Football remains arguably the world’s most popular sport. While it is cherished all over Europe, Africa and South America, we English tend to claim a particularly special connection with the beautiful game. “Football’s coming home” we clamoured in ’66, referencing the somewhat contentious (but at least here firmly held) belief that we invented the game as an organised sport. However, recent years have not cast a favourable light on the state of English football.
The national team has undergone a marked decline and quality young English players seem a rarity, hence the deserved but nonetheless ostensible hype over Harry Kane. But throughout this steady descent one suggestion has been continuously reinforced for years; the Premier League is the best league in the world. It is a proposition that has now been stretched to its limit.
Six years ago 3 of the 4 teams in the Champions League Semi-Finals were English, with eventual winners Barcelona playing, some would say, ‘disgracefully’ well to overcome Chelsea and United. The previous year had seen the first all-English European final between the Mourinho and Ferguson’s men. Fast forward to the present day and a gradual but persistent decline has seen no English clubs advance to the final 8 of Europe’s top competition for the second time in three years.
Chelsea, supposedly the best team in our league this year, were beaten by a PSG side who absolutely deserved every bit of their victory, playing the majority of the second leg with 10 men. Ligue 1 has often considered something of a punchline in England, and it may have been possible to dismiss the result as a one off, after all even Ibrahimovic thinks PSG are too good for France.
Unfortunately, it was another French team, Monaco, who knocked out our ever-combustible Arsenal on away goals over two legs. Again some will suggest that the Gunners were unfortunate not to proceed after an excellent second leg performance, but the reality remains that Monaco were by far the better side in the first game and consequently earned their spot in the next round. It is time to wake up and smell the croissants, the French sides were victorious over 360 minutes of legitimate football, demonstrating a resilience we supposedly pride our own sides on.
Still some will argue that although our sides were beaten, the games were close and could have gone either way. The opposition weren’t really better, more attractive or – god-forbid – more star-studded than our teams, were they? Well actually our champions Manchester City took on Barcelona, Spanish champions, and were very fortunate to lose 3-1 on aggregate. City were outclassed comfortably in both legs, with Joe Hart playing sublimely in the second game to prevent Messi from reclaiming the Champions League goals record. Suarez’ brace in the first match in Manchester allowed Neymar, World Cup poster-boy and Barcelona’s third best player, to miss chances at his own leisure.
Never has the gap in quality between Spain’s best team and our own been so clear. But Clichy was sent off, so the result doesn’t really count, right?
Ok, so we admit our very top teams aren’t quite the super-forces that they once were, but a league can’t be judged purely based on its very top teams! Our league can boast strength in depth, we have a number of high quality teams. Such as Everton… who were beaten soundly by Dynamo Kiev. At least Spurs…. were also beaten comfortably by Fiorentina. Well Salah scored in that game and he’s on loan from Chelsea so that one doesn’t really count either.
Well let’s really scrape the barrel and argue that the Premier League is particularly wonderful because any given side can beat another on their day. There is an element of truth to this particular claim. Whilst football remains one of the most unpredictable sports at high level, it is more rare for a top side in other leagues to suffer defeat at the hands of relegation threatened opposition than it is in England. Sunderland’s late run last year will be remembered by many as an example of such a team rallying late on in dramatic fashion which could have decided the destination of the trophy if not for an unfortunate slip. There is no doubting that this is a desirable quality in a competition.
But it is not as if it is impossible for such results in other leagues, Real Madrid suffered two such defeats at the start of this season. And indeed, can this quality alone justify the slogan of the best league in the world?
Away from the play on the field, some may advance that the passion of the fans and the culture of football in our country is what sets our league apart. Every football fan in England, and probably many non-football fans too would begrudingly agree that the sport has tremendous cultural value. Up and down the country, Premier League to Non-League, fans vocalise their support and turn up in droves to cheer on their local, and glory, sides.
Saturday 3pm is a hallowed time rivalled only by Super Sunday, and Monday Night Football provides us with a final push before sending us away on our working weeks, patiently biding our time until we can repeat the process seven days later. We criticise, we eulogise and we utilise corny catchphrases just to poke our points home. The overeager reaction of Villa fans after, or just before, the final whistle at their derby game with West Brom is just one, slightly unnecessary example of our love affair with the game.
But we can’t pretend that other countries do not display a similar enthusiasm. The Spanish newspaper La Marca’s recent haunting of Real Madrid, and particular persecution of the unfortunate Gareth Bale is just one example of the deep rooted obsession of the Spanish media with football. The Italian crowd no doubt played a part in Fiorentina’s victory over Spurs and Liverpool’s Europa League exit in Turkey, virtually the edge of the footballing world for the uncultured, was fuelled by a cauldron like atmosphere. Football is loved around the world, with no love more pure than another (apart from Americans, who will probably never be accepted into the football community).
However, there is one rather important area in which the Premier League does excel over its rivals, money. In February a £5.1 billion Tv deal was brokered, securing the continued growth of Premier League viewings all around the world. There is a clear reason behind the competition’s continued success, it is quite simply great entertainment. Fans love the teams and the players. They love the matches as they play out, and they love the history of the league.
But this gigantic financial success is a result of particularly shrewd marketing by the likes of Sky and BT. The Premier League is an incredible competition which entertains millions around the world. Does its financial success raise its status from one of the world’s best leagues to categorically the best? There is a reason why Gary Neville and the other Sky commentators are constantly reminding us of our league’s unrivalled status, the Premier League, more so than any other league, is a brand.
Whether being the most successful brand goes hand in hand with being the greatest league is ultimately a matter of opinion.
Sunday was a particularly poignant day in the context of this debate, featuring both Manchester United v Liverpool and El Classico. Both matches were a great reflection of their respective leagues, passionate, high quality and dramatic affairs. However, a quick inspection of the score sheet tells a very revealing story. Two of the three scorers in the latter game, Ronaldo and Suarez, were huge transfer imports from the English clubs who had played earlier in the day.
Despite all the money supposedly in the Premier League, these two incredible players, amongst the best of their generation, had chosen moves to the La Liga giants at the peak of their powers. I wonder why.