Sunday, May 20, 2007

Final heartbreak

The Cup Final was a turgid affair from the opening minute. It's not the first time the spectacle has failed to live up to expectations, but I can't remember an opening 10 minutes as tepid as this one, or the concluding 110 for that matter. John Terry afterwards claimed that both teams were 'scared to give the ball away', which seems a pretty lame excuse to me. After all, it's like a musician coming on stage and playing CDs because they're scared they'd play a bum note. With the game itself turning over £8 million and TV revenues and so forth dwarfing that amount, it would be polite, if at least the players could put away their 'fear' and try and have a game.

Plenty of things were blamed; the occasion, the pitch, the long season; but nobody touched on the real problem. Top flight football is just not competitive anymore, look at the stats; In the last 10 years 9 teams have made the final and only 4 have won it - the supposed Big Four of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Compare that to ten years before that: 1988-1997, where there were 12 different finalists and 7 different winners, 1978-87 12 teams and 8 winners, 1968-1977 14 teams and 10 winners. The game has become increasingly concentrated around a small number of teams.

The Big Four all claim some kind of dominance based on a spurious set of self referencing criteria - Liverpool's 5 European Cup wins, Manchester United's global brand, Chelsea's money, Arsenal's purist qualities. Maybe Oxford could claim to be the best team in the country that play in a ground where you can see people going into a multiplex cinema during the game (although, knowing Oxford, they probably aren't). These four teams, with their big claims are increasingly fearful of actually testing who's best on the field itself; especially when facing each other. When they meet in the League Cup they compete to see who can field the weakest team; which gives them the perfect excuse when defeat comes. Arsenal even fielded a weakened side for this year's League Cup Final - their only hope of a trophy. It's getting to a point where the big players will be rested permanently only to be brought out in a big glass box on special occasions. When they do meet, like yesterday, the teams don't so much want to win the game as avoid losing it. Losing equals failure, so don't give the ball away Mr £100,000-a-week.

But English football is the best in the world - we're told this interminably. This year three (of the Big Four) English teams made it to the Champions League semi-final, which was considered a glorious success and widely lauded to be a credit to English football. Which part of English football should take credit? The managers? - well the big four are managed by a Scot, Portugese, Spaniard and Frenchman. The players? - less than half the players yesterday were English and the other two teams have a handful of homegrown players between them. Nope, the real credit must go to the English marketing men and footballing administrators who have turned the game into a closed shop and a money machine where everyone is ingrained with a fear of failure. Even further down the Premiership, teams are incapable of bridging the gap into the super big time, so they simply work to consolidate their position. It's one massive cycle of negativity.

Of course, it's also very successful. The reason could be seen just after half time on Saturday; there was a great wedge of vacant seats just on the half-way line. Slowly the section began to fill and you could vaguely make out men in suits easing their way back to their seats. The half time corporate buffet was clearly delicious. The equation is perfect; Football the brand is sexy, the first Cup Final at new Wembley is 'history', companies pay thousands to buy a lump of history (a seat) and pass it onto their clients as a sweetener for future corporate deals. Let's face it; when you've bought your lump of history, what's the point of actually experiencing it; especially when it's rubbish. Where does this end? Perhaps they should do away with 'historic events' completely - after all they can be quite tiresome and in the really good ones people tend to die - maybe you could simply sell shares in historic events over the Internet, I Was There certificates with a small supporting anecdote. Then you could just get them out at dinner parties - "Battle of Agincourt? Yes, I was there, I have the certificate of authentication".

When it comes down to it, uninteresting football is being sold to disinterested people with heaps of money. The football men aren't going to admit it, they're making too much money, the corporations aren't going to let on that they're paying fortunes for shite. This sorry state of affairs it's not the players' or managers fault, they are out to win, it's not even the evil spectres of Abramovich or the Glazers who are just taking a piece of the enormous pie. It's the marketing men who have structured the game in such a way that it makes huge amounts of money, and rewards those who succeed with even more huge amounts of money. No other sport does this, actively reduces the competitiveness of the game. SKY may market football heavily like some sort of gladiatorial encounter, a thrill a minute orgy of endeavour. But whereas showbusiness is flamboyant, risk taking and outgoing, football is prudent and measured to the point of suffocation. It's a corporate mindset dressed in a spangly boob tube. Give us our bloody game back for Christ's sake.


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