Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday April 16 2009
It has now been two years since an English side was knocked out of the Champions` League by a team from outside of England. As three English sides line up for the European Cup semi finals this morning- guaranteeing England`s presence in European football`s showpiece final for the fifth season in a row, we are a matter of hours away from hearing one or both of Pratini and Bladder aim their pernicious bile towards these shores once more. Corporate behemoth Bladder will likely lecture us about the travails of money and its evil influence upon the beautiful game. Of course, being such a bastion of Marxist principle, Bladder has brokered sponsorship tie ins with Budweiser, McDonalds, Continental, Coca Cola etc, etc. Meanwhile, Pratini (or Tweedle Dumb) will send teary eyed rhetoric sailing our way on a raft of salty tears about the over reliance on foreign players and how England`s cosmopolitan model is damaging for the sport. That would be Pratini the Frenchman who made his name at a small club in the French provinces, Juventus I think they`re called. We come to expect this hypocrisy and thinly veiled prejudice from these two idiots, who should probably conserve some of their bellicose energies on countering corruption and hooliganism in Italy and racism in Spain. However, the valid question remains as to how good is the current domination of England sides for the sport as an entity? Does it reveal hegemony based on unequal distribution of wealth? Is it a cyclical quirk of history? Or are England`s top four clubs simply better managed with better players?
It`s a question the British media has wrestled with for the last twelve months or so, it`s perhaps a curiously British reserve to complain about and find fault with our own supremacy. Of course England`s current solstice in the Champions League is nothing new, as far back as the Fifties, Real Madrid won the title six times in ten years from 1956-1966. A.C. Milan won it three times in five years from 1989-1994, Ajax and Munich duopolised the trophy in the six years between 1971-76 whilst Forest, Villa and Liverpool ensured England dominated in the early 80s. Now it simply looks to be the Premiership`s turn again in the cycle. However, football has changed and the rewards are far greater, prize money and television money has lead to endemic chasms not apparent before. The Premiership earns more in the way of television money than any other nation, allowing its competing teams to pay egregious sums in wages and transfer fees. Whilst English sides continue to dominate in Europe, this vicious cycle is likely to continue, with ever more salacious television companies pouring more into the coffers and ever more prize money finding its way into the trough of England`s Big Four, the competition, both domestic and European, dwindles and trembles in the face of its corporate might. While there is some truth here, anomalies lurk beneath the numbers. Madrid newspaper AS greeted Ronaldo`s stunning strike against Porto with the line, "Madrid`s next superstar hits a stunning winner against Porto" as the Spanish giants prepare a reported £70m bid. Bayern Munchen trailed Barcelona by four goals on Tuesday night, yet still had £12m worth of striker in Lukas Podolski on the substitutes bench. Internazionale Milano are hardly paupers themselves, so perhaps it is a little astounding to see such company claim poverty? Particularly when you consider that Arsenal fielded only one player who cost more than £10m last night (that fee is still being paid in instalments on the purchase of a 17 year old from Southampton). Perhaps Arsenal are the biggest anomaly on the whole argument, the Tottenham reserve side that beat Arsenal`s reserves on Tuesday night cost more than Arsenal`s first team in a Champions League Quarter Final. (The player that won that reserve game for Spurs came from Arsenal`s academy). Manchester City and Aston Villa outspend Arsenal all ends up, yet still we are a constant presence in the knockout stages. Relative paupers Villarreal outperformed their state welfare endorsed cousins Real Madrid in this year`s competition.
The question of the influence of rich benefactors will undoubtedly be proffered by some, yet this only realistically applies to Chelsea- who were a Champions League side pre Abramovic- though it`s foolhardy to dismiss his influence. Liverpool are certainly no richer than the aforementioned European giants, United earned their wealth with a cunningly executed corporate growth strategy allied by success on the pitch reared through their youth teams, whilst Arsenal are generally regarded as the financially most prudent club in England and manfully resist all talk of takeovers. Could it be that perhaps our clubs are being run much better? That we don`t indulge in the circus of sacking manager after manager and the constant politicking of "vote for me and I`ll buy player x" leading to instability and the inability to build a dynasty in the Ferguson and Wenger moulds? (Again, Chelsea are excluded from this point). Italy were the dominant league of the late 80s and early 90s but, like Icarus, they flew too close to the sun and greed took over. The avarice in the renegotiation of television deals caused clubs to breakaway and negotiate their own satellite packages, which proved to be disastrous. The public in Italy were turned off of football and attendances dwindled, corruption reigned and hooliganism reared its ugly head once more. (Naturally, UEFAs bigwigs rewarded them by allowing them to host the final. Morons). There are certainly lessons to be gleaned for the Premier League, particularly the smarmy Scudamore and his ridiculously vein attempts to champion the "greed is good" ethos in our league, but at this moment English clubs are being run better by managers and owners alike (again, Chelsea accepted). In fact, I would argue that Europe`s top four managers are currently plying their trade in our league and the management of resources by Ferguson, Benitez and Wenger surpasses that of other continental clubs because their structures are not quite as secure. (Hiidink is possibly the world`s finest coach, but has not had the luxury of managing Chelsea`s resources). That said, I think there is a case for a ruling decreeing that a club can only spend 50% of its turnover on salaries rather than doping the principles of the sport with steroid like cash injections from oligarchs.
