More stories

  • in

    The Premier League’s Asterisk Season

    As it concludes an epic title race, soccer’s richest competition is a picture of health on the field. Away from it, the league faces lawsuits, infighting and the threat of government regulation.With five minutes left in his team’s penultimate game of the Premier League season, Manchester City Manager Pep Guardiola found the tension just a little too much. As a rival striker bore down on his team’s goal, Guardiola — crouching on his haunches on the sideline — lost his balance and toppled over onto his back.Lying on the grass and expecting the worst, he missed what may yet prove to be the pivotal moment in the Premier League’s most enthralling title race in a decade.But the striker did not score. His effort was parried by goalkeeper Stefan Ortega, sending Manchester City above its title rival Arsenal in the standings and positioning it, if it can win again on Sunday, to become the first English team to win four consecutive championships.“Ortega saved us,” Guardiola said afterward. “Otherwise, Arsenal is champion.”That the destiny of the championship should have been determined only so late in the season seems fitting for what has, on the surface, been a vintage Premier League campaign.All of that drama, though, comes with a figurative asterisk. This season’s Premier League has been defined as much by turbulence off the field — points deductions, internecine bickering, legal disputes, fraud accusations and the looming threat of government intervention — as it has been by City’s (eventual) smooth sailing through it.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

  • in

    LSU’s Kim Mulkey Courts Controversy in Style

    Inside the coach’s winning fashion playbook.The smog of a Washington Post exposé may have been hanging over Kim Mulkey’s head during the L.S.U. game on Saturday afternoon, but the highest paid coach in women’s collegiate basketball wasn’t going to hide. How could you tell?Well, in part because at the start of the N.C.A.A. tournament, she had given a news conference threatening a lawsuit about the article, thus calling to attention to it. In part because there she was, running up and down the sidelines and screaming her head off. And it part because … goodness, what was she wearing?A gleaming pantsuit covered in a jumble of Op Art sequined squiggles, as if Big Bird had met Liberace and they’d teamed up for “Project Runway.”Kim Mulkey, resplendent in sequins at the L.S.U. Sweet Sixteen game on March 30.Gregory Fisher/USA Today, via ReutersEven in the context of basketball, a sport in which players and coaches understood the power of personal branding through clothes long before almost any other athletes, Ms. Mulkey stands out. More than perhaps anyone else in the league — possibly in all of women’s basketball — she has made her image a talking point, a reflection of her own larger-than-life personality and a tool to draw attention to her sport. She is basketball’s avatar of the Trumpian era, offering a new version of The Mulkey Show at every game and costuming herself for the moment. As her team meets the University of Iowa again in the Elite Eight, brand Mulkey will most likely be raising the stakes once more.It would be wrong to call her clothes “fashion.” They have little to do with trends or silhouette. But love what she wears or hate it, love how she behaves or hate it, her sometimes ridiculous, always eye-catching outfits are, like her winning record, abrasive personality, problematic comments about Covid-19 and reported homophobia, impossible to ignore.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

  • in

    Dawn Staley Is More Than a Basketball Coach for Her Players

    For the veteran women’s coach at the college and Olympic levels, honesty and discipline are central to leadership.This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that coincides with global events in March celebrating the accomplishments of women. This conversation has been edited and condensed.As coach of the University of South Carolina women’s top-ranked basketball team, Dawn Staley is a dynamic leader at a time of surging global popularity in women’s sports. At 53, she is a Hall of Fame point guard who guided the United States to three Olympic gold medals as a player and one as a coach. And in her 16th year at South Carolina, Coach Staley just led the team to its second straight undefeated regular season. Now she seeks her third national collegiate title. A proud Philadelphia native, Coach Staley is an outspoken advocate for gender and racial equity in sports and beyond.Her secret to guiding young people today? Honesty and discipline, lessons she learned from her mother.You make statements with your coaching wardrobe, and a hoodie you recently wore declared, “Everyone watches women’s sports.” What’s different now?I just feel like there’s more access to our game. There’s more demand. I think it’s OK to tell the stories of our game and people in our game. I hope it’s not a fad. I don’t think it is. Because the fabric of our game is strong. It’s bursting at the seams right now on all levels, not just collegiately, but the W.N.B.A., even high school. Younger girls have grown up on the W.N.B.A., and during my time in college, we didn’t have that. We’ll get a big bump when the Olympics roll around.For the first time, there’s going to be the same number of female athletes as male athletes at the Olympics. Are you amazed it took that long?No. I’m not. I think we have been held back, intentionally, and the numbers and the demand today prove that.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

