Saturday, 9 February 2008

Is This The Death of English Football As We Know It?

Football report for

The Premier League in England announced plans on Thursday for a shake-up of their Premiership league system, involving a new 39th fixture to the season which would be played abroad. The plan, which is still said to be in its early stages, would involve a draw being made so that 10 further matches can be played, possibly at the end of the season, for the normal 3-point reward. Cities worldwide would be able to bid to host two matches each, which would then be allocated to them after the draw, to be played on a Saturday and a Sunday. The top five teams in the Premiership would be seeded for the draw so that they would not be able to face each other.

Premiership chairmen were enthusiastic about the idea. Birmingham's David Gold said, "We are making history. The Premier League, which is the greatest league the world has ever known, is being adventurous. I find this amazingly exciting".

Premier League chief executive Peter Scudamore said, "I think it's an idea whose time has come. It's an exciting prospect. All 20 clubs will benefit and there is a huge element of solidarity about it. When the league does well, other people in the football family do well in terms of redistribution. You can't stand still and if we don't do this then somebody else is going to do it. Every time there is an evolutionary step, the reaction of the fans is not always great, but I would ask them to take a step back and look at the positives".

The reaction from fans wasn't great, and they weren't able to find many positives. In fact the plan was condemned in strong terms by every fan willing to express a view. Forums and phone-in shows have been inundated with messages expressing extreme disappointment and anger at the idea. Though American sports fans may be used to franchising, English football fans cling to the view of their football club being innately linked to their community. The thought of playing an important league game - if it is played on the final day it could be the most important league game - in a foreign city where none of the local fans of either team can watch the game is anathema to the entire spirit of community that fans feel, and that clubs foster. If a club played one game a season abroad and it was a success, why shouldn't they extend it to five games, ten games, or every game?

The devoted home fans feel rejected by their clubs, who have squeezed them for all the money they've got and now want to fly to Asia or the Americas for new fans to financially exploit. As I have written before, football is so hugely popular in Europe because of the deep emotional attachment fans feel for their local clubs, which makes it far more important than just 'any old sport'.

The plan makes a mockery of the league system too. A club might well be relegated because they have to play Arsenal three times while their nearest rival faces Fulham three times. Likewise, a club may well win the league because they play Derby three times while their nearest rival faces the much-tougher Spurs on three occasions. Of course, these kind of scenarios can be imagined throughout the league, where higher positions always give greater rewards. The counter-argument would be that every club in the league would be voting for this change, so turkeys cannot complain after they have voted for Christmas. But the voting would be conducted by the chairmen with pound-signs in their eyes, rather than the managers or players who actually want to achieve things on the pitch.

The plan would certainly inject many millions of pounds into the Premiership. But any extra money the clubs would make would go straight into the pockets of the new wave of foreign billionaire chairmen. The Premiership is already easily the richest league in the world, and the gaps between clubs are increasing: the Big 4 is significantly richer than the others, who are significantly richer than the relegation fodder, who are significantly richer than the teams in the league below, and so on. This plan would continue to widen these gaps, consolidating permanent top flight status for the incumbent sides regardless of meritocratic reasons, creating a closed shop. If the top five teams were seeded, this would just consolidate their positions as the top, untouchable teams in the country. Nobody would challenge for the league title except these teams, and whoever was relegated would bounce straight back up again because they would be miles richer than the Championship teams. Eventually, it's easily foreseeable that relegation would be scrapped altogether, leaving very little motive for competition, and just a parade of consecutive showcase friendlies played out between brands.

What's more, this plan makes it easier for corruption to engineer the result of a league season. In any sport, any structural change must be calibrated so as to leave as little room as possible for parties who have multi-million pound interests in the outcome to abuse the system. It is quite obvious how a draw involving seeded sides for the final game of a league season could be manipulated so as to give a preferred outcome. For example, if the bookies stood to lose millions if Manchester United won the title, their final game could be drawn against a team like Spurs while nearest challengers Arsenal are given Derby. We should not presume that fixing only happens in cricket, or in athletics, or in tennis, or in horse racing, or in cycling, or in the football leagues of Italy, Germany and Brazil - we should instead presume that there will always be the potential for corruption in any sector (sporting or otherwise) which involves vast sums of money. As the sums increase, so does the potential for abuse. This plan involves the dangerous combination of vast sums of money and an extra mechanism for abuse.

It was perhaps inevitable that this was going to be suggested. When Abramovich bought Chelsea, his people told the press that he had recently fallen in love with the game and wanted a team to control, like a billionaire's toy. We all fell for it. Nobody asked any questions when Gaydamak bought Portsmouth, Glazer bought Man United, Lerner bought Aston Villa, Ashley bought Newcastle, Gillett and Hicks bought Liverpool, Magnusson bought West Ham, and Shinawatra bought Man City. When more and more billionaires bought Premiership clubs, we all just assumed they must love the game and want a toy.

That's nonsense.

We also know that running a football club is the quickest way to lose millions of pounds short of doing a KLF and setting it all ablaze. So what are these club owners doing? Where are the hidden or future revenue streams from which these billionaires are hoping to rake in the cash? Finally, the cat is out of the bag.

Ever since big money entered football, clubs and fans have been playing a mutually unspoken game. Clubs want fans because we give them money; fans give clubs money because we are helplessly devoted to them, brought up by our parents to invest our emotional livelihoods in the hands of the institution that represents our community. As long as the clubs don't make it too obvious that they're only interested in us for the money we provide, we'll keep providing it and we promise not to think about it any deeper. This plan is being wholly and unconditionally rejected by the overwhelming majority of English football fans, so here comes the crunch: if the clubs go ahead, they'll be starkly exposed as ruthless gold-diggers who are prepared to do anything for their next dollar or baht. We can live in denial no longer.

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