The revolution in English football, which was set in train with the launch of the Premiership 16 years ago, yesterday announced its Great Leap Forward with the revelation that the game is preparing to go global on the field as well as off.
Not content with selling shirts, television coverage, even clubs, around the world the Premier League is proposing to hold matches across the planet. An "international round", additional to the normal 38-match programme, would be staged in five overseas cities on a January weekend beginning in the 2010-11 season. Points would count towards the final League tally.
It is the logical step given the League's growth and ambition – "the only way to grow the brand", said the Birmingham City chairman, David Gold – but it is also a quantum leap. For the first time clubs will be divorced from their heritage. It begs the question, what next?
Two possible answers are the development of a closed league, with no promotion or relegation, and a global league with franchises around the world. Impossible? Who would have imagined, 10 years ago, an English league fixture between, say, Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland taking place in Hong Kong for real points.
A closed league is certainly feasible – it is commonplace in US major sports and four of the Premier League clubs now have trans-atlantic ownership. The League is already following a trail blazed by American sports in taking the game overseas. Officials admitted that the NFL match between New York Giants and Miami Dolphins at Wembley in October was a catalyst for yesterday's move. So, too, the fixtures between England and Argentina in Switzerland, and Argentina and Brazil at the Emirates.
Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, stressed that this was just a proposal but it is clear it is going to happen. The clubs were, he said, "excited" and there was an obvious market. Even before this announcement the League had been "inundated" with inquiries from prospective promoters.
Only Fifa can stop the expansion. It has to sanction such matches. Yesterday it would say only that it was waiting to see any proposal. A "senior Uefa source" was quoting as saying: "This is no longer about football, it seems to be all about money," which may be true, but Uefa has no jurisdiction and the rich and influential Premier League should be able to mollify Fifa, world football's governing body, especially as it emphasised it would work with local associations and go only where it was wanted. The Football Association offered a cautious welcome. Its main concern, given the inevitable fixture congestion, will be the potential impact on the FA Cup and the national team.
Scudamore said the League would spend the next 11 months considering the proposal in detail, but outline plans are well advanced. The international round will feature five matches each on Saturday and Sunday. Fixtures and venues will be decided by lo,t although some seeding mechanism is likely to be put in place to ensure the main draw cards are distributed between the host cities. Midweeks fore and aft will be cleared of fixtures both to facilitate promotional work before the matches and increase the lure for players and managers, who are being sold the idea as a "winter break".
Climate will be a consideration in choosing the cities, as will geography and, of course, the size of the cash bid, and the local marketing potential. The League wants a geographical spread of fixtures both to maximise the impact and to enable every match to be shown live on British television. No game, however, will be shown between 3pm and 5pm UK time so as to prevent clashing with Football League fixtures. "Inclement climates" will also be avoided, in part for fear of postponement. That may bar bids from New York, Chicago, Tokyo and Beijing while Johannesburg has an altitude issue, being nearly 6,000ft above sea level.
There will also be political and cultural considerations. "We will not go anywhere where players will be racially abused, or denied entry because of their passport," said Scudamore. The latter was a response to a question about those Arab states, such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia, who do not allow Israelis entry. The League could not risk awarding a fixture, then discovering Yossi Benayoun, for example, was barred.
"The Premier League is in a prime position to take advantage of globalisation and, if we did not, someone else would," said Scudamore, who had the NFL, La Liga and Serie A in mind. He accepted that many fans would object, but noted no one was losing a home fixture (unlike when the NFL moved a game to London) and many would relish a midwinter break of their own. He suggested that, between them, the League, and sponsors would find a way to include the impecunious but truly devoted.
Scudamore insisted this was not "the thin end of the wedge", there would not be a "40th, or 41st match". "This is to shore up the domestic competition, not to transition into a global one," he said. Scudamore conceded the situation could be different in 10 years' time and, besides, further expansion will be determined by the chairmen – many of whom are overseas investors – not him.Reuse content