South Sudan became the world's newest state last month.
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One of its first acts, even before it joined the United Nations, was to become the 212th territory contracted to receive live Premier League football. The 39th game proposal may not have come to fruition, but to all intents and purposes the Premier League is global all the same. It is not just the viewers. Last season players of 67 nationalities featured for clubs whose owners hail from as far afield as India, Thailand and North America.
None of this was foreseen when the competition kicked off in August 1992. The FA Premier League was created for purely domestic reasons. The big clubs wanted more money, and more power; the Football Association wanted to settle its century-old dispute with the Football League once and for all, and to enhance the national team's prospects on the world stage.
The clubs succeeded beyond all imagination. Not so the FA. They did put the Football League in their place, but the victory was Pyrrhic. The FA seriously underplayed their hand, not only failing to insist on the planned reduction to 18 clubs, freeing up more time for England to prepare, but losing control of the game to such an extent their only hope of regaining authority is a Parliamentary committee. England managers, meanwhile, must scour the fixture list to find a game in which more than a handful of players are eligible. But if England still cannot win international tournaments, much else has changed.
The money: How 'prune juice' washes away the billions
In 1992 the income of 22 top-flight (First Division) clubs was £170m, £11m of which was from the main television deal with ITV. Last season the 20 Premier League clubs' revenue was £2.2bn, £1.3bn from television. The next highest grossing league was the Bundesliga at £1.4bn. Around half this cash is provided via television income, increasingly from overseas with the league's £460m-a-year overseas deal worth more than those of La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 combined.
Matchday income has mushroomed too, partly because of the astronomical increases in ticket prices, partly because fans spend heavily on refreshments and merchandise at the ground. Tickets have increased far in excess of inflation. For example, a seat ticket at Old Trafford has gone from £12-£14 to £44-£55 (index-linked the price should be £19). Sponsorship income has also increased hugely with the collective income increasing from around £7m in 1992-93 to more than £100m this season. However, as in other areas, the big clubs dominate with Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool each earning more than £20m a season.
The league is not, though, the most profitable. Alan Sugar fell out of love with owning a football club, and the feeling was mutual, but the former Tottenham chairman did provide the game with some memorably pointed phrases. One was his "prune juice" analogy in reference to the way TV income passed straight through clubs to players and their agents. In 2009-10 (the last available figures) clubs paid out more than £1bn in player wages with other salaries (including the directors' cut) pushing the bill to £1.4bn. The next highest is Serie A, at £964m. The wages-to-turnover ratio in England was 68 per cent, lower than in Italy (77 per cent), but still dangerously high.
At least, unlike in Italy and France, Premier League clubs turned a collective profit but at an average £4m each it hardly represents success, especially as on pre-tax figures the clubs lost £450m between them with only three making a profit.
Meanwhile, in the parallel universe of the Football League, clubs routinely go into receivership with 53 such cases since the formation of the Premier League, 13 of them involving former Premier League clubs who over-reached themselves (usually on wages) in the top flight. Portsmouth even went bust while in the top flight. Even those clubs whose impoverishment is not directly related to being in, or attempting to reach, the promised land suffer from the knock-on effect of wage inflation higher up.
The players: Foreigners go from novelty to majority
As club incomes boomed so did their attractiveness to foreign players who suddenly discovered a lifelong desire to play in the home of football. On the opening day of the first season only 11 players from outside the British Isles started, and one of those was an English international. The big overseas signing was the goal-shy Dane John Jensen, who joined Arsenal for £1.1m. Last season 290 foreigners played bringing the total employed here in the last 19 seasons to nearly 1,300 and this summer's big foreign buy is £38m Sergio Aguero. No one has yet featured from South Sudan, or Sudan, but around 90 countries have been represented, depending on criteria, including such improbable nations as Oman, the Faroe Islands and Honduras.
The most obvious consequence is that, more than any other national manager, Fabio Capello finds that most matches he watches feature a minority of eligible players. Only a third of the League's players are English, many play peripheral roles, and few fill key positions. Only five English goalkeepers, for example, played half their club's fixtures last season, and of them Ben Foster and Paul Robinson refuse to play for England, Scott Carson has left for Turkey and Rob Green is now in the Championship. Joe Hart better stay fit. While it is true that any Englishman who plays for a major club is also likely to be good enough for the national team, they first have to fight their way into the club side. How many matches will Josh McEachran play this season, or, for that matter, Phil Jones, Jay Spearing and Adam Johnson?
The influx is not all damaging. Many of the foreign players, especially the stellar ones, have been a positive influence on native players, This is not just a case of demonstrating their superior technique, the likes of Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp set excellent examples when it came to both training and lifestyle.
It is not just England's national team which has suffered. There has also been a reduction of other UK nationals. Last season there were 20 Scots, 16 Welsh and seven Northern Irish-qualified players. By comparison there were 34 French. On the plus side, unlike in the early years, clubs are now more likely to sign a South American than a Scandinavian. This is one reason why the football is indisputably more attractive to watch than it was 20 years ago.
