Monday 16 September 2019

Globalised football culture hollowed out to serve elite

VAR controversy: Gabriel Jesus. Photo: Getty Images
VAR controversy: Gabriel Jesus. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Wilson

Did you feel it? The great disturbance in the force, as though millions of voices cried out in hope? Last weekend, something remarkable happened: none of the champions of Europe's big five leagues won (a statistic that admittedly loses some of its potency when it's acknowledged that Serie A hadn't started: Juventus kicked off their campaign yesterday at Parma).

Last season was the first time that the title in each of the big five leagues had been retained, but here was the little man striking back: Barcelona lost, Paris St-Germain lost, Manchester City drew, Bayern drew. Do you hear the people sing?

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Well, no, not really. The people have been remarkably silent about a weekend of upsets, largely because the people know that it surely doesn't matter.

City may only have drawn with Spurs but they had 30 shots (excluding Gabriel Jesus' controversially disallowed late winner) to three (including Harry Kane's speculative lump from inside his own half); in all respects but the result it was a performance of awesome domination.

Bayern were sloppy in drawing with Hertha Berlin but still managed 17 shots to six. Barca were disjointed and missing several key players in their 1-0 defeat by Athletic in Bilbao, but still had the better of the xG (expected goals). Only PSG, a sportswashing project turned toxic when it lost sight of whose ego it was meant to be fluffing, suffered a defeat that was a clear reflection of the play, going down 2-1 at Rennes. Yet each of the five champions remain odds-on to defend their titles again and the price on all five to do so is somewhere between 6-1 and 13-2.

To put that in context, Bournemouth are 16-1 to beat City at home today: it's almost three times less likely that a decent mid-table side will win a one-off game against the champions than all five will successfully defend their titles. Little wonder that the super clubs outside the Premier League are beginning to tire of their domestic leagues.

What is the point of super-clubs collecting league titles when they are not playing particularly well?

The situation of City and the Premier League is a little different to that of the other four. City are dominant because they have an exceptional coach and have invested the resources of their owners with almost unprecedented efficiency. The scale and providence of those resources is another issue.

Much the same could be said of Liverpool, their only probable challengers. Both are, of course, to an extent sustained by the grossly inequitable distribution of football's wealth, an issue that the plight of Bury and Bolton has cast in urgent light, and that distribution will only become more unequal within the Premier League as the new overseas TV rights deal comes into effect. But City and Liverpool are in positions of strength largely because they have got the football side of their operations right.

And that's what's so alarming about what is going on elsewhere. PSG have been distracted by the continuing Neymar saga. Juve have installed Maurizo Sarri, whose idiosyncratic methods don't seem a natural fit to a distended squad built around Cristiano Ronaldo. Barca are in unconvincing transition. Bayern have, in Niko Kovac, kept on a coach about whom nobody, from the club hierarchy to the fans, seem certain.

There is reason to be sceptical about all four and yet all remain overwhelming favourites. Barca at least have one rival of equivalent financial might; the others dwarf potential competitors, for all that people wonder whether Napoli or Dortmund might have their season.

In the past seven years, Barca, PSG, Bayern and Juve have won 25 of 28 league titles. Max Allegri was let go by Juve having led them to five scudetti in-a-row, four of them doubles, because Europe has become the only testing ground - something Real Madrid, whose record of two league titles in 11 years is scandalously bad, seem to have accepted years ago.

Of course the non-Premier League elite like the idea of a super-league, with the proposals to transform the Champions League into four groups of eight, perhaps with protected places, a fairly obvious stepping stone towards that.

English clubs don't seem especially keen, understandably given how the Premier League model is so lucrative. English fans, by and large, seem appalled by the prospect but England has always been a little different. English football has always supported more professional clubs than elsewhere, had a sense of them as hubs of their community, and the notion that a small handful of big teams should dominate is relatively new. Manchester United, the most successful English side, have won only 16.7 per cent of all league titles: compare that to Bayern (50 per cent), Real Madrid (37.5 per cent) or Juventus (30.4 per cent).

Historically, there has been a greater fluidity at the top of English football than in any other major league: the top two sides of two decades ago aren't even the best sides in their respective cities now, a situation unthinkable elsewhere.

But there is a certain grim logic to a super-league. What, after all, is the point of super-clubs collecting seven, eight, nine league titles in-a-row, even when they're not playing particularly well? The Champions League already skews competition because its rewards are so out of sync with what is available domestically. Porto's defeat in this season's preliminaries has devastated their financial planning. Or take Cyprus, where no team had retained the title in 12 years before Apoel reached the Champions League quarter-finals in 2012: inflated by the revenue that brought, they have won the championship every year since. Almost everywhere but the Premier League, the status quo cannot hold.

This is football in a globalised culture, everything hollowed out to service the elite, the super-clubs from western Europe who draw support from across the world. In the final rounds of the Champions League, the spectacle and drama is extraordinary. But for smaller clubs the future is bleak.

Do you hear the people sing? Not much. Not any more.

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