Premier League may lack Englishmen, do little for grassroots football and be expensive... but it showcases superbly the global game
Glenn Moore: The Weekend Dossier
Leicester City’s inclusion as one of the four teams whose manager and captain travelled to Willesden’s Capital City Academy for the Premier League’s season launch on Wednesday was presumably because the Foxes are Football League champions. It was just a fortunate coincidence that both representatives, Nigel Pearson and Wes Morgan, are English.
With Phil Jagielka also in attendance that meant three of the eight men wheeled out to sell the competition were English, which, at 37.5 per cent, is rather more than the proportion of Englishmen involved in the top flight of England’s national league.
Most weekends last season less than 30 per cent of players in Premier League starting line-ups were English and there is no reason to expect the teams named for the opening matches to be any different. Of the first 100 first-team squad players signed by top-flight clubs this summer, a mark reached earlier this week, 36 were English, and all but 11 of those were playing in the division last season. Set against those native newcomers are 46 new foreign imports including four of the five most expensive recruits (Luke Shaw being the exception).
This is hardly surprising, given that the seven English managers are outnumbered by eight foreign coaches, and the latter’s own appointments are perhaps to be expected since a dozen of the clubs are foreign-owned.
Does this matter? In many respects the league is a roaring success. Globally it was broadcast to 650 million homes in 175 countries last season and may even have cracked the American market with a doubling of live viewership to an aggregate 115 million (NBC was very visible in Willesden). Domestic TV audiences were up on all channels and while fans, with good reason, protested this week at ticket prices, 96 per cent of seats were sold last season with the average attendance, at 36,695, the highest in the top flight since 1950.
There has been some rubbish spouted this week harking back to “the good old days” but the reality is the game has never been so fast and skilful, watching it has never been as safe and comfortable, nor has it ever been as well covered – in print, radio, television and online. The greats of this generation, led by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, may be in Spain but while playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid is the dream for footballers the second option for most appears to be the Premier League. It is not just that English clubs pay well – though the money is always a factor, not least as players, like bankers, use it as a measurement of worth – they are also attracted by the atmosphere in the grounds, the high-tempo football and the fact that they are rarely pestered away from the game. Thus Bojan Krkic, once the next big thing at Barcelona, has joined Stoke, Cesc Fabregas returned to London and Jordi Gomez stayed in England, at Sunderland, rather than return to Spain.
The Premier League is, in many ways, the global football competition, featuring more nationalities and more widely watched than any other. It is football’s equivalent to cricket’s Indian Premier League, or the US-based National Basketball League and Major League Baseball, all of which are similarly multinational. The difference is two-thirds of the IPL are Indian cricketers, and Americans make up roughly three-quarters of NBA and MLB players. Here the figures are reversed.
Thus this golden age for English football is not quite so gilded for the England football team. Another World Cup failure was all the more lamentable for being predicted. The Premier League pointed out this week that 147 Englishmen started in last season’s competition. The unspoken subtext, that it should be possible to find a decent 23-man squad from that, was then put into words by the chief executive, Richard Scudamore, who said: “We took some very talented young players – and a mix of older players – to Brazil. We took a good crop of players. Those players ought to be able to compete on a world stage.”
One reason why they did not can perhaps be discerned from a closer examination of those summer transfers. Of the first 50 players signed by last season’s top 10 clubs seven are English. Of the first 50 recruited by the other 10 clubs 25 were English with 11 joining the three newly promoted clubs Leicester, Burnley and QPR. The top 10 signed 40 foreigners (the other three recruits being Welshman Ben Davies, Shane Long of Ireland, and Scotland’s Phil Bardsley). The bottom 10 signed 19 foreigners. Put simply, the best (richest) clubs generally prefer to look abroad, which means you have to be a very good English player to make it into our best teams. If you do Roy Hodgson is likely to pick you, but already the club places of Joe Hart, Luke Shaw and Glen Johnson are under threat from overseas arrivals.
The Premier League’s hope and, in some cases, belief, is that the academy system will eventually redress this imbalance. Much store is made of the fact that nine out of 10 academy players are British (figures are derived from passports, so an English percentage is not available). The annual £87m investment is akin to that made by Bundesliga clubs in their academies. Only time will tell if the results also match up. The Premier League must hope that academy's continue to produce players good enough for the division
In the meantime the other concern is that this international league, with a preponderance of foreign owners, many in it for the financial rewards as much as the glory, lacks the moral compass Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga’s chief executive, claims for his league. “We see the Bundesliga as an important part of society,” Seifert said this week. “We have a holistic approach based on the financial, the game and society. If we don’t have success in all three dimensions we don’t consider it a success at all.”
No league in Europe, however, spends as much money as the Premier League does on social programmes, such as the £10.5m investment in school sport announced this week. Some of the charitable work is undoubtedly done to defray animosity towards a competition long ago christened, by Brian Glanville in a trademark skewering, The Greed is Good League, but most of those who administer it are genuinely intentioned and the impact on those who benefit is significant. The league is also valued as a promotor of national interests worldwide with the British Council and many a trade delegation piggy-backing on its popularity.
This juggernaut is unleashed at 12.15pm today, and will delight, infuriate, but most of all engage millions for the next nine months. Flawed it may be, especially when it comes to supporting the game’s desperately beleaguered grassroots and failing national team, but anyone who thinks the old days were better either was not there or is guilty of selective amnesia.
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