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31 January 2016

Our Premier League is the best in the world. So where are all the good players?

Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Suárez are the four best players in the world – but none of them plays here. Bit of a puzzle.

By Hunter Davies

Oh, why are we so good? Oh yes we are. The Premier League is the best in the world, no question, just count the billions coming in. Every club in the Prem is richer than Botswana. Crystal Palace gets more TV income than Barcelona. The whole world is gasping for Prem games. At home, you can’t get a ticket, though seats cost more than a house in Gaborone.

There is no doubt that since the Prem League was created 24 years ago it has been a whopping financial success. They wouldn’t be raking in all that money if it wasn’t good, would they? And exciting.

Just look at this season, a large pack at the top fighting it out, with no clear leader, and each side liable to get stuffed by a so-called inferior team from lower down the league. It’s the most open race in decades, which points to the overall quality. Doesn’t it?

Leicester City, come on, that’s remarkable: an unglamorous, un-rich provincial club showing the moneybags of London and Manchester how to do it. And Stoke and Palace and Watford, aren’t they doing well?

The Prem is not like some of those boring leagues in Europe where the same one or two teams win everything, every year. That there is no clear, all-conquering super-team indicates the excellent standard of our wonderful Prem? Of course it does! So belt up. Hurrah for the Prem.

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Why are we so bad? Why, if we are so totally fab, do we not have the best players? Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Suárez are the four best players in the world – but none of them plays here. Bit of a puzzle.

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Is it ’cos we can’t afford them? Course we can. So it must be because they don’t want to come. The bastards. Sheer prejudice, if you ask me.

Ronaldo and Suárez, when they were young and foolish, did play here, then got out, sharpish. Paul Pogba, now at Juventus, being slavered over by every top team, was let go as a lad by Man United. He’s unlikely to come back, not till he’s old and knackered. Same with Modric and Bale. They made it playing here, got a world audience and acclaim, then whoosh, they were off.

Oh, it is such a puzzle. If we have so much money, which we have – massive crowds, no question, great excitement, oh yes – why do the best players not want to play here?

I lie awake at night trying to work it out.

It’s mainly because our top clubs, with all their resources, are not at present considered among Europe’s best clubs, unlike Barça, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. That’s where the world-class players want to play – and win the big pots. Our clubs were dominant in Europe just ten years ago or so. Not now.

Of Fifa’s top 55 players, there are only ten playing in the Prem, compared to 20 just three years ago. And of those ten, only two are English, Terry and Rooney. Oh, the ignominy.

Are the managers to blame? Jürgen Klopp hasn’t made it work yet at Liverpool, nor van Gaal at Man United. Mourinho came a cropper at Chelsea. Is it them, or us?

You can’t really blame our coaching. Most of the best players in the Prem are foreign anyway, trained elsewhere. It’s being here that seems to make them limp and lumpen, like Di María and Falcao.

I think, deep down, it’s all our fault, we the fans, letting them get away with it. And not just the players. The whole football system.

This imbalance of too much money and yet mediocre quality happens in other forms of business life, but in football it is pretty clear that we, the consumers, have caused it.

British football fans, with more money and sloppy emotions than basic common sense, willingly allow ourselves to be conned, believing it when Sky tells us it’s the best league in the world, agreeing to pay fortunes for season tickets and satellite subs. I could have bought a Baby Bentley with all the money I’ve given Sky and BT. I need my fix of live football, every day of the week, which is what we almost have now. O rapture.

Yes, it’s very stupid. I take the blame. Feel free to give me a good kicking. But not till half-time. 

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?