Filed under: Football
With the completion of the draw for the quarter-final of the UEFA Champions League, it seems that once again the teams from the Premier League will feature heavily throughout the rest of the competition. Not since 2004 has a there been no representation from England in the Champions League final, and last year 3 of the last 4 clubs in the competition were from the Premier League. This year, since Chelsea and Liverpool will play each other, there will be at least one English side in the semi-finals, and I’d make Utd and Arsenal strong favourites to win their ties. So it could easily be that, once again, 3 out of 4 semi-finalists are English. Indeed, while the draw has been generally kind to English clubs, Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini might even be somewhat relieved that the draw ensures that there will be at least two leagues represented in the semi-final. Either way, the draw throws up some interesting issues.
Firstly, one can’t help but notice the fact that Liverpool will play Chelsea for the 5th year running. Brian Phillips at The Run Of Play sums up the absurdity of this quite nicely with the first paragraph of his response to the Champions League draw. For me, it is a symptom that perhaps something is not quite right. But, having said that, is this the first time that English clubs have totally dominated Europe’s top competition for a number of years? The answer of course, is no. Immediately before all English clubs were banned from European Competitions in 1985 following the Heysel disaster, they were dominating to an even greater extent. From 1977 to 1985, only twice did an English club not win the European Cup , and only once was there no English representation in the final. So does the current success of Premier League clubs merely indicate that we are returning to the natural order of things, one that was only interrupted by terrible tragedy? Certainly, whether or not English clubs will continue to dominate, for the time being I don’t think any Anglophobe could argue that things have never been worse.
Recently in an interview with the BBC, FIFA president Sepp Blatter attacked the number of foreign players currently playing in England, suggesting that a “lack of national identity” was damaging. He has also previously stated his view that the current success of English club football is damaging the game on a global scale. But does he have a point? I must admit I think perhaps he does. You could argue that good players should make it into the first teams of top Premier League clubs whether or not there are lots of good foreign players competing, provided they are good enough in the first place. Advocates of this school of thought will point to the FA, the development of young players, and poor management among other things as alternative explanations for the disparity between the success of England’s clubs and England’s national team. But if I were campaigning to improve the standard of the English national side (which I categorically am not), then I would be calling for a limit on the number of foreign players that a Premier League club could employ. So in this sense, I would cautiously support some of what Blatter is saying regarding the extent to which a lack of national identity can do “damage”. But is that anyone’s problem other than those who primarily support the English national team? I think not.
The more important issue is whether or not the increasing success of the Premier League, in comparison with its counterparts from other nations such as Spain and Italy, is damaging world football. Certainly, if English clubs become totally dominant of European competition, then this would be damaging to the overall quality of the sport as an international spectacle. Sport needs to have variety and surprise in order to be exciting, and if the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich are not capable of dishing out the occasional hammering to an English club, then we will all have lost something. But what is to be done? On occasion, the administrators of a sport are called upon to make a decision regarding a change in the rules that will improve the sport as a spectacle, take the back-pass rule for example.
But in this instance, how could FIFA’s officials limit the extent to which the Premier League’s current financial success does not amount to an eventually damaging snowballing of domination, without just crudely handicapping English clubs? One possible answer is the dreaded quota system, reviled by Arsenal fans in particular, that would see a limit placed on the number of foreign players a club has on the books. On balance, although I can see that it is an incredibly difficult issue, I am in favour of the quotas. I love the mystique of foreign football, the discovery of a South American or African talent at a world cup, and the fear of Europe’s finest sides. And to impose such restrictions would for me be a good way to maintain such things without descriminating against any particular nation, league or club. However, aside from the debate of how such a thing would affect football, there are also matters of European employment laws to consider. It’s definitely a tricky issue.
However, whether or not Sepp Blatter and FIFA are right to pursue the idea of a quota system, they are not alone in their criticism of some more recent developments within English football. Michel Platini has been outspoken recently with his concerns around the level of foregin ownership within the Premier League. And since at one stage there were billionaires from Russia, the Middle-East, Iceland, the US and beyond all queueing up to buy into Premier League clubs you can understand some of his concern. However, Platini and UEFA do not often do themselves any favours. In the aftermath of crowd trouble at the 2006 UEFA Champions League final in Athens, UEFA spokesman William Gaillard commented that Liverpool fans were “the worst in Europe“. Even Tom Hicks could see the idiocy in that statement. With a policeman having been killed at a Palermo match and the San Siro stadium having been practically set on fire during a UEFA Champions league clash in which a player was struck with a lit firework, I think Gaillard might have been well-advised to consider his words more carefully. However, although in this particular case UEFA were desperately trying to cover up some very poor administration which had lead to some upsetting events in Athens, this does not mean that Platini and the rest of UEFA necessarily anti-English in general. Indeed, in an interview with the BBC’s Mihir Bose, far from admitting to reservations about the league as a whole, Platini was keen to refute the idea that he was even going to interfere with the running of the Premier League. Having said that, it would be possible to write a book on the failings of Michel Platini as President of UEFA, so I am not quite sure how to interpret anything he says. But I am heartened that talk of a European Super League is at least dying down for now.
Those who argue that the UEFA Champions League has become predictable are forgetting Porto’s surprise success in 2004 and Liverpool’s even more surprising win in 2005. But in general, once mighty clubs such as Ajax, Benfica and Celtic are no longer successful, and it would be awful if this trend were to extend to the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus as the best players in the world perform a mass-migration to the English Premier League and the wages they can be paid there. I would be in favour of a return to the old-fashioned system whereby in order to qualify for the European Cup, you had to win the league, but that’s just pie in the sky. Even so, as well as sheer quality of play on the field, football is about mystery, the exotic and surprise, and if we end up with the so-called “Top 4″ battling it out for the European Cup every year, you could argue that we won’t have that, even if the players competing are from Brazil, Italy and Africa.
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