Tuesday 18 December 2018

The Premier League is back, only the world has changed

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

In declaring from the start that "there will be no Brexit", I was influenced to a certain extent by my deep concern for what Brexit might mean for the Premier League.

Indeed, you didn't hear much about the Premier League from the Brexiteers, partly because they inhabit a shrunken universe, but mainly because it demonstrates so clearly the success of Britain's relationship with Europe.

It is a living monument to the way in which these great British football institutions have been embellished by the free movement of people from "the continent", creating a phenomenon which has enslaved much of the civilised world - enslaved it in a good way. And in ways that are perhaps not so good too, but we will deal with that later.

About 50,000 Liverpool fans showed up at the Aviva Stadium recently for a pre-season friendly, a game of no consequence, a training session indeed. Their rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone was regarded by aficionados as one of the more perfectly-rendered of modern times, an affirmation of their one true faith and of their devotion to the messiah Jurgen Klopp (praise be to him).

Then again in Ireland we have for long been in love with Association Football, with the strange magic of the grand old clubs of England. We have been going there for generations, back to the days when the football men of the Republic were a minority despised by the ultra-Catholic ruling class.

We eventually grew out of that particular form of nationalist eejitry, never wavering in our belief in the English game, even when the vast majority of "foreign" players were drawn from Scotland, Wales, and indeed Ireland.

And now we observe with a certain amused indulgence as the multitudes of TV subscribers in Asia and the Americas enjoy this great diversion, this way of life that Paddy has always known. Indeed, it is English nationalism which is now becoming a dark presence, with Brexit in theory damaging the Premier League by enforcing more complex entry requirements for players from other European countries.

But you know, I don't think that's going to happen. When I say there will be no Brexit, I am figuring that whatever eventually comes to pass will be so strangely similar to what is there at the moment, we will marvel only at the fantastic waste of it all.

Indeed, in any discussion of this particular issue, you will read about the technical problems which Brexit may cause, these potential restrictions on the signing of little-known or up-and-coming players such as N'Golo Kante or Riyad Mahrez or Anthony Martial. But then the discussion drifts somewhat, and by the end there's this kind of meandering tone, suggesting that a way will be found to get around this blithering Brexit idiocy.

Yes, a way will be found. In many other areas of life now endangered by the visions of Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg, ways will be found. But in this most serious of matters - the football - we can see so clearly the badness of their project. And how it is doomed.

Indeed, Brexit in this case may turn out to be a mere distraction next to the bigger difficulties which are coming into play for the Premier League, more fundamental because they concern the very nature of the human psyche.

Essentially, it is getting harder to persuade anyone to watch anything for up to two hours in the one sitting. Especially if we have no skin in the game, if we support Liverpool for example, but are presented with the challenge of Watford v West Brom on a Sunday afternoon.

Personally I would have no difficulty with this, committed as I am to the dictum that You Should Never Not Watch A Football Match. But I know that others would not be so strong. That somewhere in their Googled-out brains they might be seeing the prospect of Watford v West Brom, and they might be thinking of going against the sacred words by saying to themselves: you know what? I will not watch that football match. And much though they may regret not watching it, that will be too late for Sky or BT who are paying the silly-money for the rights. There is no doubt about it, our attention spans are changing, so that people, for reasons best known to themselves, are increasingly drawn only to the best bits.

The viewer is also being empowered with the Sky Plus machine, so that even if the game is overwhelmingly important to you, and much of your personal happiness for the coming week depends on it, you may fast-forward it to the end because you simply can't endure the tension of the "real" game.

There is even a small, but increasingly powerful part of our brains, which is starting to see the "real" experience as somehow less real than the one in which we can control the game ourselves with the remote.

And on the matter of "sustainability", could we say that that transfer deal of €105m for Paul Pogba, was a sure sign that we had entered the dreaded "bubble"?

Well, since a figure of €166m has been projected as the net worth of the aforementioned Jacob Rees-Mogg, €105m for someone with actual talent would suggest that if this is a bubble, it's a beautiful bubble, baby!

Though, of course, in any beautiful bubble, with lots of money in it, you will find a tremendous number of exceedingly bad men. In any environment in which millions are being hurled across the table like cream buns in a food-fight, you will find many corporate creatures gorging themselves on the fare.

And the fragility of our game is yet further emphasised by the Premier League's twisted partnership with the gambling industry. Here we may find the biggest danger to its continued success, to the integrity of the sport itself.

Joey Barton won't be playing this season, due to his violation of the rules against gambling. But he spoke a deep truth when he castigated the administrators who are happy to sell large portions of the game to the betting corporations, to allow them to promote themselves incessantly to vulnerable people - the same administrators who are pleased to stand in judgement of individuals who lose their way in that labyrinth.

Moreover, a bookie sponsoring a football team is not the same as, say, Kilsaran Concrete having its name on the shirt.

Bookies have a direct interest in the outcome of the game, they are players, and sure enough you see their names more prominently than those of many other players, scrolling across the pitchside hoardings from start to finish, with more to come during the ad-breaks. And with the greatest of ease, you can "get involved".

Brexit won't break this league. But a dose of match-fixing, our old friend "unusual betting patterns", and even this bubble could burst.

Sunday Independent

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