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20 March 2024

Football is driven by money – but also improved by it

Thanks to Premier League billions, the likes of Bournemouth and Brighton attract good players, and, on occasion, can stuff the elite.

By Hunter Davies

It’s a strange and yet an awfully pleasant feeling to realise and accept that English league football is now best in the world. Yes, must be true. Sky TV tells us that all the time. And the back pages are constantly salivating at our wonderfulness.

Yet for so much of my long-legged life I assumed and accepted that foreigners did it better. They had taken our game, which we invented, oh yes, and proceeded to show us how to play it.

Growing up during the war, we were cut off from all foreign influence or knowledge. Foreign players, in England, came from Scotland, Ireland or Wales. Games between the Home Nations were the big annual excitement. They did continue, during the war, with soldiers who had been professional players pre-war turning out for their country and being listed in the programmes as Corporal or Sergeant.

So, what excitement in 1945 when I was nine and good gracious, a real foreign team arrived on our shores – Moscow Dynamo. They played four games – attracting 83,000 at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, 90,000 at Ibrox against Rangers. I cut out all the photos and reports from the papers and stuck them in my home-made scrapbook. They seemed so exotic, these stocky Russians, who could not speak a word of English yet played our game so well.

Before the Chelsea game, the Russians presented each of their opponents with a bouquet of flowers. God, that was funny. The Chelsea players looked so sheepish and embarrassed. Blokes carrying flowers, how soppy. Almost as unnatural as dads pushing prams.

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England joined Fifa late, and so missed the first World Cup in 1930. We joined after the war, which was jolly good of us. The 1950 finals were in Brazil – the ignominy. We got beaten by the USA 1-0. We never even knew Yanks played football.

A bigger shock came in 1953 when we got stuffed by 6-3 at Wembley, the Home of Football, by Hungary, or the Magical Magyars, according to the back pages. Yes, we done good in 1966 at Wembley, and told ourselves, for a month or so, that England were top of the world forever. What a larf. Never happened. And I can’t see it happening in what is left of my life.

In the 1960s and 1970s, I drooled over Brazil. They were so clever, so talented, so creative. Most people of my generation believe they were the best team we ever saw. But then the focus moved to Europe. We had to accept in the 1980s that the modern game was being played best in Italy, where they paid the best wages. I went to interview Graeme Souness in Italy when he was with Sampdoria. So many of our stars did go and play abroad, despite discovering, as John Toshack did, that foreigners did not speak English. (I fear that story is apocryphal, true in essence but not in fact.)

What a change today. The best players and managers are in the Prem, and the whole world watches. It pays the best wages and the world’s richest moneybags want to buy a Prem club. Or any English club. Who would have imagined that Carlisle United, bottom of League One, would be bought by an American couple?

It’s still hard to believe the billions that float around football. The TV rights to Prem games for four years were sold recently for £6.7bn. In 1992, when it first sold TV rights, they fetched only £38m.

The whole point of the league’s creation was to make money, the elite cutting themselves off from the herd in order to maximise their income. In fact the money has trickled down: the elite teams are still the same, but the so-called middling ones, like Bournemouth and Brighton, can attract good players, are well coached and, on occasion, can stuff the elite. The top clubs in the Championship are getting bigger gates and play better football than many teams in the top European leagues. England’s Prem teams lead the world, even though only a third of its players are English.

Will it last? Of course not. These things come in cycles. Make the most if it. Footer fans, just enjoy living at this hour…

[See also: Why would Jürgen Klopp leave Liverpool? Let me count the (made up) ways]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024