Glenn Moore: The 39th step is a bold one that the Premier League should persevere with
Monday 06 October 2008
Tomorrow Richard Scudamore will deliver a speech to the Leaders in Football conference at Stamford Bridge entitled "Building a global league". It is understood the Premier League's chief executive will not be resurrecting the case for the international round. He should be.
Yes, GAM£ 39, as supporters' groups christened it. Contrary to general opinion this correspondent's first reaction was that it was a brilliantly audacious, potentially thrilling idea – and not because it meant a midwinter jaunt to Sydney or Miami on expenses. That view has not changed. What has altered is the global sporting landscape, which more then ever suggests the Premier League needs to introduce an international round.
Since February, cricket's IPL has arrived. Lalit Modi, the man behind the Indian franchise operation, last week repeated his optimistic belief that he "can see the IPL surpassing the Premier League in years to come". In addition, Formula One has staged a floodlit grand prix, increasing its ability to expand the sport worldwide.
Later this month the NFL stages its second regular season gridiron game in London. American basketball's NBA, which hosts another exhibition game at the O2 arena in London on Sunday, has already staged regular-season games in China. The O2 has hosted regular-season NHL ice hockey games. Major League Baseball has played league games in Mexico, Japan and the Caribbean. In a nutshell, other sports are expanding into the global market. And do not think the Premier League is the only European football organisation considering it.
Then there are the domestic developments, notably the Arab takeover of Manchester City, which further increases the financial disparities within the Premier League.
The twin motivation behind the 39th game proposal was to maintain the Premier League's status as the globe's leading domestic sports competition – which it must do if it is to continue to attract the world's leading players, which enhances its attraction to domestic supporters and overseas television watchers alike – and to share the resulting benefits between the 20 clubs. As last year's trip to Saudi Arabia showed the likes of Manchester United, and City, too, with Robinho on board, can pick up a million whenever there is a gap in the fixture calendar. Hull City and Wigan cannot. The international round proposal ensured an even share of this market.
The main objections to the initial proposals concerned the "integrity" of the league, the accessibility to diehard fans, and resolving objections of other football organisations. The latter might be easiest to deal with. Money talks, especially when accompanied by goodwill gestures. These could be coaching clinics and charitable involvement, warm-ups featuring local teams, deals struck, if the FA can be brought on board, guaranteeing a visit by the England team. The FA might be more amenable if the Premier League agrees to make life easier for England managers, and is prepared to support FA schemes (such as the proposed women's league, or grassroots football) in kind and with cash.
Supporters have to be brought on board but those who travel to every game are relatively few in number. It should be possible to organise a scheme whereby fans who follow, say, Arsenal, to Kiev and Sunderland, plus all points in between, are provided with the possibility of subsidised travel. Others may welcome a visit to new, exotic cities. After all, even the Champions League has become a bit mundane. By Christmas, Liverpool fans will have been to Eindhoven three times in three years, more than enough for anyone.
Which brings us to the integrity issue. It is a fallacy to suggest the league is entirely "fair" at present. Clubs may all play one another twice but due to injuries, suspensions, form and fatigue they face different "teams". Anyone playing Newcastle recently has been gifted three points. Given their injuries, it may be a good time to play Chelsea. Any team coming back from a long and demanding European tie is vulnerable.
One way to ensure a reasonably equitable 39th round would be to adopt a suggestion by my colleague Nick Harris. Taking the standings at a given date, perhaps 1 December, each team would play the one below it (ie first v second, third v fourth etc). This would mean most matches would be evenly balanced, and all would mean something in the context of the table. The matches would be paired, (maybe first v second and 19th v 20th; third v fourth and 17th v 18th, etc) and the five venue cities, having signed a five-year deal, would take turns at hosting each pair. Hotels, even chartered flights, could be booked in advance, leaving six weeks to arrange other details, longer than is often the case for Champions League matches.
Like it or not, English football is part of the worldwide sporting economy. There is no such thing as a return to the "good old days". A less moneyed league would not mean fewer foreigners, just fewer well-known ones. Look at the teams which now represent Dynamo Kiev, or CFR Cluj. There is, respectively, barely a Ukrainian or Romanian, among them. The Premier League may at times be a victim of its own success, but that is better than being a victim of its own failure.
Step down will help Walcott make the great leap forward
Stuart Pearce wants to include Theo Walcott in the England squad for the European Under-21 Championship this summer (should they beat Wales this month to qualify). Arsène Wenger disagrees but, if England are to win major championships, players need experience at playing in, and winning, tournaments. Walcott has been to a World Cup, but that was as a wide-eyed fringe player. To go to a competition as the key player, marked by opponents and looked up to by his team, would be good experience. It would also enhance England's prospects of winning an age-group competition for the first time since 1993. Of 38 Uefa competitions since then Spain, the current European champions, have won 11. Of the last nine Under-21 competitions Italy, the world champions, won five. A mere coincidence? More than a dozen players in the successful Italian World Cup squad had won the Under-21 competition.
New money hurts old masters
The sole Dutch team in the Champions League are struggling PSV Eindhoven and their coach, Huub Stevens, has complained that the "financial gap" between them and England, Spain and Italy is "a problem for the Netherlands". They have produced some of the best players in history. It's a problem for football.
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