Magazine article The Spectator

'The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports', by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports', by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg - Review

Article excerpt

This is a story of resurrection. A mere three decades ago, club football in England was a professional game largely and listlessly run by amateurs. Fans shuffled in decreasing numbers to obsolete stadia redolent of pie and pee. Lives were lost in the tragedies of Bradford, Hillsborough and Heysel. The sport was scarcely entertainment; it was certainly not a business. Yet today the Premier League is the world's richest sporting brand. How this happened is a tale told with much verve and some wit by two experienced sports journalists.

The key modernisers, David Dein of Arsenal, Irving Scholar of Spurs and Martin Edwards of Manchester United, entrepreneurs who presciently purchased shares in the then underperforming assets, looked westwards to the National Football League of the USA for models of governance, marketing and sponsorship.

The creation of the Premier League in 1992 fulfilled the wish of the top 20 clubs to be able to negotiate commercial rights in their own interests without the need to share it equally with the other less popular clubs in the football league. A capitalist replaced a socialist structure. With a modicum of legal legerdemain, in one bound they found their freedom; and in Rupert Murdoch's satellite television their golden goose. Paradoxically, the more that games are broadcast, the greater the attendance at matches.

In 1997 an obscure Belgian midfielder, Jean-Marc Bosman, persuaded the European court of justice that the transfer fee demanded by his club after the expiry of his contract was an unreasonable restraint of trade. The path opened up for foreign footballers to ply their profession in an increasingly attractive English competition, the spiralling wages compensating for the inclement weather. Time spent in the Premier League enhances the CV of a footballer -- whether an embryo superstar like Cristiano Ronaldo or a journeyman like Alan Sugar's fictional paradigm Carlos Kickaball. (How clubs retain the loyalties of fans when teams contain not even a single native-born player remains a mystery.)

This book's main dramatis personae are not the footballers or even the celebrated managers -- whether exotic figures signed up to make some clubs contenders for the major prizes or homegrown veterans constantly recycled to save others from relegation. Rather, they are the new breed of overseas owners -- sheikhs, oligarchs, American captains of industry or Asiatic tycoons -- whose wealth is as impressive in size as its source is sometimes obscure, and whose interest in events on the field of play usually extends only to their impact on the balance sheet. …

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