Pratini if fond of prattling on about the lack of investment in young native players and sees quotas as a way of convalescing European competition back to health. His prime target here is unabashedly against English sides that do not rear their own talent and instead poach from abroad. That`s a view that is uncomfortably parochial for my liking; does it really matter if a young player is from Newbury or Norway? I`m not sure it matters much to me. But this is an argument that is easily deconstructed. Firstly, I dare say the right wing British press or Pratini took much note of Porto`s starting line up last night, if they had they would have discovered only two Portuguese players. Incidentally, in Ronaldo and Nani, United ended the game with the same amount. If one is to look at the playing squads given on the official websites of the leading clubs from Italy, Spain and England, they show that Barcelona boasts 12 Spanish players, Manchester United 11 English players and Inter Milan six Italians. Poaching young players from abroad, apparently a massive crime is hardly the sole preserve of English sides when you consider that Barca`s jaw dropping front line includes Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto`o. I`ll leave you to research exactly how those players were procured. Barcelona have shown an immense aptitude for taking young players from South America (Spurs reject Giovani dos Santos was parachuted in from the Catalonian village of, erm, Mexico). Chelsea and Real Madrid eschew this model altogether, in fact, if Madrid stopped chasing ageing supermodels and invested in some provincial teen beauty queens, they might be able to build a long and fruitful dynasty rather than these constant sugar daddy marriages of convenience which inevitably end in messy divorce.
Whilst English sides current pre eminence showcases their collective quality, one does have to seriously question what this current command says about our own indigenous league. Whilst the "Big Four" continue to rule the roost at home and abroad, the chasing pack flatter to deceive. Despite massive, massive investment in players, Tottenham continue to stumble backwards (and how we love reminding them), Villa have broken the bank but have faltered in the race for a top four slot that seemed a certainty six weeks ago. In the UEFA Cup, English sides exercise no such prevalence, with most going so far as to completely disregard the tournament as a nuisance. Since 2000-01, only three sides have broken the current top four strangle hold on Champions League competition. Everton and Newcastle- who could not make it past the preliminary stage- and Leeds United, currently of League One. Compare and contrast to Spain- who have put forward twelve sides since 2000-01 in this tournament, Italy who have offered seven of their finest, Germany nine and France eight- all of whom made it to the group stages. Leeds United`s semi final appearance against Valencia in 2001 was the last time the Premiership was represented by someone other than the Big Four in a bona fide Champions League match. The question is, should we worry less about English sides` domination of the Champions League than the predominance of these sides in this country?
I would not necessarily argue that the Premiership`s Indian sign over Europe is a positive or healthy thing necessarily, but I refuse to believe that sides of the size, vintage and wealth of Real Madrid, Bayern Munchen, Juventus and Barcelona cannot overcome it with better management of resources and players. Barca have now been the only side to prevent an English whitewash of the semi finals for two years running, though they have been knocked out by English opposition in the last two years. Unless they run out eventual winners this year, it is a fate that awaits them for a third year in a row. I happen to think Chelsea will knock them out, Barcelona are in scintillating form but they have been waltzing to La Liga title for months with a current goal difference of +63. That means they have not had to contend with challenging opposition on many occasions this season, will they cope with a game as tight as the one with Chelsea is likely to be? They could not against United last season when they failed to score in the available 180 minutes. Whilst the league table usually ends with a familiar tinge in England, the individual games tend to be more physically demanding. The Premiership is the fastest, most demanding league in Europe and this equips English sides better for European ties. Continental divisions may share the top places more often, but one off games are tougher affairs in England. I do not think it is up to Pratini and the like to try and dilute the playing field to artificially break up the English dominance, Europe`s behemoths should look more closely at what they can do to bridge the gap with their impressive resources. Whilst I am not against more responsible business models, I find it odd that Madrid, who sold their training ground off to their own council at over twice its recommended value, are apparently victims here and escape Pratini and Bladder`s acid tongues. Far more worrying issues lurk closer to home, with Chelsea, United, Liverpool and ourselves annually permitted to dip our snouts further into the Champions` League trough, is our own competition and its dwindling sense of competition more likely to see England`s decline abroad.LD.
Date:Thursday April 16 2009
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