The net result of BT Sport’s challenge to Sky Sports’ monopoly of live Premier League coverage has been one of the most expensive television deals in sporting history. Scampering to protect their most prized asset, Sky has contributed a large part to a staggering £5 billion deal for Premier League clubs, starting next season. Already the disparities between the Premier League and the rest of Europe are starting to show. Giorgio Wijnaldum, Dimitri Payet and Andre Ayew are among the stars of European clubs that have ditched the glory of European football and challenging titles in other leagues for the riches of mid-table mediocrity in the Premier League.
West Ham, Swansea and Newcastle are among the teams that have been spending good money on internationally proven players. The result is a better league in depth (although Europa League results might suggest otherwise) as Premier League fans are treated to seeing a quality of player they might not have been before. This TV deal has given them a much greater status on the European market. Money matters in football and players will always be attracted by higher wages.
At the top of the football food chain still sit Barcelona and Real Madrid, surveying whoever they want to buy and almost always succeeding. Then we have a series of either prestigious or exceptionally rich clubs (usually both) such as Bayern Munich, Manchester United and PSG that gobble up most of the rest of the best players but are liable to having their own players poached from the top two. After that, it is increasingly becoming Premier League clubs that occupy the next tier. Many Stoke, Sunderland and Swansea fans will remember stumbling around the lower leagues of England well. Now their wealth is the equal of European giants Roma, Marseille and Benfica and is soon to surpass them.
At the detriment to lower league players but at the benefit of neutral international observers, it seems like every club in the top-flight is full of international players today. Twenty years ago, Jordan Rhodes at Blackburn would attract attention from mid-table Premier League clubs and above. Instead, he is attracting no shortage of money and attention entirely in the Championship, as a striker that guarantees goals at that level. Instead, Premier League clubs are buying players like Alexsandar Mitrovic and Ibrahim Afellay, which are a lot more exotic than Rhodes but not guaranteed to be any more of a long-term success in England. Watford are a team that have just been promoted to the Premier League yet they are managed by Quique Sanchez Flores, once of Benfica and Atletico Madrid and have a team full of players with top-level experience. Gone are the days when promoted teams were like Aidy Boothroyd’s Watford team in 2006-07 who came up with a team of mostly British journeymen and went back down with the same team in last place.
Unfortunately despite the money in the Premier League, a situation such as Serie A in the 1980s is unlikely to develop. A rule limiting only three foreign players to each team coupled with exceptional wealth spread throughout the league meant that clubs outside of the traditional elite could boast of their own world-class players. Zico played for Udinese, Toninho Cerezo for Sampdoria, Daniel Passarella for Fiorentina and Maradona lined up for Napoli, putting serious pressure on Juventus and the two Milan clubs to raise their game. With English clubs banned from Europe, Serie A almost overtook the European Cup as the most competitive competition of its time.
However in the Premier League, there is still a tiered system in place and without the three foreign player rule that Italy had, the fun will not last too long for lower English sides. These players will move onto bigger clubs if they are overwhelming successes. If they are flops, they will return to Europe at a cut-price. If they are merely quite good, they might stay. Such are the actualities of the club football pyramid, which is getting more and more pronounced by the day.
This is because of the stockpiling that occurs at the very top teams. We hear managers state that they all need two world-class players for every position but really this is a greedy request that cash-happy owners are all too happy to fulfil. It means that we see Asmir Begovic as back-up goalkeeper for Chelsea and Fabian Delph as probably back-up midfielder for Manchester City. Everton’s stance on John Stones is a brave one but is probably more of an exception to the rule. Even then his time at Everton is surely numbered, if not to Chelsea this summer then probably the next.
It is not just an English phenomenon. The big three clubs at the moment, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona have an abundance of top-class talent sitting on their benches that would star for many teams in their league. The term ‘superclub’ is an apt one to describe these clubs. This strength in depth has never been seen before in club football. It results in lopsided competition, for example Bayern Munich started the season as 1/14 to win Bundesliga.
While English fans scour the internet for footage of their new international star, many leagues in Europe are ravaged of their star performers. A historical great like Ajax without the means to compete fades in this system. Ajax seriously struggled as they were knocked out of the Champions League in the second qualifying round to Rapid Wien this year. While they have so many graduates of their system playing across Europe, many of them are now scooped up before they have barely had time to develop in Holland these days. Such are the realities of the football food chain and many fans of Danish and Swedish football will point out the hypocrisy in any complaints about it given that Ajax snapped up the likes of Christian Eriksen and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for pittance before they got a chance to impose themselves in their local leagues.
For some clubs, it is not all doom and gloom. Porto for example, embrace their position on the pyramid and act as the perfect go-between between tiers. They have sold players like Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Hulk for large sums of money, only to replace them with very similar players that are two or three years behind them in their footballing development, thus keeping the production line running until the next sale. Their prey is South America where they allure young starlets and offer Porto as a gateway to playing for the top dogs, Barcelona or Real Madrid, one day.
Yet overall, club football is in a sort of permanent rigidity. Saving help from a sugar daddy, only exceptional management of resources will lead to advancement. Even that is usually halted, Southampton have lost an entire team worth of players in the past two seasons, the result of Atletico Madrid winning La Liga was saying goodbye to Diego Costa and Bayern Munich put a large dent in overall competition in Germany by signing closest rivals Borussia Dortmund’s two best players in successive seasons.
In light of this, the international break is a welcome reprieve from the world of stockpiling. While some might view it as an annoying interruption that delays the debut of your deadline day signing, it serves as an antidote to business aspect that club football has become as money spirals out of control. While there is a certain rigidity to international football as well – there are dominant nations there as well – it feels like romance has a lot more space to develop. Chile won Copa America this year because no one can buy Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez from them. When we watch Wales go from success to success there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that Gareth Bale is Welsh and Welsh only. There is nothing that the predator can do about that.
By David Gorman