  • in

    Lefty Driesell, Basketball Coach Who Put Maryland on the Map, Dies at 92

    He built Maryland into a national powerhouse and became the first coach to win more than 100 games at each of four major college programs.Lefty Driesell, the Hall of Fame coach who built nationally prominent basketball teams at the University of Maryland in the 1970s, and who at his retirement in 2003 was the nation’s fourth-winningest N.C.A.A. Division I men’s coach, died on Saturday at his home in Virginia Beach. He was 92.His death was announced by the university.Driesell (pronounced drih-ZELL) was the first coach to win more than 100 games at each of four major college programs. Over five decades, his teams won a total of 786 games.He coached at Maryland from 1969 until October 1986, posting a 348-159 overall record in College Park. His Terps reached eight N.C.A.A. postseason tournaments, won the 1972 National Invitation Tournament championship and captured an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in 1984. They finished high in The Associated Press’s national college basketball rankings of the early 1970s.He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.Driesell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 2018.Maddie Meyer/Getty ImagesAcross Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State, Driesell had an overall record of 786-394. He coached James Madison to four consecutive appearances in the N.I.T. and led the team to the N.C.A.A. national tournament in 1994.He closed out his coaching career at Georgia State, where he was head coach from 1997 to 2003. He led the team to a huge upset of Wisconsin in the opening round of the 2001 N.C.A.A. tournament.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

  • in

    My Rick Pitino Story

    A basketball coach’s persistence has a newly retired journalist reminiscing about newsgathering in a different era.Times Insider explains who we are and what we do and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.Of all the gym joints in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine.That’s how I felt last spring, when I learned that Rick Pitino had become the head basketball coach at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., which happens to be my alma mater. The mere thought of Mr. Pitino, 70 years old and still strolling the sidelines as I watch basketball at home, newly retired, took me back to the most bizarre moment of my 38-year career at The New York Times.I’m referring to the first time Mr. Pitino and I crossed paths, in May of 1989, under the most unusual circumstances: at the beginning of a new day (2:30 a.m.) and the end of a long, winding driveway. A colleague and I could see Mr. Pitino through a large bay window. Clad in a bright red sweater, he was chatting on the phone, sitting on a sofa in what appeared to be his living room. The sound of car doors slamming behind us was enough to make Mr. Pitino whip his head around and rush out his front door to confront us.“Who the hell are you? What the hell are you doing here?” I remember him asking.To be honest, we were sort of wondering the same thing ourselves. Several hours earlier, I had just finished a long clerical shift in the Sports department at The Times when Bill Brink, the weekend editor, summoned me and a colleague to his desk.It was late, and Bill told us he had just been on the phone with Sam Goldaper, our venerable basketball writer, who told him that Mr. Pitino, then the head coach of the New York Knicks, was about to resign and return to his first love, college basketball. It was rumored that Mr. Pitino had accepted a job offer from the fabled University of Kentucky, where he had always felt that the blue grass was greener.Sam didn’t have Mr. Pitino’s phone number, but had given the Sports desk the address of Mr. Pitino’s home in Mount Kisco, N.Y., in the upper reaches of the Westchester County suburbs. Neither of us had a vehicle, so Bill wrote out a transportation slip, which allowed us to use one of the cars The Times then kept for reporters in the parking lot next door.Before we left, Bill told us to try and get a quote from Mr. Pitino. Even if he wasn’t home, the reader would still know that The Times had tried to contact him.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

