Let the show begin
Even as much of Europe remains in deep recession, the Premier League, bankrolled by the global super-rich, continues to promise the spectacular in the new football season. Jason Cowly writes. Reigning stars | Fresh facessports Updated: Aug 18, 2012 02:31 IST
What was shaping up to be a frustrating close season for Manchester United was transformed this week by the sensational capture of Robin van Persie from Arsenal.
The Dutchman, who has just turned 29, was the English Premier League's outstanding player last season, scoring 37 goals in all competitions in what turned out to be a tumultuous season for Arsenal following the departures of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and Samir Nasri to Manchester City.
Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, is already mourning his loss. "Robin is an exceptional player in the pure sense of the term," he said. "I haven't seen many in my life who have that quality in the first touch … Unfortunately, there is an economic reality and the desire of the player. There is no other way but to let him go. It is another pill to swallow, we have swallowed other ones and we have always survived."
A player of extraordinary poise and technique, van Persie, who had one year left on his contract at Arsenal whom he joined in 2004, can play as a lone striker; as a "false nine", dropping deep to receive the ball; or as a "Number 10", behind a main striker. Lean and muscularly athletic but not especially quick, he has the gift of knowing how to create, or run into, space; his touch and left foot are exquisite. In person, he is articulate and thoughtful, and, according to his friend Henk Spaan, a Dutch sportswriter, is "one of the few footballers who is capable of self-reflection and self-criticism".
Van Persie claims that his restlessness to leave Arsenal had nothing to do with money (even if United are paying him an eye-watering £200,000 per week). It's more to do with Arsenal's failure to invest in the best players and win trophies – the club have won nothing since the FA Cup in 2005.
Arsenal, who seem set also to lose influential Cameroon midfielder Alex Song to Barcelona, were prepared to break their rigid wage structure to keep van Persie.
He was offered a new three-year £130,000 per week contract, as well as a £5 million "signing-on fee" (wasn't he already signed to the club?), an astounding amount for a player whose career has been blighted by injury.
But in the crazy winner-take-all world of the EPL even Arsenal, one of England's most august and stable sporting institutions, one committed to balanced budgets and fiscal discipline, are being forced, if they wish to compete for the highest honours, to pay what would once have been considered fantasy wages.
Yet selling fantasy is what the EPL excels at. It is no longer an English league in any recognisable sense.
England hosts the world's league, with local players often in a minority at many clubs. And the money keeps rolling in, even though much of Europe remains in deep recession.
In June, BSkyB and BT paid £3 billion for the rights to broadcast Premier League games in the United Kingdom and Ireland for three years from 2013-16, a 71 per cent increase and a bonanza for the clubs, even if most of the money will be squandered on players' wages and transfer and agents' fees. Huge revenues are also generated from selling broadcast rights to India, China and other countries.
City gone quiet
What of the main contenders? Champions Manchester City, who so dramatically won their first title since 1968 with what was virtually the last kick of the last game of the season in May, have been surprisingly quiet in the transfer market. City are effectively owned by the nation state of Abu Dhabi; they can use the Emirates' petrodollars to buy whomever they want.
That, at least, is how they built a squad powerful enough to win the title.
But this summer all has not been well at City. Tension simmers behind the scenes between coach Roberto Mancini and Brian Marwood, the director who has overall responsibility for player signings. Mancini wanted to bring van Persie to the blue side of Manchester, even though he already has some of the world's best strikers to choose from: Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli. He lost out on Van Persie, but on the pitch, at least, City remain strong.
After unexpectedly winning the Champions League against Bayern Munich in May, Chelsea sensibly awarded their Italian "caretaker" manager, Roberto Di Matteo, a two-year contract. He succeeded Andre Villas-Boas, the young Portuguese who was sacked after only a few months in the job.
Chelsea's Russian owner, the capricious Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich, had wanted to bring one of the world's top coaches to London. And Roman usually gets what Roman wants. Not this time.
So Di Matteo it is – and he has bought well this summer, with Eden Hazard, one of Europe's most creative young players, joining from Lille for £32m as well as the 20 year-old Brazilian midfielder Oscar for £25 million.
AVB has since resurfaced at Tottenham, following the baffling sacking of coach Harry Redknapp, who was punished for just failing to win a place for Spurs in this season's Champions League. But Spurs will be weakened by the imminent sale of the brilliant Croatia playmaker Luka Modric to Real Madrid. Fourth place is the best they can hope for this time out, and fifth or sixth is more likely. Manchester United had wanted to sign their own Brazilian prodigy, 19 year-old Lucas, but he opted for Paris St Germain, in a 45 million euro move. PSG are the emerging superpower of European football, owned by Qatar Sports Investments, part of the sovereign wealth fund of the Gulf theocracy Qatar, hosts of the 2022 World Cup and the planet's largest producer of liquefied natural gas. Not even United, perhaps the world's most famous club, can compete with the limitless resources of a gas-and-oil-rich Gulf state such as Qatar. "When somebody's paying 45 million euros for a 19-year-old boy you have to say the game's gone mad," said veteran coach Alex Ferguson.
Has football gone mad? When it comes to the EPL, perhaps, this is the wrong question. Analysed rationally, the EPL is a carnival of venality and cynicism, a playground of the global super-rich and a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism. For all of their stupendous earnings, many EPL clubs remain crushed by debt.
They spend far too much on players and yet without these players the league would not be the grand spectacle it is. The EPL is the world's most popular league because of the excitement of the fast-paced, hectic football that is played, because of the fanaticism of the crowds and because no one side is dominant. There are surely only three clubs who can win the title this season – the two from Manchester and Chelsea, with Arsenal, bolstered by the arrival of Lukas Podolski from Cologne and the Spain playmaker Santi Cazorla from Malaga, likely to go well, even without van Persie. But on any given day any one club can beat another.
There's a paradox at play here: we may disapprove of what the league represents in all its opulence and extravagance, yet at the same time we cannot stop watching the action. It's more than a guilty pleasure: it's an obsession for hundreds of millions of us throughout the world. And the new season is upon us. Let the show begin.
Jason Cowley is editor of the London-based New Statesman magazine and author of a memoir, The Last Game: Love, Death and Football. www.jasoncowley.net