Magazine article The Spectator

The Deflating World of English Football

Magazine article The Spectator

The Deflating World of English Football

Article excerpt

As a global brand, English football has never been more powerful. The Premier League crosses all cultural barriers and has devotees in every corner of the world. Fans in Singapore, for instance, even change their sleeping patterns to keep up: on match days, they go to bed early evening and get up at 3 a. m. to watch live broadcasts.

It is hard to think of anything else this country produces that has such reach. No matter how England's national team fares in the World Cup this year, England's football industry reigns supreme in the world's favourite sport.

So it is odd, indeed, to talk about the death of English football. Look closely, however, and a financial plague is spreading. Last week's Financial Times carried an advert seeking a buyer for the bankrupt Crystal Palace. Portsmouth FC, winner of the FA Cup just two years ago, is unable to meet players' wages or pay for a website. Dozens of clubs are wrestling with their creditors, and the game is effectively divided into two financial leagues: those with, and without, a foreign sugar daddy to write the cheques.

Worse still, the global success of the English game has done nothing to nurture English, or even British, talent. It has never been harder for an English player to make it in the English Premier League. The Spectator has pulled together the figures. When the Premiership was set up in 1992, nine out of ten players who appeared in league fixtures were British.

Today, well over half of them are foreigners.

When Portsmouth met Arsenal seven weeks ago, there were no English players in either starting line-up.

For all their problems, clubs are still eager to splash a few million on a player from abroad rather than wait for a local lad to come good.

This is the era where 17-year-olds are imported from Serbia and Mexico, rather than being spotted in local schools. Foreign players have been all too happy to pack their bags, attracted by the riches and prestige of the English leagues. According to The Spectator's figures, the number of foreign players in the Premiership has risen fivefold since it started 18 years ago. In 1992, British under-25-yearolds made up 44 per cent of the Premiership.

That figure now stands at a lowly 17 per cent - and it's falling.

English football's financial explosion remains a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1985, the Football League sold its overseas television rights for £200,000. Nowadays, the same sum would not pay John Terry for two weeks. And it pales beside a TV deal currently being negotiated with American and Chinese satellite channels, thought to be worth around £1 billion.

This influx of money has undoubtedly helped English clubs to compete as never before. The on-field product - the actual football - is of a staggering quality, played at a pace and intensity that the once-dominant Spanish and Italian leagues cannot match. And it shows: Premier League teams have dominated the European Champions League over the past five seasons, providing 12 of the 20 semi-finalists, six of the finalists and two of the winners.

Yet despite the burgeoning revenues, much of this success has arrived on the back of a financial illusion. For years, the owners and chairmen of Premiership clubs have been outbidding each other for the world's greatest players - going further than even they can afford, and paying with money that they simply do not have. Take Portsmouth FC: a Premier League club for seven years, and winner of the FA Cup two years ago. In footballing terms, it has enjoyed one of the most successful spells in its history - but it may yet be closed down by HM Revenue & Customs.

It is far from alone. Seek out the accounts of each Premiership team, and you will find monstrous debts. Manchester United, the most successful team in the world, are £716 million in the red. Arsenal owe £297 million;

Liverpool, £237 million; Fulham, £180 million; and so on. Indeed, half of the nation's 20 biggest clubs are technically insolvent. …

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