  • in

    Mário Zagallo, Longtime Fixture of Brazilian Soccer, Dies at 92

    The first person to win the World Cup as a player and a coach, he was a link to decades of Brazil’s success and failure on the sport’s biggest stage. Mário Zagallo, who as both a player and coach helped lead Brazil to four World Cup soccer championships, becoming a national hero and one of only three people to lift the tournament’s trophy in both roles, died on Friday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 92.His death was confirmed by his family on his social media channels. Barra D’Or Hospital in Rio de Janeiro, where he had been a patient several times in recent months, said the cause was multiple organ failure.An attack-minded wing as a player and a tactically minded coach known as “the Professor,” Zagallo was part of the Brazil teams that won consecutive World Cup championships in 1958 and 1962 and the head coach of Brazil’s 1970 champions.His 1970 triumph made Zagallo the first person to win the World Cup as both a player and a coach, a feat that has since been matched only by Franz Beckenbauer of Germany and Didier Deschamps of France. But it may have been that team’s style of play as much as its success that cemented a recurring role for Zagallo in Brazilian soccer history.Led by stars like his former teammate Pelé, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto, Brazil’s 1970 squad is widely considered one of the best soccer teams ever assembled. It was forged in crisis after his popular predecessor fell out with the country’s military government: Zagallo was appointed as head coach less than two months before the tournament’s opening game. Zagallo found himself having to act as the coach of many players who had only recently been his teammates.“It was easy to command, because the players saw and felt that I had the strength of personality to make the changes that I thought were necessary,” Zagallo recalled in a 2011 interview with The Blizzard, a quarterly soccer magazine. “I imposed myself — and this kind of leadership in front of the group is fundamental, even if you’ve participated in this group before as a player.”The team adjusted to Zagallo’s tactical alterations and then danced and shimmied its way into the hearts and minds of fans not only in Brazil but around the globe.Zagallo, second from left, shooting at England’s goal during a World Cup quarterfinals match in Chile in 1962. Brazil won the championship that year.Associated PressUnder Zagallo’s direction, in the first World Cup telecast around the world in color, Brazil’s team, clad in its famed canary-yellow jerseys, refined soccer to high art in its six straight victories in Mexico. Sweeping through the tournament with a highlight reel of memorable goals, the team showcased the fluid, elegant attacking style known as “o jogo bonito” (“the beautiful game”), which became Brazil’s calling card around the world.Returning as head coach, Zagallo led Brazil to a fourth-place finish in 1974. Two decades later, back on the national team’s bench as an assistant to Carlos Alberto Parreira, he helped Brazil collect its fourth championship with a victory over Italy in the 1994 final in Pasadena, Calif.Parreira’s team, a grinding and more results-oriented squad, was less beloved than previous editions of the Seleção, as Brazil’s national team is known. But it was celebrated for delivering the prize the country covets above all others.Four years after that, with Zagallo back in the top job and stars like Ronaldo leading yet another potent attack, Brazil returned to the World Cup final. But its run had come amid criticism from a nation of amateur coaches, who feared that, despite his ties to Brazil’s most mythical teams, Zagallo had surrendered to his pragmatic side.He did little to calm purists when he declared that a victorious end justified any means. “I would rather win playing ugly football than lose playing attractive football,” he said. Brazil, alas, did not: A heavy favorite, it was stunned by host France in the final.In 2002, when the team traveled to South Korea and Japan to pick up the record fifth title that had eluded it in France, Zagallo was serving as a special adviser to the coaching staff of Luiz Felipe Scolari.Zagallo, right, with his former teammate Pelé after his appointment as Brazil’s coach in 1970. They were on Brazil’s World Cup championship teams in 1958 and 1962.Associated PressThat was his last personal connection with a tournament, and a title, that by that point had defined his life for more than a half century.A pivotal moment of his life occurred in 1950, when, as a teenage soldier providing security, Zagallo had watched as Brazil was stunned by Uruguay in the final before a crowd of about 200,000 at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. That defeat, in Brazil’s first trip to the final, was a bitter blow to the nation, and he was among the tens of millions of Brazilians who shed tears of disappointment. “That day has never left my mind,” Zagallo told the BBC in 2013. He went even further speaking to the journalist Andrés Cantor for the book “Goooal: A Celebration Of Soccer” (1996). “From that moment on,” Zagallo recalled about the 1950 World Cup, “I have only soccer memories.”Eight years later, as a player on the national team, he helped rewrite the ending. In the final in Sweden alongside a teenage Pelé, Zagallo scored a goal in a 5-2 victory that delivered Brazil’s first world title. Four years later, he was on the team again when Brazil repeated the feat in Chile.Mário Jorge Lobo Zagallo was born on Aug. 9, 1931, in Atalaia, a city in the eastern Brazilian state of Alagoas. His father, Haroldo Cardoso Zagallo, was a textile executive. His mother, Maria Antonieta Lobo Zagallo, was part of a family that owned a fabric factory. Mário Zagallo said his father had hoped he would become an accountant and work in the family business. Instead, he devoted his life to soccer, spending his professional playing career with two Rio clubs, making his debut with Flamengo in 1951 and retiring from Botafogo in 1965.He married Alcina de Castro, a teacher, in 1955. They had four children: Maria Emilia, Paulo Jorge, Maria Cristina and Mario Cesar. Zagallo’s wife died in 2012. His survivors include his children and several grandchildren.Since the death of Pelé in 2022, Zagallo had been the last surviving member of the first Brazil squad to win the World Cup. He would go on to burnish his legacy in five decades as a coach, assistant and adviser to generations of Brazilian teams.He would eventually lead more than a half-dozen clubs in his native Brazil, as well as the national teams of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But he was never far from his country, serving four distinct tenures as Brazil’s head coach. And even when he did not hold the post, he remained a fixture, called upon regularly — in success and failure and particularly in times of trouble — as a sage and distinguished link to its greatest teams, and its greatest triumphs.Fans pay tribute to Zagallo in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.Lucas Figueiredo/Getty ImagesAlex Traub and Tariq Panja contributed reporting. More