The owners: Those holding the purse strings go multinational
It was not just the players who were attracted to the shiny new league and its burgeoning incomes. Back in 1983, when the entrepreneurial David Dein bought 16 per cent of Arsenal shares from the patrician chairman Peter Hill-Wood, the latter was bemused. "I think he is crazy. To all intents and purposes it is dead money," he said. Dein paid £292,000. By May, with the club being fought over by an American from Colorado and a Russian from Uzbekistan, a 16 per cent holding was worth £139m.
Dein, like Martin Edwards, John Hall, Sam Hamman, David Moores and many others, made tens of millions out of football. By the millennium word of this new Klondike had spread and before long the owners were as multinational as the players. Five clubs are now American-controlled. Manchester City have passed through Thai ownership into Arab hands, Chelsea are part of a Russian's portfolio and Blackburn belong to an Indian poultry firm. Tottenham's owner may be English but he is based in the Bahamas, while Mohamed Al Fayed has been in the UK for years, but the Egyptian's English passport is as elusive as ever. There have been Serbian, Irish, Norwegian and Hong Kong Chinese owners. Several clubs are still owned by local businessmen, such as Stoke, but none are likely to win the League any time soon.
One thing we have learned is that foreign owners are, in reality, no different to native ones. Some invest in the club and community, others are after a quick buck. In some cases it is not yet clear which camp they belong in.
The supporters: How events helped broaden game's appeal
The fans, too, are more cosmopolitan. Matches at Old Trafford have long attracted overseas supporters, but it is no longer just the Irish. Many nationalities, notably Japanese, Korean and Scandinavian, attend matches in significant numbers, and usually spend heavily on merchandise too. The domestic audience has also changed. There are more women and more ethnic minorities. It is generally felt that there are less supporters of the old hard core, the young, white working class, with ticket prices cited as the main reason. The Premier League dispute this, arguing they are still watching, but now make up a smaller percentage of the overall support as the fan base has widened. Gates are certainly bigger. In the last season of the old First Division, won by Leeds United, the average gate was 21,622. Last season the average was 35,400, second only to the Bundesliga.
The Premier League's presentation, and the influx of star players, is obviously a factor but the League got lucky as the conditions were already in place for this increase. The post-Hillsborough Taylor Report forced clubs to upgrade their stadia and make them more family-friendly just as Italia '90, and Gazza's tears, reintroduced such an audience to the game's inherent drama. Then, as the Premier League was settling down, came Euro '96 which showed a vast national audience that English football had come through the hooliganism of the Eighties and was safe to return to. It is just a pity that so many new stadia were built cheap and boxy rather than architecturally bold.
England: Club game's boom spells bust for national side
The irony of England's performances in 1990 and 1996 boosting the Premier League is that the competition has been detrimental to the national team. Attempts to introduce a winter break have been stymied by the Premier League cabal at the FA, the pledge to cut the division to 18 clubs to free up time for the national team was reneged upon, and successive managers have found that not only do the leading clubs field few English players, they are reluctant to release them, especially to national age-group teams. Of the big five countries in Europe, England are alone in not reaching a tournament final since 1992. England have only reached one semi-final (at home, 15 years ago) while Germany have reached six, France four, Italy three and Spain two (going on to win both tournaments). Six other European countries have reached finals. There is no immediate sign of this changing.
Club Football: Financial muscle fuels the success in Europe
England may have continued to struggle in competition, but the country's clubs have not. Back in August 1992 English football was just emerging from the post-Heysel ban wilderness. Manchester United won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1991, and Arsenal did so in 1994, but the newly conceived Champions League brought only embarrassment. In that opening season champions Leeds were beaten in Yorkshire and Glasgow by Rangers. Manchester United, hamstrung by limits on non-native players, failed to reach the group stage in 1993; when they did in 1994 they were drubbed in Barcelona and Gothenburg. The following year David Batty exchanged punches with team-mate Graeme Le Saux as Blackburn went out in Moscow.
It took until 1999, and Manchester United's triumph in Barcelona, for an English club to reach a Champions League final. Finally English clubs' financial muscle began to be flexed and bear fruit. In the last decade there have been seven final appearances by English clubs and they now top the Uefa co-efficient ensuring four entries into the senior competition every year.
While it is true that the very best players still go elsewhere (in 1992 it was Italy, now it is Spain) the English game still has the likes of Aguero, Luis Suarez, Nani and Didier Drogba. Plus all its native talent – in 1992 Paul Gascoigne, Des Walker and David Platt were playing in Serie A. As a consequence the English game is more technical, skilful and tactically aware. As the traditional strengths of pace and competitiveness have not been lost it is the world's most enthralling league, if not the most stylish.
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