19 February 2016

The Premier League has lost its lustre


Professional football clubs in England have traditionally been the playthings of wealthy men. But until the creation of the Premier League, owners were almost always English, most of them with businesses located within ten miles of the club grounds.

They appointed the manager, propped up the finances and agreed the salaries of both players and staff. At home games, they could be seen sat in the directors’ box cheering their team on, dreaming of the moment their employees won the league or the afternoon at Wembley when they might get themselves pictured kissing the FA Cup.

Today, the Premier League has become the proxy battleground for a coterie of international billionaires, most of them Russian, Arab or American, just one of them English. Fourteen of the 20 top-flight managers are foreign, and only three of the remaining six are English. It is no different on the pitch. Two out of three of the players are foreign. Only the fans – the groundlings, that is – remain English, but with the bigger clubs going global, more and more of those watching the games, mainly in Africa and the Far East, do so via satellite tv or online.

You might suppose it is the same everywhere. In fact, the top tier of English football is in a league of its own. In Germany, it is required by law that 51 per cent of the ownership of professional teams should be club members, drawn from the local fan base. In France, only a handful of the biggest clubs, notably Paris-St-Germain, are in non-French hands. In Spain and Italy, ownership is divided among associations, club members and investors. But nearly all of those holding a stake are Spanish or Italian. At the same time, a majority of players in each of these trophy-laden leagues are home-grown and tv rights are not accounted in billions. No other country has sold off its footballing heritage like England.

While all this has been happening, the pool of English players – especially forwards – has been shrinking. A few, like Harry Kane of Tottenham, Jamie Vardy of Leicester, Raheem Sterling of Manchester City and the injury-prone Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool, have emerged in the last couple of years to give hope to England coach Roy Hodgson in the build-up to the European championships. But this surprise late-flowering may well prove to be no more than a happy coincidence as club scouts and executives continue to pack their squads with buy-in. No wonder FA chairman Greg Dyke declared at the start of this season that English footballers had become an endangered species.

Those who point out that Barcelona’s biggest stars, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, are actually from South America, and that most of Europe’s top teams, such as Bayern Munich and Paris-Saint Germain, also feature foreign-born stars, miss the point. First, Spanish, German and Italian clubs boast a much higher percentage of their own nationals in their squads, and, second, those galacticos whom the biggest clubs tend to deploy are the finest footballers in the world. Only England, of the Big Four, routinely trawls the second-best.

Would any of this matter if the Premier League – said to be the richest and most profitable on the planet – was carrying all before it on the field of dreams? It’s a moot point. It would still be a strange state of affairs, having little about it that smacked of self-confidence, never mind patriotism.  But at least we could pretend that everything was hunky-dory. We could tell ourselves that we were respecting the free movement of labour (eh?) and accepting the logic of the single market (a concept few Brits endorse when it comes to British jobs for British Workers or Protecting Our Borders). It would be up to our home-grown contingent to prove they were good enough, we would say – no point in throwing good money after bad. The trouble is that, with some exceptions, the overseas players who tend to end up in the Premier League these days (as distinct from the 1990s) are either youngsters hoping to prove themselves, or else duds or fading maestros looking for one more big pay-day. Ronaldo and Suarez both claim they might return some day to England, but you can be sure it will only be when they are over the hill, a dodgy knee away from Major League Soccer in the U.S.

So, given that English clubs have slumped alarmingly in recent years, the question has to be asked, who is gaining from the foreign takeover of our national game?

The answer is clear. Even journeymen squad members make more in a season than most of their fans will earn in a lifetime. At the top end, Wayne Rooney, a wasting asset for Manchester United, rakes in £300,000 a week, or £15.6 million a year, twice the salary of even the most bloated banker or hedge fund manager. Rooney is at least English. Nearly all of his rivals are imports.