  • in

    Spanish Soccer Star Testifies About Unwanted Kiss

    Jennifer Hermoso, who was kissed on the mouth by Spain’s former soccer boss, Luis Rubiales, gave evidence at a hearing to determine whether Mr. Rubiales will be charged.Jennifer Hermoso, the Spanish soccer star who received an unsolicited kiss on the mouth after her team won the World Cup, gave evidence in Spain’s National Court Tuesday morning against Luis Rubiales, the former Spanish former soccer boss who is being investigated over allegations of sexual assault and coercion in connection with the episode.Ms. Hermoso’s testimony concludes the high-profile criminal inquiry of Mr. Rubiales, which was opened days after the World Cup, which took place in Sydney, Australia, in August.A judge, Francisco de Jorge, must now decide whether to charge Mr. Rubiales or to close the case. If Judge de Jorge concludes there is evidence of wrongdoing, Mr. Rubiales will face trial on a sexual assault charge — punishable with between one and four years in prison. Mr. Rubiales and three executives at the soccer federation, including the former coach, Jorge Vilda, may also face charges of coercion after they were accused of exerting pressure on Ms. Hermoso to show support for Mr. Rubiales.Mr. Rubiales has denied the charges, saying that it was nothing more than a “peck.”On Tuesday morning, Ms. Hermoso was the last in a string of Spanish sporting celebrities to give evidence. The list of witnesses summoned by Judge de Jorge reads like the “Who’s Who” of Spanish soccer, with stars such as Alexia Putellas, the current Best FIFA Women’s Player; Misa Rodríguez, the goalkeeper for Real Madrid; and Irene Paredes, Barcelona’s star defender. Several football association executives have also given their versions of events, as have Mr. Vilda, Ms. Hermoso’s brother and Mr. Rubiales himself.Ms. Hermoso spoke to the press outside Spain’s National Court after her appearance. “All is in the hands of justice,” she said, seemingly at ease.What exactly she or the other witnesses disclosed to Judge de Jorge has not been made public officially as the hearings have been held behind closed doors. But shortly after Ms. Hermoso left court this morning, the Spanish prosecutor’s office issued a statement confirming that she had testified that “the kiss was unexpected and at no point consented.”We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber?  More

