The most boring league in the world?
As the Man Utd-Arsenal snoozefest revealed, the Premier League is in danger of losing its lustre.
The English Premier League: Is it the best league in the world? Is it the most exciting? It’s certainly the most hyped, but it’s not winning too many other accolades these days.
The best league? I think Spain’s La Liga probably shades it these days. If you’re looking for the best technical football then Spain is probably where it’s at. Spain also attracts the best players. Look at the list of nominees for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or award for the world footballer of 2010 and you’ll see that players based at Spanish clubs dominate. There are only two nominated players based in England – Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas and Sunderland’s Asamoah Gyan. Unsurprisingly, no English player even makes the shortlist.
There was a time not so long ago that the Premier League’s top clubs were dominating the Champions League. The best players were coming to England. Not big name has-beens looking for a last big payday but younger players in their prime. The arrival in England of players like Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Carlos Tevez and Robinho illustrated the unrivalled financial clout of the top English clubs. Today, however, the brightest talents are heading for Spain. The top Premiership clubs can still attract good players but not necessarily the best. It is no coincidence that Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, two of the German stars of this summer’s World Cup, opted for La Liga over the Premiership. It’s currently the It-League of world club football.
Why has the Premier League fallen behind Spain? The domination of the Premier League clubs in the Noughties was founded on its ability to generate greater broadcasting revenues than their European rivals. In 2007/8, for example, the Premier League generated £2.44 billion euros in TV revenues in total – one billion euros more than La Liga. However, the competitive advantage this gave the English clubs has been considerably eroded by a combination of the weak pound and the new 50 per cent top rate of income tax, which came into force in April 2010. Spain is now the tax avoidant footballer’s destination of choice. Overseas footballers who move to Spanish clubs pay a tax rate of only 24 per cent thanks to an infamous loophole – known as the ‘Beckham’ law – whereby they are treated as non-residents.
Another advantage that many English clubs have enjoyed over their European rivals has been investment from wealthy foreign owners. Manchester City is a prime example of a club which is still able to spend silly money on transfer fees and wages. But the ability of clubs like City to run up huge losses each year, thanks to the largess of their benefactor, is also set to end. When Michel Platini’s Financial Fair Play rules are introduced in 2012, football clubs will be limited in what they can spend. Initially, there will be a cap on the amount that clubs can spend above their annual income. But eventually no club will be able to spend more than it earns.
It is often said that what the Premier League lacks in technique or tactical sophistication it more than makes up for in visceral, spine-tingling excitement. But after this week’s damp squib ‘showdown’ between Manchester United and Arsenal you’d have to question whether the Premiership is as exciting as it’s billed. If Monday night’s turgid encounter was English football’s El Clasico – the best that the Premier League has to offer – then we’re in big trouble. Compare that to Barcelona’s stunning 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid. The Barcaphiles who gush over Guardiola’s team have been in gushing overdrive ever since that game. And while Barca worship normally makes me reach for my sick bag, it’s increasingly rare to see a big Premiership game producing such a jawdropping spectacle.
This wasn’t the first United versus Arsenal clash that has failed to deliver in terms of drama and excitement. Maybe I’m just getting old and jaded but matches between these two sides seem much more cagey and much less explosive than they used to be. This fixture routinely produced great blood-and-thunder battles. Not always beautiful football but highly charged encounters that were fast, furious and often boiled over. But something has been missing lately. Where is the needle? Where’s Roy Keane squaring up to Patrick Vieira or bulgy-eyed Martin Keown screaming at Ruud Van Nistelrooy? We had to wait until late in the first half – when Chamakh clattered into Nani – for Howard Webb to produce the first yellow card of the game. That can’t be right can it? If we can’t have Barca-style olé football then the fixture could usually be relied on to produce some juicy X-rated tackles and the occasional mass brawl. It’s all got a bit too, well, civilised.
It isn’t just the big top-of-the-table shoot-outs that are disappointing. The title race may be much more open than in previous seasons but there’s a notable decline in quality. None of the title contenders has particularly excelled this season. The champions, Chelsea, who looked ominously ruthless at the start of the season, have hit a slump and can’t buy a win right now. Manchester United are unbeaten in the league and capable of grinding out results but are no longer the irresistible attacking force of old. Arsenal, as ever, play pretty passing football but are neither nasty enough nor defensively solid enough to win the league. There are too many snoods and gloves for my liking. Manchester City are still not a team but a collection of highly paid, sulky, snood-wearing brats. Spurs have gatecrashed the elite club party this season and play attractive attacking football. But they’re too soft defensively.
All of this points to one of the usual suspects – United or Chelsea – taking the title simply because they have the experience and campaign know-how to deliver results in the run-in. Exciting, I guess, if you support either club or one of the chasing pack. But it’s not much fun for the rest of us. Wake me up in May for the trophy presentation – unless there’s a punch-up.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
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