In the first of two parts, CookeShaw and Darren Curtis consider the state of football in 2011
Something is amiss with the beautiful game. Since the turn of the Millennium, football has changed, morphing increasingly into a product rather than a passion and as such, in all its various iterations, is simply not as enjoyable as it once was. Unquestionably this is a conflicted argument because, as the marketing men are paid to emphasise, we have apparently never had it so good with a league that boasts the most participants at last years world cup surely proving that England has the premier league.
The contention here is that this is not simply a gut feeling, driven by drunken nostalgia, and that when the contributing factors to this malaise are broken down individually, it’s clear that the argument has substance and that there has been a shift of some kind. The obscene amount of money in the game, belligerent and ill disciplined players, negative tactics, a lack of characters and mavericks, media over exposure and unfulfilling international tournaments all play their part in this malaise. There is of course one bastion of sensible soccer that remains which should be the blueprint for the game the world over, but more of that later. As we dissect the issues with modern football, there is only one place to start.
Money is the obvious and depressing driver, seemingly underpinning all others that have made the authors of this article such glum, football watching bastards. The source of these riches has been, consistently since the formation of the Premier League, Sky Television. The latest sale of rights to broadcast English top flight football worldwide has raised £2.7 billion, and provides Premier League clubs with a minimum media income of £40 million from league games alone. Sky are held up by many as the devil incarnate and, of course, they are! But Sky’s positive impact on English football is so often overlooked because of the lie-peddling, muck-raking, mobile-phone-of-a-murdered-Soham-schoolgirl hacking degenerates that are inexorably linked with the firm.
However, in the early 90’s English football was truly in the doldrums, as the format of the old first division laboured to provide excitement, and English football struggled with the stigma of exclusion from Europe following the Heysel disaster. Sky played a significant role in changing this as a driving force behind the breakaway league, beaming live football into thousands of homes and truly revolutionising how sport in general is consumed. The money that Sky offered allowed clubs to attract genuine football stars, expand stadia and just make everyone really happy. They have succeeded where others such as Setanta failed whilst continuing to push technological advances in the broadcasting of the game. Moreover the game is now packaged in such a way that has made it more commercial, thus more attractive to consumers and advertisers, and have helped to cement football in the hearts of the nation, in a way that is perhaps not seen anywhere else in Europe. No mean feat.
But in doing a deal with the devil, football has sold its soul. Fans that have followed teams for decades are priced out of going to games as football disregards its working class roots and chases a middle class that is able to afford the excessive ticket prices now dictated by membership of the Premier League. As television tightens its control over football in an effort to increase viewers and subscribers, and in turn attract greater advertisement, the travelling fans ability make the journey from Sunderland to Norwich on a Monday night is entirely disregarded.
That much of this ‘filthy lucre’ leaves the game through payments to players and agents is something that smarts most keenly. Salaries make up 68% of the total income of Premier League clubs, which stands at £2bn. In the past month alone some of that money has been paid to a player that has been arrested for possession of cocaine and sexual assault, another that was fined half a million pounds for refusing to take part in a match, and another that chased a media conglomerate through the courts for exposing his 13 year affair. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing is that this doesn’t feel like the nadir. Football has such a skewed moral compass that rapists, philanderers and convicted criminals are paid millions and cheered on by thousands as they play the beautiful game.
Football for many is about heritage. As Sky would have it football has only been around since 1993, but for genuine football fans the heritage of a football club is just as important, if not more so, than the club in its current guise. And that is where the sadness comes from; in comparing the heroes and legends that have built these clubs, with the nouveau riche degenerates that wear those same badges today
It seems such a shame that financial mismanagement of a football club continues to be so fashionable, one of those destructive fashions like self-harm or mink coats. In 2009/2010 the clubs competing in the Premier League had a collective debt of £2505 million. There have always been financial disparities between football clubs but the abject failure of the fit and proper persons test that prospective owners must undergo has allowed a wide range of owners to become involved, meaning clubs can falter or prosper seemingly at the whim of whichever individual deems fit to pay the highest price. The government and football authorities must share the collective failure of allowing anyone to purchase a football club, and the disastrous results that have often ensued.
It is, perhaps, Sky prompted hyperbole to suggest that the Premier League has never had it so good in terms of the quality of foreign players plying their trade in England. Those faces that adorn billboards the country over, Drogba, Torres, Tevez and Silva are certainly leading lights on the world stage. The issue is the polarisation of this talent. In the 90’s, exciting players could be witnessed up and down the league. Le Tissier, Zola, Carbone, Di Canio, Asprilla all played for teams that were on the fringes of success, or not even. But with the advent of Champions League revenue being consistently plowed into a select number of clubs over a sustained period, the gap between teams has increased exponentially, with billionaires at Chelsea and Manchester City only serving to further the disparity. This has meant any possibility of clubs holding on to the talent that they find or produce is removed as the power waged by players and their agents forces clubs to sell, and to begin building once again.
World Cups are where stars should be born and crowned. Maradona ‘86, Klinsmann ‘90, Baggio ‘94, Ronaldo ’98, these were ‘their’ World Cups. But through what many see as a sustained affront by domestic clubs and managers, the quality, importance and prestige of international football has been consistently eroded. Arsene Wenger is famously quoted as saying that the use of club footballers at international level is like someone stealing your car from your garage, using it for ten days and then abandoning it in a field without petrol in the tank. During any international break club managers will ritualistically decry the inhumanity of national football associations taking ‘their’ players. Allied with the general feelings of dissatisfaction toward the English national team in this country over the last 15 years, this consistent undermining of international football has meant that international fixtures are not the exciting draw they once were, whilst World Cups, European Championships and Copa Americas simply make one yearn for the resumption of league football, as they consistently fail to live up to the bewildering hype and expectation. Perhaps a part of this is that players simply care more about club football than their national sides. Scholes, Berbatov and Carragher are all recent examples of players still at the top of their game, that were happy to retire from the international stage in an effort to prolong their club careers.
The lack of quality in terms of football is due to a number of pressures imposed by national leagues. A gruelling schedule means that players are nowhere near peak fitness during the month of an international tournament, and clubs' reluctance to release their players for international duty means national squads are not nearly as cohesive as they could be. Little wonder that Sir Alex Ferguson believes the last World Cup of any quality was in Mexico in 1986.
In the second part of this article released next week, the roles of media, negative tactics and the desolation of the European football scene will be covered, along with the one country that can provide us all with a little hope...
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