The Last Word: Do the galacticos shun us because visiting Stoke just isn't much fun?
New managers at the top three Premier League clubs at least promise more intrigue this season
You can hardly say that football abhors a vacuum when it cheerfully accommodates so many of them every Saturday night – even if it's true about Lawro and Match of the Day. But a summer void, conversely, can certainly make football feel pretty abhorrent. Without the lush oasis of a World Cup or European Championship, parched fans find themselves marooned in a desert of cruel mirages and cactus spikes of vicious self-interest.
Robert Lewandowski, for instance, is complaining bitterly that Dortmund – Champions League runners-up, no less, inspiration for all those clubs clinging pathetically to the hope that imaginative coaching and transfers can still foil sheikhs and oligarchs – are "unfair" in inviting him to do what it says in his contract, namely, to play the odd game of football for its duration. He has hinted darkly that, forced to adhere to these exorbitant terms, inner misery might infect his performance. Let's hope Amnesty International is on the case.
After Gonzalo Higuain evaporated into a quivering haze of petrol fumes, meanwhile, the unnerved club that once spat Jay Bothroyd from its craw for throwing his shirt at Don Howe in a youth cup final, swiftly turned to a player whose most recent transaction with a London club entailed a very literal claim for his pound of flesh, from Branislav Ivanovic.
But if this summer has once again exposed meretricious players, clubs and agents, it has also starkly disclosed the diminished status of a league extolled – routinely and ludicrously – as the best in the world.
There is still time, naturally, for some flattering "correction". As things stand, however, most of the biggest names on the move have conspicuously abjured the Premier League: Cavani, Falcao, Neymar, Rodriguez, Götze, Moutinho, Llorente, Isco. So far only Manchester City and arguably Spurs – seemingly about to lose an indigenous one – have contrived to tempt anything resembling a galactico to these shores.
Now, obviously, some of these deals reflect the latest, dazing escalation in the football arms race, and the brazen ruses by which Financial Fair Play already has its teeth tied to a swinging door. With luck, Ipswich Town can soon announce a £200m shirt sponsorship from Tourist Information at Bury St Edmunds. In the meantime, PSG and Monaco light a path through FFP – towards a duopoly that threatens to kill off their domestic league.
In turn, meanwhile, some of those clubs who have banked Qatari and Russian millions have been enabled to divert other targets – such as Higuain himself, or David Villa – from English suitors. In this country, needless to say, we have long inhabited too lavishly glazed a palace to start throwing any stones on that account. And it is not as if Juventus, for instance, depended on financial muscle to lure Fernando Llorente (he arrived on a free transfer – just like Andrea Pirlo and, for that matter, Paul Pogba).
Whisper it softly, but is it possible that Europe's elite players are beginning to mistrust an environment that earned no more friends in somehow winning the Champions' League two seasons ago than with the collective poverty of its football next time round? Did young stars such as Thiago Alcantara and Isco perhaps notice that the last Premier League season, aside from redressing the melodrama of the previous one with numbing tedium, was also disastrously bereft of quality?
When Chelsea won the Champions League, of course, they contrived to stop both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. But the club's owner himself seemed so ashamed by the way his dream was achieved that he started to recruit players who might sooner help them emulate Barcelona and Spain. Sure enough, Bayern promptly came up with a superior model.
These things go in cycles and the resources of the Premier League are such that it can certainly rise to the challenge. New managers at the top three at least promise more intrigue, this time round, and adventurous young coaches at clubs like Everton, Swansea and Southampton will not share the dangerous delusions of the league's cheerleaders.
Because it's not about the shallow glamour, about all those vanity signings mysteriously demanded by fans no less than by nouveaux owners. It's not about the European clubs who have outspent the Premier League this summer. The real problem is the median. For what kind of wage seriously warrants the indignity of playing West Ham or Stoke, when even unfashionable Serie A might introduce you to Fiorentina one week, say, and Catania the next?
The big spenders across Europe think there's room at the top. In this country we must beware a rather deeper vacuum.
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