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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
It makes quite depressing reading, but I think he's spot on. As usual.


A desire for victory at any cost blinds fans to the dangers of foreign domination and a game adrift from its roots

David Conn

December 19, 2007 12:13 AM

So, 2007 hurtles towards its conclusion with a neat flourish: "make or break Sunday," when the Premier League's four most glittering clubs fielded just 12 England-qualified players, one in five among 60 in their squads, followed by the FA appointing an Italian manager to knock into shape the few who come through.

This was a year in which the Premier League, open without restriction to overseas takeovers, players and managers, banked a £2.7bn TV deal, expanded its global reach and cemented its dominance of the English game. Liverpool, bastion of scouse pride, welcomed a leveraged buyout by two North American billionaires who seem to turn up only for big games. Manchester City fans, who have boasted for years of supporting "the only football team to come from Manchester", now gawp at happy birthday messages relayed from their stadium to the king of Thailand. Arsenal, against expectations, emerged as the one club to defiantly resist a foreign takeover, yet on Sunday was alone in fielding no England-qualified players in the team or on the bench. Few fans seem to think any of this is important, yet pronounced themselves shocked, gutted, when the England players failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Perhaps the most telling phenomenon in a year when chickens came home to roost has been the lack of sustained, informed debate about the direction the national game is taking.

At fault-line moments, the England team's exit, or Thaksin Shinawatra's takeover of City, there was plenty of instant opinion, on whether who owns a club is important, the eye-watering price of tickets, the galactic wages of players, the financial gap between the Premier League and the rest, the squeezing out of home-developed players and managers. Some contributions were significant - when the England captain, Steven Gerrard, argued in favour of club quotas for home-grown players, you might think the men running the game would credit him with some authority - but none of it was allowed to develop into an actual conversation that could come to any reasoned conclusions.

Instead, ideas for reform are immediately rejected out of hand by the Premier League, led by the chief executive, Richard Scudamore, as unwanted intrusion on its free-market dogma. This year, Scudamore ascribed the Premier League's success - meaning its popularity and wealth - to being "agnostic" on club ownership, overseas players, everything. Any suggestions by football's governing bodies to help shape the game's overall development are savagely opposed as interfering "regulation" - usually with success because the new prime minister, Gordon Brown, appears wholly captivated by the Premier League's billionaire charms. The episode when 10 Downing Street publicly slapped down Brown's own sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, for daring to reflect that ordinary people find ticket prices difficult to afford, and John Terry's salary hard to comprehend, showed that Brown's advisers have not grasped that there are serious issues to be addressed in football, not just reflected glory to be gleaned from it.

The game overflows with a lack of what a sensible government might call "joined-up thinking". For all the knee-jerk chatter rejecting the suggestion of "quotas", few here seem even to know that clubs already have to have a minimum number of home-grown players, six this season, eight next, in their squads for European competitions, including the Champions League. When Uefa announced that proposal, the Premier League howled with outrage, David Dein, then Arsenal's vice-chairman, complaining it would affect "the product", (football) because it would force clubs to play the inadequate graduates of their own academy systems. The point, Uefa explained, was to encourage clubs to give young players chances, but the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, a quiet sort of leader again this year, was dispatched to oppose the measure.

Football associations, not clubs or leagues, run national teams, so they saw the idea as a sensible one which could help more players to come through. Among the 53 European countries affiliated to Uefa, England was alone in speaking against.

The French, winners of the World Cup in 1998, Euro 2000 and beaten finalists in last year's World Cup, with excellent players stocking first teams throughout Europe, argued the measure did not go far enough. They already have detailed policies to help home-grown players make it into maturity, including a requirement that youngsters sign their first professional contract with their training club. Germany and Italy thought the quotas made common sense and introduced the rule for their domestic leagues - imagine that. Italy, not a football culture without its profound problems, nevertheless managed to produce a league from which Milan beat Liverpool to win the Champions League this year, and enough Italy- qualified players competing regularly to man a national team which won last year's World Cup.

Their system also continues to nurture retiring players into coaching, while ours has produced no English manager of a top side. Alone among the leading European countries, England needs to import a national team coach, waving a wad of money - from the satellite subscriptions England's depthlessly loyal fans continue to dish out - at an instant solution.

There are some who present the English openness to club takeovers, foreign players and coaches as evidence of a rainbow nation, the ease of fans in belonging to a multicultural society. That seductive fantasy rather evades the more curious reality. Even while the clubs have been serially bought by foreign billionaires, fans seem to cling to them more than ever as badges of very local identity. Manchester City's continuing good fortune depends largely on next Sunday's general elections in Thailand; if the People Power Party, sympathetic to Shinawatra, wins, the corruption prosecutions against him are predicted to be halted and his assets unfrozen, perhaps enabling him to provide Sven-Goran Eriksson with cash to spend. If the PPP loses, money may be too tight to mention at the City of Manchester Stadium. Yet few City fans know or care about the provenance of the club's new owner, as long as he helps "their" club, "the pride of Manchester", win.

Likewise with the national team. Anybody who believes the general absence of opposition to Fabio Capello's appointment signals a more cosmopolitan attitude will be dumbfounded by the eruption of flags of St George on every wing mirror if Sr Capello conducts England into the World Cup in 2010. This is a European nation seemingly more desperate than any other for affirmation via a football victory, yet which resists any sustained thinking, as France, Germany and Italy have done, about what it might take to get us there.

So the game is dominated by a strange contradiction, among fans still defiantly celebrating victories as local triumphs, even when the clubs themselves are owned offshore. It is a strange combination to dominate our great, historic football culture: the untrammelled dominance of moneymen espousing free-market economics, the absence of coherent thinking to conceive an alternative, coupled with an urgent, constant craving to roar some national success. Yet in all of that football, the national game, may, as ever, only be reflecting wider characteristics of the state of the nation at large. As Capello will now find out, it's a funny old country.

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