Upstairs, in the executive corridor, the same rules apply. “Supremos” – the anxious men in suits who stalk the touchlines and talk broken English on television – make their reputations in Latin America or the Continent. Only when they are bored, or sprout their first grey hairs, or or offered a shedload of cash, do they respond to approaches from the Premier League. Thereafter, paid like princes, complete with their hand-picked retinues, they regard dismissal as a career opportunity. Getting sacked as a coach is the gift that keeps on giving. Portugal’s Jose Mourinho, recently fired for the second time as Chelsea manager by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, is said to have been on a contract worth £10 million a year, plus perks, and, while unemployed, will continue to be paid until he finds another job, most probably as manager of Manchester United. In the meantime, he has been replaced, again for the second time, by Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who, if he lasts, can expect his biggest rival next season to be the Spaniard Pep Guardiola, newly signed to replace Chile’s Manuel Pelligrini as manager of Manchester City.

Old football managers don’t die, they wait for the next turn of the wheel.

The men – and apart from Delia Smith of Norwich, they are all men – who bankroll this travelling circus could, in an obvious sense, be said to be the losers. Like United’s American owners, all the big club proprietors have to come up with the cash that keeps the show on the road. But, like Abramovich, Man City’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan and Joe Lewis of Spurs (a rare British interloper, though based in the Bahamas), they are often so ridiculously rich that to lose a billion in the quest for League or Champions League glory is a mere bagatelle, to be sorted out by their accountants. Either that or they are international moneymen, mainly American, whose executives turn up once a month to check on their investment.

UK entrepreneurs have abandoned English football much as they have abandoned UK manufacturing industry. They either can’t afford it or they have found better ways to spend their money.

No, the real losers, apart from English players, who find it hard these days to get a foot in the door, never mind a foot to the ball, are English fans, who have to pay as much as £70 to get through the turnstiles to see their heroes perform, and another £400 a year to watch away matches  on television.

Arsène Wenger, the lugubrious and long suffering manager of Arsenal (currently divided between U.S. and Russian ownership) warned recently that the £5.14 billion the Premier League is being paid for tv rights over three years would not lead to any reduction in the price of tickets. On the contrary, he said, such were the running costs of the modern game that the cost of a season ticket was bound to rise.

Here he is, as an Alsace Eeyore, outlining the case:

“I see fans as supporters … they go to the club, they have no choice. It’s a little bit like their faith … You want people who live around the stadium to be capable to go to the game and watch the games. They are fans basically because they were born there … [But] It is a very complicated subject. How do you decide what is the right level of ticket prices? First of all [you look at] your attendance, and then you are being compared many times to foreign clubs … I don’t think we are on the same level ground as foreign clubs. For example, Bayern Munich paid one Euro for their ground whereas we paid £128million for our ground. In France they pay nothing at all for their stadium. They pay nothing at all for their maintenance. We pay absolutely everything ourselves so we have to generate more revenue. It is true we get more television income. That is down to the audience and success, but you know as well that it is down to the pressure of the market to pay for the players with a higher price and our expenses will come up straight away to increase their wages.”

Note how he throws in the word “success”. In spite of an ongoing revival, Arsenal haven’t won the League since 2004. The fact that the fans have stuck by the Frenchman so long (20 years and counting) is a miracle. But to Wenger, “success” is about much more than winning; it’s equally about man-management, paying the bills – and keeping his job. On that basis, Barcelona are losers and Arsenal are the European champions.

Given all of the above, who did you support this month when some 10,000 Liverpool supporters walked out of an important Cup match in protest against a proposed increase in the price of a match-day ticket from £59 to £77. As it happens, Liverpool, spearheaded by their German manager Jürgen Klopp, gave in to the protesters and put their price rise on hold – an almost unheard of victory for the little man. Perhaps the American owners, described by Forbes magazine as “the most sophisticated, synergistic players in the coming age of international sports conglomerates,” asked themselves why it was that a Scouser, earning £450 a week (if he has a job at all), should have to fork out nearly one sixth of his income to watch Belgium’s Christian Benteke, who is paid 300 times more, give his weekly impression of someone vainly trying to hit a barn door with a banjo.

Walter Ellis is a writer based in France