Chase for cash threatens to rob game of its founding principle
Eighty thousand Saudi Arabians sitting desolate through a 0-0 draw between Middlesbrough and Derby. A stadium full of Taiwanese all wondering why Wigan are playing five in midfield against Blackburn Rovers. Lots of Koreans politely applauding as Dean Ashton misses the only chance of a game that cost them a week's wages to attend.
The Premier League goes global and suddenly every Kuala Lumpur native who thought it was all about Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba is dealt a hard truth. Shanghai? Get ready for Chris Baird. Sydney? Graeme Murty's coming your way. When the exotic worldwide highlights goal-fest becomes the 90-minute reality does the Premier League really think it will conquer the world? Do Birmingham City expect to break America? Are the people of Tokyo about to fall under the irresistible spell of Trotters-mania?
Here is one thing you can be sure of: the Premier League's plan to play league games all over the world will be opposed on the spurious grounds that it betrays the honest English football fan, or whoever that is these days. Already there is a collection of self-appointed fans' group worthies claiming to speak on behalf of every English supporter. One even came up with the brilliant suggestion of putting it to a vote, although he failed to identify who exactly would qualify as the democratic franchise.
This is the reality. If 20 Premier League chairmen, chief executives and club owners want this to happen then – guess what? – it probably will. As for some kind of fan revolution, let us just say that it can go into the same file as the opposition to the Glazer takeover of Manchester United and the grumblings about the launch of the Premier League back in 1992. Doomed to failure. What is far more important here is that the principle of the league itself is protected – and that is comfortably the biggest thing English football stands to lose.
The plan is this: one extra game played in January; top four seeded to avoid playing one another; ties drawn like a cup competition. The reality could work as follows. Manchester United draw Spurs in Singapore and only get a point. Arsenal draw Derby in Seattle, win the game and, in May, take the title by a point. After the final game Sir Alex Ferguson tries to bring himself to say that the best team won it over 39 games – but he cannot, because this league is not a league any more.
That is what English football stands to lose: that old principle that a league season constitutes two games against each opponent (home and away) and the best team wins it. As long as that exists then, whatever happens, there is a connection right back through English football from the present day, to the first league championship in 1888 and what it constitutes to be champions of England. Lose it, and the Premier League blows the most valuable asset it has.
So, if this scheme really is on the cards, let the clubs be brave and take the plunge: take 10 games from the regular 38-game season and play them overseas. Clubs lose one home game every other year, promoted teams inherit the status of the club they replace. It may wound those among us who recoil at the prospect of, say, Liverpool playing home games in Bangkok but it is probably a bit late to start complaining about foreign influence in football now.
If the Premier League's ruling strata have any sense, they will stop entertaining this fudge that, under these new rules, every club must have the same number of home games and instead make them sacrifice one every other season. The rulers of American football's NFL managed it when they sent the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants to play the first ever regular season game outside America – in London in October. But this is where the problem lies: the NFL has a strong central command, the Premier League dances to whatever tune the clubs demand.
To keep the season to a 38-game maximum would require the preposterous Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards and his sidekick Richard Scudamore to stand up to the clubs. Can they do it? Richards is fine when it comes to walking out of Football Association meetings in a huff, but not so great when it comes to standing up to the clubs who form his power base. He left Sheffield Wednesday, where he was chairman, just before they began a slide into debt and mediocrity from which they have not yet recovered. Let's hope he is not about to do the same to the Premier League.
You know that things have got really bad when the first person to endorse the plan publicly is Birmingham City's diminutive co-owner David Gold whose family, let us not forget, made their money from a pornography empire. "The idea is very worthy of consideration," he cooed. "I find this amazingly exciting." Of course he does, because there is money involved and unfortunately any number of fans' protests or amusing banners are not going to change the minds of powerful people for whom money is their guiding principle.
Moving games abroad is not what most supporters want, but then they do not run the English game and they never will unless it becomes so unprofitable that it is returned to them by default. The best we can all hope for is that the Premier League is brave enough to go one step further and make the overseas match part of a 38-game season so at least we can still take the competition seriously – if not that absurd crew of owners, chairmen and chief executives.
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