Consider the start of this season. What do you see? Do the chaotic results – Manchester City letting in five, Manchester United letting in six, Liverpool letting in seven, Everton and Aston Villa top of the table, Chelsea making 3-3 their default result – engender a thrill of excitement at the unpredictability of it all? Or did you see the two Manchester clubs in the bottom half of the table after last weekend, and Tottenham and Chelsea seventh and eighth, and worry that this might damage revenue streams for teams favoured by the global audience?
This is not in any sense a normal season. No reigning champions had let in seven since 1953. No team from outside the so-called Big Six had been top of the league with five matches played since Portsmouth in 2006. After last weekend, the Premier League was averaging 3.58 goals per game. Since the second world war there have been only two seasons that have finished with a higher average than that, and none since 1960-61.
While that plays out in the foreground, in the background, plotting goes on by the super-clubs to earn themselves an even greater share of the game’s revenues than they already enjoy. After Project Big Picture – essentially an attempt by the wealthiest to enrich themselves by promising short-term benefits to the smaller league clubs; a strategy that has become familiar beyond football over the past five years – has come the latest rumbling about a European Premier League. It may be thin on detail, it may recycle old ideas, it may be a fairly transparent negotiating tactic in discussions over the revamp of the Champions League in 2024-25, but it still represents the greed that dominates the thinking of the super-clubs.
And that should concern everybody, especially while the Premier League is demonstrating how much fun it can be when the hegemony of the elite is, at least temporarily, not guaranteed. Or should at the very least make us consider the question of what we want sport to be. The answer to that, perhaps, is not so obvious as it may at first seem to those of us raised on provincial English terraces.
Take, for instance, cricket’s Indian Premier League. The IPL is an unquestionably brilliant competition, the very best taking on the very best, the extraordinary level of competition driving innovation and excellence. Even played without crowds in the United Arab Emirates, as it is this season, there is a palpable glamour to it. If I’m near a television set at 3pm, it goes on. But I watch it in a different way to how I watch football. Because I used to live in Dharamsala, I notionally favour Kings XI Punjab – and I probably have over the years been more appreciative of Piyush Chawla and Manan Vohra as a result – but fundamentally I’m just gawping at astonishing cricket.
I have little clear day-to-day sense of how the IPL table stands, I have no clear idea why Chennai Super Kings against Royal Challengers Bangalore is considered a big rivalry, I couldn’t rattle off a list of past winners and I certainly have no meaningful thoughts on the impact of the IPL on the Ranji Trophy, India’s traditional domestic first-class competition. Which presumably is how a lot of global fans consume the Premier League or Champions League.
In that sense, although the IPL is an overtly commercial entity, my appreciation of the actual sport is purer than in football, where my perceptions and reactions are conditioned by a lifetime of accumulated biases, about the clubs, the players, the managers and the towns or cities they represent.
But as Pep Guardiola has noted, that sense of being represented is key. In a world where the profit motive shapes everything, from healthcare to education to the law, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect anybody to consider what might be best for football itself.
Let us for a moment do that. There would appear to be a spectrum: spread the talent relatively evenly across as wide a range of clubs as possible or concentrate it at a handful to allow the sport to reach the highest possible level.
As football has moved from the former towards the latter, an obvious problem has occurred. What the IPL has that football – in Italy, Germany, France and Spain and, increasingly, England – lacks is a sense of competition. Any of the eight franchises can win it (although Kings XI still haven’t). A high percentage of games are tense and hard-fought; the nearest European football comes is the latter stages of the Champions League. There is never the equivalent of, say, Manchester City playing Watford where the only real question was how big the margin of victory would be.
If, as seems likely, the restructuring of Champions League increases the income of the super-clubs and so gives them even more of an advantage, it will tilt an already uneven playing field even further. The excess is already so grotesque that players of Mesut Özil’s calibre are unable to get a game and Ferran Soriano is demanding B teams be admitted to the pyramid just so he has somewhere to park City’s reserves.
Something has to change. For Juventus, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Real Madrid to keep gobbling up domestic titles is joy-sappingly pointless. Even they seem bored of it. The turbulence in the Premier League is unlikely to last and the rich seem insatiable.
So what is the solution? Maybe it is, reluctantly, just to let the greedy go, let them take the risk (and it is a risk: with four of eight IPL franchises qualifying for play-offs, most games matter in a way that 12th v 14th in an 18-team league with restricted relegation, the most recent European super league proposal, wouldn’t be). And if the result is spectacular football, enjoy it, content that the team that represents us exists (if it survives the pandemic) in a fairer competition in which Tuesday’s match at Rochdale is meaningful even if it isn’t likely to be very good.
The likely compromise, keeping the elite within the main competition but making them even richer, even more powerful, seems the worst of all worlds.