  • in

    Megan Rapinoe, Emma Hayes and a Women’s Soccer Crossroads

    Rapinoe, who helped define U.S. soccer for a decade, is retiring after this week’s N.W.S.L. final. Hayes, the Chelsea coach, will try to put her stamp on it next.Emma Hayes first met Megan Rapinoe before she was Megan Rapinoe. Or, rather, just as she was becoming Megan Rapinoe. She was not yet a winner of two World Cups, not yet an Olympic champion, not yet captain of her country, not yet a powerful and urgent voice away from the field. Rapinoe was not even a professional soccer player back then, not quite.Hayes’s job was to change that. In 2008, she had been appointed head coach and director of soccer operations of the Chicago Red Stars, one of the inaugural franchises in the start-up league Women’s Professional Soccer. Hayes had a blank slate to fill, a team to construct from scratch. Rapinoe was her first call.That, perhaps, is the best measure of how brightly Rapinoe’s talent shone. When coach and player first met, Rapinoe was just a 23-year-old straight out of the University of Portland, but the power dynamic already lay in her favor. She did not need to convince Hayes. Instead, Hayes had to sell her on the team, on the project, on the city.And so she showed Rapinoe, born and raised in California, around Chicago, hoping to persuade her that the move to the banks of Lake Michigan would suit her. It worked. The Red Stars drafted Rapinoe second overall ahead of the league’s first season.The W.P.S. did not last. It survived for just three seasons. By the time it closed down, Hayes had long since departed the Red Stars. Rapinoe, though, was just getting started.Rapinoe will be looking to add a first N.W.S.L. title to her packed trophy case.Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesAs much as Hayes was convinced of Rapinoe’s promise, even she would not pretend to have known just how far she would go. This weekend, Rapinoe — 38 now — will finally call time on her career. Her plan is for her exit to be framed by ticker-tape and fireworks: with one last triumph, helping OL Reign to claim victory against Gotham F.C. in the N.W.S.L final, a suitably glorious coda to a glittering career.It is no exaggeration to say that, for more than a decade, Rapinoe has been the defining player in women’s soccer. It is not simply that she was a key part in the United States’ victory in the 2015 World Cup, and the driving force behind its repeat triumph four years later. It is that her activism, her unwillingness to shut up and play, turned the U.S. women’s team into something that transcended sports. As a consequence, she helped set the tone for women’s soccer as a whole.It is fitting that Rapinoe’s curtain call should come just as Hayes, the woman who did so much to launch her career, should return to the United States. Not officially, of course; at this stage, the fact that Hayes will be the next coach of the U.S. women’s team is merely an open secret, a fait accompli that must — for now — remain swaddled by a warm blanket of euphemism.Anonymous sources will go only as far as saying Hayes and U.S. Soccer have been “in talks.” Chelsea, the club Hayes has coached for the last decade to considerable success, will only say that the 47-year-old coach will depart at the end of the current season in order to “pursue a new opportunity” outside of England’s Women’s Super League and the club game. Quite what that opportunity might be is not revealed. Sure, maybe she’ll coach the U.S. Or maybe she wants to be a firefighter. It’s anyone’s guess.Emma Hayes is expected to leave Chelsea next year to coach the United States women’s team.John Sibley/Action Images, via ReutersThere is just one established fact, even if it is by some distance the most salient one. Hayes, winner of six W.S.L. titles and five F.A. Cups and easily the most prominent manager in the women’s game in England, has quit her job. She has told Chelsea she is going. That, more than anything, reveals exactly how far those mysterious talks have progressed.It is not hard to see why the prospect of coaching the United States appeals to Hayes. So rich is the team’s history that it remains the most prestigious job in women’s soccer. Given that she will be given salary parity with Gregg Berhalter, the coach of the U.S. men’s team, it will also be the most lucrative.Hayes will, though, have to earn that money. The last time she took a job in the United States, her task was to help kick-start an era. A decade and a half later, that is in the job description once again. The context, though, is starkly different. This time, before the start, Hayes has to oversee an end.It might be vaguely possible to spin Hayes’s appointment as a return — her early career résumé also includes spells at the Long Island Lady Riders (which we can all agree is not a great name for a team), the Washington Freedom and the Western New York Flash — but she has not been hired because of her familiarity with American soccer’s modern landscape. She has been appointed precisely because she is an outsider to it.Hayes in May, after leading Chelsea to its fourth straight league title.John Sibley/Action Images, via ReutersIt is not simply that Hayes represents a considerable break with tradition. Almost all of her predecessors as national team coach have come from positions on the side of the Atlantic that has been slow to embrace contactless technology. The U.S. job was, in some senses, the reward for success in American soccer.That made perfect sense. For decades, the United States was the driving force of the women’s game. Its professional league, in whatever guise, was the gold standard of the sport. Players from across the world, where domestic competitions were often professional only in name, flocked there. The national team was the pinnacle of that program, and