Chris McGrath: Profits and prophecies of football's doom

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

He featured in a radio comedy, 20 years ago: Lenin of the Rovers, starring Alexei Sayle, followed the fortunes of Britain's only Communist football team.

Otherwise, however, it must be doubted whether the thoughts of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin have greatly preoccupied Richard Scudamore and his fellow croupiers at the Premier League. But you can bet your life that they sat bolt upright this week when a modern prophet, Arsène Wenger, candidly predicted a European Super League within the next decade. And perhaps they then remembered, too late, how Lenin said that a capitalist will sell you the rope that is used as his own noose.

For it may yet prove that the Premier League contains the seeds of its own destruction. Certainly the petrification of its elite has already enabled the top clubs to treat it primarily as the means to an end. In fairness, it is Champions League income that cements that process; at the same time, the Premier League has not controlled the brazen financial artifice that further sustains some of those same clubs.

Despite results this week, we know that only the most outlandish investment – of the sort at Manchester City – might create the slightest fissure in that bloc. Meaningful competition is instead confined to those dozen or so clubs who need enough points from the Big Four's reserve teams to guarantee 17th place.

To that extent, the sort of benign model of Super League envisaged by Wenger already exists. The Champions League, as it stands, is accessible on merit, and contested by squads capable of absorbing alternate domestic and international programmes. But the elephant in the room is the sort of closed shop, franchise breakaway that exalts the Big Four, once and for all, above such indignities as (to name a not terribly random example) Burnley away.

How ironic that the man to draw attention to said elephant should also be the one who so conspicuously permits his club to live within its means. As it is, Wenger presumably had Florentino Perez in mind when he said that the most reckless spenders will only survive by striking a new seam of gold. In fact, the Real Madrid president may well be predicating his entire spending "policy" on a Super League within the span of Cristiano Ronaldo's contract.

It will almost certainly happen, in some form, sooner or later. The lust for global television rights will see to that. So it is just as well that a voice as sane as Wenger's becomes the first to involve the football public in an apostasy so far only muttered among its tycoons. And most fans surely join Wenger in the hope that some connection survives with domestic leagues. True, for most it is now a quaint delusion that their own teams, some sunny day, might break into the big time. There is only one way that is going to happen, so you have to leave the door ajar to the next emir or oligarch who fancies buying a club.

Promotion to a Super League, moreover, could well provide legitimate stimulus – international play-offs, perhaps, on completion of the domestic leagues. Relegation would be less straightforward, as clubs would somehow have to be accommodated back in their own national league, whether or not its champions won the right to replace them.

Arguably those leagues would in the meantime have rediscovered their soul, in much the same way that Championship attendances disclose a degree of weariness with the shallow glamour of the Premier League. With the conspicuous exception of Germany, many European leagues are sharing the stagnation that results when the table becomes little more than a barometer of wage bills.

In time, needless to say, exactly the same thing might happen in a Super League, not least if television rights were sold by clubs individually, as is already the case with top Spanish and Italian outfits. The Champions League already has its second and third tiers, without a prayer of making the final stages.

Since its expansion – itself a sop from Uefa against any restlessness among the top clubs – the opening stages have become little more than a turkey shoot. Any Super League, moreover, would have to find a way of preserving the unique intensity of a Champions League final.

So how do the game's custodians – at Fifa and Uefa – approach this crossroads? Do they make a stand? Get tougher on squad composition, size and salary? Prohibit these massive loans taken out by speculators and vested in "their" clubs? Or would the big "brands" then mince away with the ball? The only obvious sanction, in that case, would be to ban players from tournaments such as the World Cup, but that could prove legally precarious.

A more reliable course would be to appeal to the self-interest of the Premier League's leading teams, in particular. They would need pretty persuasive evidence of some new, quantum leap in revenue to risk their present hegemony. In the meantime, Scudamore and friends must be looking back over that 39th game, and wondering whether they have any stronger rope to sell.

Their only comfort, albeit a pretty cold one, is another of Lenin's aphorisms. "A revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation," he said. "But not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution."

Cure for Serie A's ills rests with 'youth' transfusion

Thanks to ESPN, cognoscenti of Italian football are celebrating the return of Serie A to our screens, starting tonight with Siena against Milan.

It must be acknowledged that the sick man of European football, World Cup or no World Cup, is making pretty heavy weather of his recuperation. None the less it is the Italians who are corroborating an unpatriotic suspicion that Barcelona's success in the Champions League set a more edifying precedent than might have been the case with the Premier League teams they beat. During the summer Milan and Juventus have sought to emulate the "organic" Guardiola model at Barcelona by hiring sophisticated ex-players, Leonardo and Ciro Ferrara, as their new coaches.

Both Fabio Capello and Giovanni Trapattoni excelled as novices at these same clubs, but it is quite some gamble to make even Jose Mourinho look like an old man. Let us hope neither of them takes the sort of liberties that prompted Mourinho to attribute "a loser's mentality" to Ferrara's predecessor, Claudio Ranieri, on the basis that he was "nearly 70 years old". Ranieri was 56 at the time. But Jose's hair, it goes without saying, is silver – not grey.

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