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Premier League faces uncertain future
Sir Alex Ferguson, Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, and across the Channel, David Beckham, all gone from the game. As the 21st season of the Premier League comes to a close, it’s hard not to feel as if this is the end of an age. The “golden generation” of English football has moved on, the world’s greatest manager has stepped aside and the league now goes forward into a period of enormous wealth – and enormous uncertainty.
The season just passed will rank among the poorest on record. Perhaps this is because nothing could live up to last season’s last-minute thrills, but, for large spells this year, the Premiership lacked drama and tension. The league was wrapped up in April officially, and in reality, months before. The relegation battle really wasn’t much as most observers knew that QPR, Reading and Wigan were in trouble from the moment play started in August.
The quality of play, day in and day out, was markedly lower than some of its competitors on the continent. The major storylines of the year were controversies that served to distract from this on-field malaise. Some were farcical -- this week’s incident involving a pig’s head and Stoke City is a punch line in itself – others were truly nasty. I did not think the racist outbursts that punctuated this season could be topped for sheer malice -- only to see an Uruguayan sink his teeth into an opponent.
The season’s best striker, Manchester United’s Robin van Persie, tailed off badly towards the end. The league’s most valuable man, Gareth Bale, still vanishes in the biggest games. And the most exciting player, Luis Suarez, is unfortunately also as stupid as they come. (You know it’s bad when the usually apoplectic and defensive Liverpool fans step back and have a think about their man.) England won a consolation prize with Chelsea collecting the Europa League, but a second-tier title is not what a league that bills itself as the planet’s best has in its sights.
This slump – and it may just be that -- raises the natural question of what is next for the league and for England. Unfortunately, there are no obvious English stars to replace the men exiting the stage – Jack Wilshere is too often injured, Theo Walcott still too feckless – and some here worry that the national team won’t even make Brazil.
More troubling, at least to me, is how England is becoming more and more like Spain, albeit without the technical quality. A small handful of teams – United, City and Chelsea – compete for the title while a diminishing pool fight for the scraps. Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool have slipped badly behind this new Big Three in quality and financial clout and don’t seem to have many options. And after those three, there might as well be a cliff.
It was revealing this weekend to hear West Ham manager Sam Allardyce call a 10th place finish for his side a “good season.” He’s right, as the fact is all most teams in the Premier League can hope for is a finish between 7th and 17th. He’s also dead wrong, because the style of play West Ham has employed – hoof it and hope – it what is killing the Premier League game. Too many teams in the league are much of a muchness, developing and fielding too many players who think tackling is more important than passing, and playing far too much Route One football.
And yet, the Premier League has done a brilliant job at marketing. They’ve been helped by the Internet and the fact that their teams speak the lingua franca of the modern world, English, but credit where credit is due: the Big Six teams crowd out almost all other comers, save Barcelona and Real Madrid. This next season will be the wealthiest in the league’s history thanks to enormous TV contracts. Viewers around the planet are tuning in to see football played in England.
That’s now. The future is a lot murkier. Things suggest this won’t be an “English” Premier League for much longer. Many of these clubs are being purchased and operated by Americans, Saudis and Russians, foreign oligarchs with a taste for sport. The days of the town “sugar daddy,” a man like Wigan’s Dave Whelan, seem to be coming to an end, replaced by hedge fund men and sheiks who rarely show up to see a match. These teams are becoming investment vehicles, and that’s a change that should unsettle all fans.
With the change in ownership has come talk of how to make more money. There is nagging sense among these plutocrats that a lot of cash is being left on the table for the likes of UEFA and FIFA to hoover up with their World Cup and Champions League. Why should these folks be cut in at all? That’s why the idea of a European Super League, which started in whispers a few years back, is in open conversation.
The long game seems to be having the continent’s biggest teams playing each other in a fixed, NFL-style league with salary caps and game times dictated by television. Heresy? No: “cost certainty” and the destruction of “player power.” Fans who think history and tradition will keep that from happening are being naïve about the whims of the very greedy. The fact is, everyone knows fans around the world will watch. After all, most of United’s and Arsenal’s fans aren’t in England any more. They’re in New York and Dubai and Singapore.
The Premier League’s smart men are trying to fight that – by beating folks to the punch. They see the Premier League as the continental powers if they can corral what has been an unruly mass of clubs. Yet they have been unable to break down traditional objections – if they cannot play a single game on foreign soil, how the heck are they going to bring in wider “reforms?”
Where the game goes is uncertain, save for one thing. The corrosion of big money is here to stay. The Premier League was founded to make big cash, and it has succeeded, wildly. It may prove to be a pyrrhic victory.
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