therefore the zenith of the game.This summer, though, made it abundantly clear that had changed. The United States exited the World Cup in the round of 16. Its impact on the tournament was minimal. What happened in Australia and New Zealand illustrated a power shift that had been coming for some time. Two European teams contested the final. Five of the eight quarterfinalists were European.Those nations, including the U.S., who drew large portions of their squads from the N.W.S.L. tended to fall early. It was something that Hayes herself spotted. “There is still a huge amount of talent in this U.S. team,” she wrote in a column for The Daily Telegraph during the World Cup. “But with so many of the squad playing solely in the N.W.S.L., it doesn’t offer enough diversity to their squad in terms of playing against different styles.”She would, she wrote, be “shocked” if young players continued to migrate to the U.S. to play in the college system when professional teams were recruiting — and paying so well — in Europe. In the future, she predicted, it would be “very, very difficult” for the U.S. to regain its primacy without “the right conversations around their model.”This year’s World Cup was a major disappointment for the United States and its stars.Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/ReutersThat it will be Hayes leading those conversations is, of course, a tacit acknowledgment that her assertion was correct. By appointing someone who has built their career and reputation in Europe to overturn the reality that it has fallen behind, U.S. Soccer is effectively accepting the truth of it. One era is at an end, and it is time for another to begin.Perhaps, then, this weekend’s N.W.S.L. final is best thought of as the moment of transition. Rapinoe has never won an N.W.S.L. title. This is her final chance to end her wait, to complete her set, to place a golden bow on her career and all that she has accomplished and represented.That she would have that moment playing for OL Reign — a team controlled, ultimately, by owners in France — would feel appropriate, too, a nod not just to where the game has been, but to where it is going.CorrespondenceLast-place Sheffield United had to wait until November for its first Premier League victory.Marc Atkins/Getty ImagesWe were all too busy learning about the demographic transformation of Spain in the 20th century last week for Ben Coles to make the correspondence cut, but I wanted to return to his note this week, largely because the subject he raised is one I have been contemplating for a while. In a way. From the opposite perspective, in fact.“Is every team from Everton on up in the current Premier League table allowed a little room for complacency this season?” Ben asked, in direct contravention of the mantra that everything is necessarily the best in the best of all possible leagues. “Not because they’ve cracked the code of survival, but because Sheffield United, Burnley, Luton and Bournemouth are so poor? It almost feels like a noncompetition.”It is fair, I think, to suggest that the dimensions of the relegation battle seem to have been drawn unusually early in the Premier League this season. Sheffield United had to be rebuilt on the fly. Burnley and Bournemouth have both gone very — some might say excessively — heavy on young and unproven talent. Luton made no attempt to disguise the fact it was not intending to blow all of the money it made on promotion to the Premier League on the Sisyphean task of trying to stay there.That is not to say relegation for any of them is a foregone conclusion. Things change, and change quickly, in the early part of the season. It is hardly inconceivable that, in a few weeks, Fulham or Everton or Crystal Palace have hit a slump, or that one of those teams that currently looks doomed to a season of struggle has found some form. Luton, in particular, appears to be coming to grips with the exigencies of Premier League soccer at considerable speed, as last week’s (more than merited) draw with Liverpool illustrated.But there is one element working against those four clubs, and that is the quality at the other end of the Premier League table this season. Even allowing for the fact that Manchester City will, in all likelihood, streak to a fourth successive championship, the pool of teams immediately below them is unusually deep.There are eight clubs — Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Brighton, Manchester United and Chelsea — that will harbor justifiable ambitions of qualifying not just for Europe but for the Champions League, given that England is likely to have five emissaries in the revamped competition next season.Anthony Gordon and Newcastle are sixth in the Premier League, but only seven points out of first.Peter Powell/EPA, via ShutterstockThe overall quality of the league may well, in fact, be higher than it has ever been. That assertion will, of course, be dismissed as recency bias, or willful exaggeration, or simply deeply ahistoric; such is the power of nostalgia that governs our relationship with sports.There is a potent tendency to assume that what went before was somehow better: We are inclined, after all, simultaneously to remember the good parts of the past (look at that Thierry Henry goal!) and to see only the flaws (Manchester City 6, Bournemouth 1) of the present.But it feels, increasingly, as if the Premier League is starting not only to fulfill the bombast of its own marketing material but its foundational premise: For the first time, a majority of its clubs have found a way to use the great piles of money at their disposal to become genuinely quite good at soccer. That is good for the clubs, and good for the fans, and good for the competition. It is less good for those teams thrown into it with precious little preparation. More