Friday, 24 July 2009

Modern Football is Brilliant

The problem with starting a football blog in the middle of summer, of course, is that there’s precious little actual football to write about. Not that there need to be matches being played for football to be happening. Comedian David Mitchell wrote a brilliant Observer column last year expressing his frustration at the average football fan’s fascination with the transfer market – or “human resources” – and that it serves to emphasise how dull a game football is. I disagree. I think any period when the transfer window is open is when, for better or worse, football as it really is in the 21st century is on show. It’s a time of genuine insight into how it all works.

The obscene amounts of money are usually the focus of the press, understandably, but with the tedious side effect of drawing every old school football man out of the woodwork to decry today’s game as having lost it’s way (whatever it’s “way” was – was the game really better in the 70s and 80s? Underpaid undervalued and poorly trained indentured servants playing in front of crowds of thugs on crumbling terraces? I’m not sure its so black and white).

The money is what makes the game what it is now, but that’s certainly not to say it has an entirely negative effect. (I’m going to play devil’s advocate a little here.)

The money started flooding in, in England, certainly, with the television deals that kick-started the Premier League. This in turn has meant that rights to show the English league have been sold all over the world – the fact that the densely populated nations of Asia are the biggest markets for replica Manchester United shirts tells us everything we need to know about why oil-rich Middle East consortiums are buying into, most recently, clubs like Manchester City and now Portsmouth. (The other model for super rich footballing power, of course, is that of Real Madrid, which is run more like a nation than a mere football club, or even a multi-national corporation.)

My argument, however, is that the increased revenue and ambitious foreign owners can only improve the game as a spectacle, and make it more exciting as a contest. Most would retaliate to this statement by arguing that this might well be true for the “big four” and their ilk – pointing to the gulf in finances as the reason why it’s the same four teams in the top four every year and only a handful of teams have a realistic chance of winning the Champions League.

But one only needs to look at Man United’s (and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal’s), stranglehold on the Premier League in the late 90s and early 2000s to realise, surely, that when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea it made the league infinitely more interesting to watch – even before the mighty press-baiting presence of Mourinho. Sure there was initially an enormous gulf in financial clout between Chelsea and the next most able contenders, but this must be better for the game than a tedious duopoly continuing unbroken. Better a three-horse race than a two-horse race.

Suddenly players were moving to a club with ambition for the future, rather than to clubs who believed their rich heritage entitled them to continue winning forever. A takeover for Liverpool followed and, while not on the same scale, the new money has thrust the club (admittedly in no small part thanks to the American owners sticking with Benitez) far closer to challenging for a first Premiership title than they ever could have imagined before the foreign owners came in. Better a four-horse race than a three-horse race!

Look across the top half of the Premier League now and there are plenty of clubs who can seriously push the big boys – if not for the title itself then for vital, historic European places and not-to-be-dismissed domestic cups. While it may very well be that the top four remains unchanged this season (I for one actually think this might just be the year when Arsenal get pushed out), no one can with any real confidence pick the order of the teams that will finish from 1st to 7th. This was certainly not the case before foreign owners came in and “ruined” the English game.

On the same subject, a story that I’ve found heartening this week is that of Sven Goran Eriksson’s appointment as Director of Football at League Two side Notts County. This, it appears, is a true statement of ambition, both for Eriksson (who could just as easily have been sat in the manager’s chair at Fratton Park) and for the team’s mysterious new owners. And even if it is with a significant financial advantage, should the Magpies actually manage to make it to the Premier League in 5 years or so, what a story it would be! Imagine how those fans and players will feel! Eriksson and his sidekick Tord Grip will deserve the praise they hopefully get for going out of their way to try and make something truly extraordinary happen.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that while modern football has plenty wrong with it (Sepp Blatter has mostly seen to that), it’s wrong to dismiss it as having been “killed” by the enormous amounts of money flowing through it. And the summer transfer merry-go-round is more than enough amusing distraction while the players sit on the beach (or are up in court).

Owen to Man United? John Terry to Man City? (never going to happen by the way.) Real Madrid smashing the world transfer record twice in a week? Sven in League Two? Modern football is brilliant.

1 comment:

  1. The real issue with football writing and general commentary over the summer is that arguments don't have to be backed up.. Some pet snake owning goon can phone into talk sport and say "...Wrighty you're a legend... I think Hull are gonna qualify for the champions league... Barmby looks in really good nick..." and because there isn't a match two days later in which Hull get beat away at Burnley his point remains valid!