Side by side, these figures don’t make a lot of sense: $7.6 billion and 0.
The first is the English Premier League’s new three-season domestic broadcast deal. The second is how many English teams reached the quarter-finals of this season’s Champions League. In modern soccer, richest is meant to equal best, but that’s not happening in the world’s most loaded league.
Cue much wringing of hands and gnashing of imperfect teeth as the English lay the Premier League on the psychiatrist’s couch and ask how it’s coping with the depressing disconnect between expectations and reality. (Not well.)
It’s the second time in three seasons that exactly zero English clubs have made it to the last eight. That benchmark used to be seen as the bare minimum. From 2007-09, Premier League members made up three of the four semi-finalists, and between 2004-05 and 2011-12, eight of the 16 finalists were English. Just when everyone had begun to accept this near-monopoly of the latter stages of Europe’s prime competition, its clubs started to fade long before the finish line, and this season’s results seem part of a trend.
Some might argue that at this point in every campaign, English teams are simply cold, weary, and in sore need of the restorative properties of a nice cup of tea. The Premier League boast a frantic style of play and proudly cites the mantra “no easy games”. Even the worst teams can be pesky – witness Chelsea’s struggles against Hull City on Sunday.
The truth is that European competitions are more cyclical and competitive than we might expect. English clubs won seven of eight European Cup finals between 1977 and 1984, before the country’s teams were banned from continental competition for five years as a result of the Heysel Stadium disaster. Then Serie A sides won five in a decade. Spanish clubs have won six since the start of the new millennium.
To argue that this English decline is a consequence of tiredness is – as they say in the pubs and fish and chip shoppes of Old London Town – bollocks. The fixtures calendar hasn’t changed much since the days when Premier League sides flourished. And Barcelona’s embarrassingly easy win over Manchester City was Lionel Messi’s 40th competitive game since the World Cup final, but he looked far more sprightly than most of his befuddled opponents, none of whom had made as many appearances in the same period.
No easy games? Right now, the points spread in the Premier League and La Liga is pretty similar. There’s a 48-point difference between the best team, Chelsea, and the worst, Leicester. In Spain, it’s 50 points. In both leagues, the number of points required to be near the top, in the middle or towards the bottom is broadly comparable.
It’s possible we’re doing other leagues a disservice when we talk about the Premier League’s failures rather than their successes. It’s a sign we’ve bought into hype that persuades us to use “richest” and “most-watched” as a synonym for “best”, which is itself a hugely subjective concept.
Take the Champions League’s ugly little brother, the Europa League. To most English clubs the competition has the misery factor of a mosquito in your boxer shorts. But some of them do try to win it; once the boring group stage is over and the final’s moving slowly into sight, all involved want to lift the trophy.
Annually, wealthy top-half clubs like Tottenham – actually, always Tottenham – go out of the Europa League to clubs they really should be beating, if we believe the hype and compare the transfer value and wages of the players on the field. In fact, since the creation of the Premier League in 1992-93, English clubs have only won the competition now known as the Europa League just twice: Chelsea in 2013 and Liverpool in 2001. In that period, Italian clubs have won it five times; Spain, six of the past eleven.
Back when the technically-brilliant, defensive-minded sides of Serie A began to boss the continent, the virtues of English soccer – directness, spirit, aggression and a formidable ability to drink lager – became vices. English teams, it was said, were no longer tactically shrewd enough to win in Europe, especially not in two-legged contests. Yet today the Premier League is full of foreign coaches and players. Still, Arsenal is consistently underwhelming in Europe under Arsène Wenger. Manchester City’s four successive seasons of dismal Champions League displays are downright weird. Teams have foreigners, they have money… why are they failing?
It’s partly circumstances rather than some overarching theme. Barcelona has been arguably the greatest club side in history in the past five years. Cristiano Ronaldo propelled Real Madrid to new heights, including a 10th Champions League trophy. Bayern Munich are now a force. And all three have money, too.
It’s not just the money, but luck, as we saw in Chelsea’s charmed win over Bayern Munich in 2012. We’re supposed to be in an era where wealth inequality is perpetuating dominance because income disparities are now so great that the gap cannot be bridged. But two-legged knockout rounds followed by a one-off final will require money, certainly, but also shrewd tactics and yes, luck.
Spain, Germany, Italy, England: each league rises and falls in European competition over time in relation to the others. The Champions League is a carousel, not an auction. English wealth has not bought certainty or predictability; there are still elements of mystery, surprise, luck and lightning-in-a-bottle about the whole process, and spending money well isn’t as easy as it looks.
The more pertinent question, then, is not why English clubs are failing; but what might continued failures abroad do to the credibility, marketing power and financial health of the Premier League in the future, as it seeks to boost its international revenue streams and continues to rely on a reputation for excellence?