How English football conquered Europe

As English domination shows, money can’t buy you love, but it can give you a better chance of winning the Champions League.

Duleep Allirajah

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English football rules Europe. The facts speak for themselves. All four English clubs are through to the Champions League quarter-finals. The cream of the Spanish and Italian top flights brushed aside with relative ease by Premiership opposition. The mighty Real Madrid walloped 4-0 at Anfield. Makes yer proud, doesn’t it?

Well no, not really. Personally, I’ve never agreed with the view that we should always support ‘our teams’ in Europe against foreign opposition. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not ‘our teams’ and domestic hostilities are not suspended during the Champions League. That means when Chelsea play in Europe I’m an ABC (Anyone But Chelsea). I’ll probably support Anyone But Liverpool, too. As for Arsenal or Manchester United, well it’s a bit like Britpop’s famous Blur vs Oasis rivalry – I’m completely indifferent. If you really want to put your football patriotism to the test try watching a turgid UEFA Cup game between Everton and some obscure Slovakian outfit. You’ll soon be flipping channels and watching a documentary on eating disorders instead.

But it’s not just grumpy old 90-minute Quislings like me who aren’t cheering. There’s a distinct lack of enthusiasm in this country for the current English mastery of European football. The fact that there are so few English players at the top Premiership clubs is one factor. ‘Is English football no longer English?’, was the question posed in on article on The Times football blog. ‘When the Soviet Union won the race to put a satellite in orbit, Bob Hope observed that “all this proves is that their German scientists are better than our German scientists”.’ In the same way the Premier League’s domination largely reflects the fact that its foreign imports are better than everybody else’s’, wrote the Guardian’s David Lacey (1).

Another reason for the muted mood is the growing resentment for the wealth-divide in English football. ‘The wealth and self-interest of the Premier League polarises opinion in this country, never mind across Europe’, observed Oliver Kay in The Times (2). The domination currently enjoyed by English clubs is not, it is argued, because English football is so technically superior; it is simply because English clubs are wealthier. The biggest consequence of Premiership dominance, some now argue, is that the Champions League has become dull. This is a gripe we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter, but it is now being echoed in Britain.

‘The Champions League has become boring and predictable. Brilliant for us but whatever happened to the days when we had upsets and drama?’ complained John Cross in the Mirror (3). ‘The Premier League is killing the Champions League’, wrote Matt Hughes on Times Online. ‘The top of the Premier League has been a closed shop for several years, with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal sure to finish in the top four even after modest seasons, and now the latter stages of the Champions League are looking similarly predictable’ (4).

Now, as I said, I’d like to see English clubs fall flat on their faces because of parochial, old-fashioned schadenfreude. But I can’t go along with the current bout of self-loathing that has accompanied English success. Take the issue of foreign imports. It’s true that only nine of the 44 players who started for the English teams last week were actually English. However, such is the globalisation of the European game that you could say much the same thing about Inter Milan, who had only one Italian player in their starting line-up. Indeed, Liverpool fielded more Spanish players in their starting line-up – four in total – than Real Madrid, who only had three Spaniards. I agree – for once – with Arsene Wenger when he says that clubs should recruit on ability not passports.

I have no time either for the complaint that English clubs’ financial muscle is ruining the Champions League. The TV revenue generated by the Premier League together with new investment from foreign owners means that English clubs can outspend their European rivals. But so what? When Italian clubs dominated Europe in the 1990s it was their financial muscle that enabled them to attract the best players. Similarly, Spanish clubs had greater financial clout in the early part of this decade. Wealth and footballing domination tend to go hand in hand. When Italian clubs were in the ascendant in the 1990s was anyone complaining? No. Did their success make the Champions League boring? Of course not.

English clubs do now have greater financial clout than their European rivals. But the success they currently enjoy is also based on a modern style of football which combines a higher tempo power game with continental technique and tactical maturity. Italian and Spanish clubs need to raise their game, on and off the field, in order to compete. And although we should never put aside domestic club rivalries on European nights, nor should we beat ourselves up because English clubs are whopping everyone else’s sorry arses.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Champions League jumps on English treadmill, Guardian, 14 March 2009

(4) The Premier League is killing the Champions League, Times Online, 12 March 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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