at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London – When the last contract is sealed and the last hand is shaken, the Premier League’s new television deal will burst through the £5billion barrier. The landmark will be celebrated in boardrooms up and down the land. Backs will be slapped, corks will explode and club owners will flash beatific beams as they settle into their seats on the gravy train.
And who will blame them? The Premier League is an extraordinary commercial success. By a combination of shrewd marketing, cold-eyed ruthlessness and a fair amount of luck, it has found a formula which the rest of the world finds compelling.
Small wonder the owners are beaming, for fortunes await them at every turn. Never in the history of British sport has a venture proved quite so profitable. So it’s trebles all round, and the toast is ‘To English football!’.
Which is probably an inconvenient time to bring up events in Stockholm the other evening. Ah, Stockholm! The Friends Arena. When we hear the name, we shall replay in our minds that peerless goal, the one which Zlatan Ibrahimovic executed with such wit, agility and dramatic imagination. And as we remember the goal, the fact that England were beaten 4-2 will somehow pass us by.
It’s happened several times before, of course. Historically, Sweden and England are almost level pegging, so one more defeat came as no great surprise. But rarely have English expectations been quite so muted.
Fielding six debutants had something to do with it: Leon Osman, Raheem Sterling and Steven Caulker starting, with Carl Jenkinson, Ryan Shawcross and Wilfried Zaha arriving from the bench. It was a patent gamble, the football version of running up a flag to see if somebody might salute it. Add Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge and Tom Huddlestone – all relatively untested – and the nature of the experiment becomes clear.
Consider those 10 players. Two, hopefully three, are likely to enjoy extended international careers, three or four will almost certainly fade, and the jury is out on the rest. Roy Hodgson will handle them with sympathetic skill, but he recognises reality and he knows how shallow is England’s pool of talent. And a major reason for the perilous shortage may be found on that £5bn gravy train.
Currently, around 30per cent of players starting matches in the Premier League are qualified to play for England. But as their numbers decrease, so their influence diminishes. Once, they could benefit from the foreign players around them; now, increasingly, they are crowded out, allotted walk-on parts, fortunate to find a place in the average squad. For English football has become a kind of offshore haven, like Jersey or the Cayman Islands.
It offers its television paymasters compelling, custom-tailored entertainment. It strikes a bargain with the global game: you give us the stars, and we’ll give you passionate crowds, imposing stadia, illustrious tradition and weekends full of Super Saturdays or Soaraway Sundays.
No longer genuine contenders, England are reduced to the role of promoters; no longer a major football nation, merely a desirable venue. And the chickens may be hurrying home to roost. In a week’s time, Hodgson will attend a football conference in Rio. While there, he will take the chance to look at hotels, training facilities, the places which the manager of a prospective World Cup finalist has to inspect. But we know, beyond any doubt, that a fear lurks in a recess of his mind. Suppose the planning is rendered redundant? Suppose it all goes calamitously wrong? Suppose England should fail to qualify for Brazil?
This week, they dropped into second place, two points behind Montenegro, who they still must play at home and away.
Their other four remaining fixtures include a trip to Ukraine and a home game with Poland. Nothing is certain, yet failure feels almost unthinkable.
Hodgson knows, though he cannot say, that the 2014 World Cup trophy lies far beyond England’s reach, that the likes of Brazil and Argentina, Spain and Germany do not consider them serious contenders. But pride demands that England should at least attend the party.
Should the worst come to pass, there would be the usual search for scapegoats. The manager would fall on his sword, while the players would express their sincere regrets while sidestepping the consequences.
But somehow I doubt that the old hysteria would rage through the public at large. Not this time. Sure, the phone-ins would fulminate and the tweeters would wear their thumbs to the bone, but international failure no longer produces the same extremes of emotion, for they have seen too much and come too far.
The farce of World Cup 2010, with the surrender of Fabio Capello’s hapless crew, was possibly a step too far. Dear old Hodgson and his fuzzy-cheeked tyros seem unable to engage them.
Instead, they want what the Premier League has been providing these past 20 years: cosmopolitan slickness and choreographed conflict. Not so much a sport, more a media-friendly ‘product’.
They want tribal warfare waged by mercenaries, clad in the livery of United or City, Liverpool or Chelsea.
In short, they want the kind of spectacle which sets the whole world watching at the cost of £5bn. And unless the charmless confraternity of grasping players, greedy agents and megalomaniac owners should bring the whole edifice crashing around its ears, that is precisely what they will be given. – Daily Mail