Monday 22 January 2018

Masses no longer worship at altar of Premier League

Paul Hayward

English football's magic trick through all the boom years was to make interest in the Premier League feel obligatory.

To stand outside the religion was to be a weirdo, a Jeremiah or someone who, in childhood, deliberately left their PE kit at home.

While this indoctrination was in full swing the English game made spectacular strides.

Cathedrals replaced the old cattle-shed stadiums.

Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo skipped across the fields. Another brilliant stunt was to make rich foreigners pay for -- or borrow the money to pay for -- the great expansion.

The rest of world football adopted the foetal position and awaited the rumble of Premier League tanks.

There is no real scientific basis for the assertion you are about to read, but I would defend it in a court.

The subtle shift since the summer is that people no longer feel obliged to immerse themselves in the crazy cabaret of transfer fees, skyscraper salaries, diving, racism on and off the pitch or the painful strivings of the England team, from which many, unquestionably, have turned away through boredom.

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After Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, the Olympics and Paralympics rewrote Britain's national mood, Andy Murray captured a major tennis title and Europe's Ryder Cup golfers played Lazarus one thrilling day in Chicago, we all wondered how quickly football would clear these upstart sports from its pitch.

'Right you lot, clear off, Mr Abramovich's entourage is coming through.' But the sense, now, is that people no longer need football quite so badly.

With their laissez-faire ethos and Harvard Business School models, the brains behind the Premier League promoted the myth of infinite growth: certainly to the foreign broadcasters who snapped up English TV rights.

Over the glory years Sky, Setanta, ESPN, and now BT Vision, have maintained a healthy level of competitive tension in the sale of domestic fixtures.

Deep down, though, the English game knew that all booms are finite. No mass entertainment form can control public appetites forever.

The missionaries said there was only one show in town. This sporting summer killed that delusion. But the lurch in interest away from the round-ball obsession has been hastened by the long-term errors of the business itself.

One was to sell its soul to overseas speculators with no real interest in the clubs they were 'buying'. The Arsenal annual meeting exemplified those dangers.

Champions League defeats for Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal further threatened English power. Alongside that, we see an institutionalised inability to deal with the problems that arouse the most audience disgust -- mainly diving, as practised by Arsenal's Gervinho on Wednesday night, and many others.

If you want to fight the growing sense that football is morally degraded (it is no more so, on the field of play, than many other sports), you would be wise to ask why spectators are disengaging and then eradicate those forms of cheating.

But for that you need governance. The English game defers in almost all cases to money and celebrity, which is what made the English Football Association's decision to press ahead with the John Terry hearing after his acquittal in court so unusual -- and so commendable.

The result? Mass anger among black footballers at the leniency of Terry's sentence and the moral double-dip recession of him running out as Chelsea captain abroad, while serving a ban for racially abusing a black opponent at home.

This was surely the nadir. Wider society recoiled to see Terry retain the armband; so you wonder what the club's black players felt.

Against this backdrop, the flow of young talent to Roy Hodgson's England set-up is now a trickle.

The world's two best players, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, both play in Spain and the Bundesliga is the most upwardly mobile division, admired by neutrals for its low admission prices and zestful play.

The difference now, compared to the 1970s and 1980s, is that English football has strong foundations and displays a willingness at least to talk about its illnesses.

The simpleton who attacked Chris Kirkland at Sheffield Wednesday was in jail within five days. The Kick it Out T-shirt boycott sparked a good debate.

Perhaps the ugliest monster in the swamp is still the obnoxious chanting in grounds. It was the price you paid for liking football.

But how can a sport pontificate to fans about racism when two household names (Terry and Luis Suarez) have been banned and fined for using racial insults against black opponents?

To adapt Alf Ramsey, English football has attracted a mass audience once, and now it is going to have to attract it all over again, or at least keep the one it has. The old arrogance and presumption, though, are no longer viable.

Even people with a lifelong love of the game report a creeping alienation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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