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11 August 2017

Money stinks up the Premier League, but there’s still no sport like English football

As England's top footballing tier returns for the new season, let's try to separate the good from the bad.

By Daniel harris

In these Brexit days of racism, myopia and rampant arsegobbery, reliable British exports are hard to find. But the Premier League – which restarts tonight – is one, a global icon unaffected by our official regression to the state of nature.

This is because there is no sport on earth quite like English football. As the country is small, supporters can watch their teams away as well as at home, something hard or impossible to achieve in other countries with elite leagues. This fosters a unique atmosphere and immersive culture – both general and specific – of small groups assimilated into one large group containing hundreds of people on nodding terms or more who will, at some point, spontaneously embrace and cavort.

Thus thousands of lives are furnished with an addictive, contagious routine involving ridiculous stories, rowdy friendships, petty rivalry and civic pride which manifests both in the stands and on the pitch.

The nature of the game itself is also particular to England. Of course, what constitutes excitement is subjective, and there is a thrill in, say, watching the kind aesthetic destructions or technical, cerebral battles more common elsewhere. But for those of us who expect football to agitate the elements of our psyche which, for the good of humanity, lie dormant in real life, then the artistry and intensity of English football is incomparable.

Its harem-scarem nature means that no league is less predictable – especially now, when the standard at the top is not so high but the standard just below has never been higher. We are drawn to sport, in significant part, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, which is why the Premier League is so magnificently alluring.

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In the last five seasons we have seen four different champions; at this point a year ago, Chelsea were only deemed fourth most likely by the bookmakers. Indeed, in the 25 editions since the division was formed, the pre-season favourites have taken the title on just ten occasions, a statistic all the more telling given that the same club won 13 of them.

Currently, the expectation is that Manchester City will be celebrating come May – and yet the centre of their defence is dodgy and their manager unproven in the league. Meanwhile, Manchester United look short of goals, Liverpool lack elite quality, Chelsea have barely strengthened, Tottenham are playing home games at Wembley and Arsenal are Arsenal. Our certainty these teams will comprise the top six may be misplaced, but at least we are forced to accept it is impossible to predict in what order. 

The challenge of such uncertainty was crucial in persuading managers as charismatic as José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp to work in England. The intermeshing of their personalities adds yet another layer of intrigue and edge. Nor are the unknowns limited to the top of the table. Last season, Burnley were overwhelming favourites to go down but did not, and almost half the table was involved as the battle to stay up reached its denouement.

While it would be dishonest not to note that the Premier League is followed worldwide because of the excesses of Empire, it also boasts a surfeit of famous clubs, with well-defined identities, seminal players and contemporary achievements. Manchester United and Liverpool have enjoyed success across 60 years and lifted the Champions League this century, as have Chelsea. Arsenal have reached a final. The sovereign wealth of Abu Dhabi makes Manchester City an unignorable presence.

Naturally there are downsides to all of this, and most revolve around the folding green. As Bob Dylan noted, “money doesn’t talk, it swears”. Thanks to avaricious authorities and apathetic governments, clubs are legally owned by an assortment of gangsters, carpetbaggers, human rights abusers and morons, while supporters, their moral owners, are exploited.

For this reason it is far too expensive to watch Premier League football, whether on telly or in the flesh, and as such, the ability to stream foreign coverage for free is the best thing to happen to supporters in decades. Our clubs exist because generations of supporters have invested their time, money, effort and emotion, and as such they and their descendants are entitled to watch them. You cannot steal that which is yours.

Money’s encroachment into football is especially evident in close-season. The richest clubs hawk themselves around the world to, depending on your bent, “grow their brand” or “snaffle as much money as possible”, not necessarily conducive to starting the season well, yet absolutely conducive to signing better players – so, swings and roundabouts.

Either way, these matches bring English football to people who cannot otherwise enjoy it live. This does not grant the matches legitimacy – a friendly played in Houston between Manchester United v Manchester City means nothing and is not a  “Manchester derby”. But 67,401 people enjoying a precious pleasure is not the worst thing in the world, nor even the worst thing in football. It’s easy – mandatory, even – to take the piss, but a global game with a global language is increasingly hard to hate in an ever-more fractured world.

And then there are transfer fees, the sums exchanged both horrifying and terrifying – all the more so given the Brexit-shaped turd flaming on our doorsteps. Yet any signing which works quickly looks a bargain, and for now at least, the majority of clubs can afford their failures. Which is not to say things should not change. Money earned at the top of the game must be more equitably redistributed, while a salary cap and transfer cap would restore some competitive integrity. The game is not success but glory, and that can never be achieved by brute wealth.

But instead, people and papers choose to rail at what individuals earn – even though our society prizes football highly, those who are best at it sacrifice for their status, and money not disbursed to them would simply disappear into suit pockets. Strangely, far less vitriol is directed at tennis players, actors and the family Windsor, which is to say that carping about the wealth of working-class players says more about the carpers than it does the players.

If we are to take issue with how football clubs pay their employees, then our focus ought to be on how little they give those who do less heralded jobs, rather than on how much they give those whose jobs are among the most heralded on the planet.

So, as another season starts, a suggested resolution: separate that which seems infuriating from that which is actually infuriating and retain accordant fury, but never allow it to encroach on joy. Have a good one.