Resignation to mediocrity is the surest way to achieve it.

Should it be at all surprising that Oregon football began its long climb from the gutter of the then-Pac-10 when it stopped taking cash payments to travel to — and get annihilated by — the likes of titans such as Alabama or Michigan? The program suffered financially for its pride at first, but Oregon is no longer a cupcake game. Today, Oregon is a titan in and of itself.

Closer to home: Due to its academic requirements for athletes, Stanford still experiences many of the recruiting difficulties that it has always had, but Stanford is the finest athletic department in the nation because it refuses to accept failure anywhere or at any time. The football team made its much-ballyhooed turnaround primarily because it stopped making excuses for itself.

There is a lesson here: Playing for fourth place gets you fourth place, and nothing more.

Arsenal is a financial powerhouse; the new sponsorship deals in the works will not only provide relief from its stadium-building debt, but also ensure its place among the highest-earning teams in Europe.

There are no more excuses.

Winston Shi knows first-hand that money spent is no guarantee of success; just ask him about the thousands of dollars spent on writing lessons. To help him get a refund, email Winston at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi is an opinions and sports columnist and senior staff writer for The Stanford Daily, and was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also sits on The Daily's Editorial Board. He is an coterminal BA/MA student in his senior year from Thousand Oaks, California, studying America's history and foreign policy. In his free time, he likes to read, travel and write about himself in the third person. Contact him at wshi94@stanford.edu.