Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  English Premier League: Great spectacle, shame about the football

It might be the omen the English Premier League (EPL) was waiting for. On the very first weekend of the new season, which started on 8 August, 16-year-old Reece Oxford played a blinder of a match to help his unfancied team, West Ham United, stun mighty Arsenal 2-0 at the latter’s home ground. Oxford—who, to add perspective, will receive his GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) school results this week—held his own in the middle of the pitch against Mesut Özil, World Cup winner, and Santi Cazorla, winner at the 2008 and 2012 Euros.

It’s easy to understand, at one level, why the reaction in England has been one of jubilation. Aside from the obvious sporting thrill of seeing a teenager excel on the big stage, Oxford’s performance, and the David-versus-Goliath upsets on the opening weekend, helped assuage somewhat the concern that the Premier League is running on hype (and lots of money) but is woefully short on quality. Last season was particularly bad, with only the eventual champions, Chelsea, producing consistently good football to finish comfortably ahead of their frankly mediocre rivals.

So is Oxford the harbinger of a better season?

The Premier League, the world’s richest football league and home to 14 of the top 30 revenue-earning clubs globally, will win hands down in any debate about finances, viewership and boardroom heft. The problem lies on the field, in what writers call “the state of the English game". In short, business is great but the football sucks. This strange dissonance is borne out by the footballing statistics; in the past decade only two English clubs have won Europe’s top competition and, frankly, haven’t looked like winning anything in the past three seasons. And that’s in club competitions, where foreign players tend to dominate the make-up of English sides.

English football’s true measure of success—or lack of it—lies in its woeful world cup record. The accepted top four leagues in Europe are in England, Spain, Italy and Germany, with France and Holland making up the top six; four of the past five world cups have been won by Germany, Spain, Italy and France, with Holland a finalist in 2010. England’s last success came in 1966; the last time they made a semi-final was in 1990. That was probably the last great England team, with players such as Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker and Peter Shilton.

It was around that time, tapping into that success and the general feeling of euphoria surrounding English football, that the Premier League was born, a breakaway entity from the venerable, slightly tattered Football League, founded in 1888. The shiny new league was the product of naked commercial compulsions: the union between the top English clubs and the newly created BSkyB TV conglomerate, which took live football off terrestrial and free-to-air television and on to pay TV and the big time. The TV deal made clubs richer, opened English football to European talent (and, gradually, Continental coaching, fitness, nutritional and even social practices) and took the national game out of its apocalyptic, violence-ridden and generally dour existence to a place at the top table.

Pity about the game. Because as the Premier League got bigger, the football—especially the quality of English players and their skill standards—got steadily worse. One prime reason for this was, ironically, the opening up of the English market to European (and, later, South American) imports who might be cheaper given the strong pound and, if not necessarily better, at least different. So English players found it hard to get spots in Premier League teams. An article in the British Times newspaper noted that of the 220 players who started for top-flight clubs on the opening weekend of the current season, only 73 were eligible to play for England. That figure, 33.2%, was down from last season’s 35%, and “a dramatic fall" from 69% in 1992-93, when the Premier League was launched. And, significantly, it was lower than the other top European leagues.

It’s not even that the imports are the best: While the standard has gone up in recent years, many are either unproven or just past their prime. Few of the world’s (or Europe’s) best players have come to England at the peak of their careers, and even when they did it was because they were not guaranteed first-team football elsewhere.

The decline of general standards has led, fairly obviously, to a decline in the England national team. The past four world cups have shown a downward graph: quarter-finals, quarters, pre-quarters, group stage. It’s raised that old argument (and one Indian cricket fans dread will come to pass here): club > country. There are several reasons for this equation; one is that the clubs pay the players’ wages, underwrite their lifestyles and keep them in their cocoons; and being with the same unit for nine months at a stretch probably engenders greater loyalty. Part of the problem is also the disconnect between the Premier League and the Football Association (FA), the body that controls all football in England. They set up the league together but the partnership ended in 2001.

And there is also the reality that the odds of winning a trophy with one’s club are greater than those of winning with the national team. Few have been as brutally honest about it as Jamie Carragher, the former Liverpool defender whose missed penalty in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final cost England the match. On the bus back after the match, he received a text message: “F*** it, it’s only England." As the implications of that message sank in, he wrote in Carra: My Autobiography, he “didn’t feel the same emptiness" he sensed in others. “Whenever I returned from disappointing England experiences, one unshakeable, overriding thought pushed itself to the forefront of my mind, no matter how much the rest of the nation mourned. ‘At least it wasn’t Liverpool.’"

A similar sentiment plays out among fans: Fans of the big clubs don’t care as much about England as they do about their club. In There’s A Golden Sky, his chronicle of two decades of the Premier League, journalist Ian Ridley notes this to explain why fans of the England national team are relatively tolerant of their side’s recent history of underperformance. “England followers are usually not from the big clubs, where there is top-class football to watch played by teams who are often better than England….

“To them, internationals are their chance to see the big names, to feel involved at the highest level. Initial anger having subsided, they usually forgive, even if they don’t forget."

In nine months’ time, England will, barring a qualification catastrophe, be among the contestants at Euro 2016 in France. Current odds place them as fourth or fifth favourites to win but a fairly long way behind Germany, France and Spain. What would shorten those odds and spark hope even among the desultory England fans is a strong domestic season and a strong showing in Europe’s club competitions. It’s time for Oxford’s seniors to graduate with flying colours.

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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