Don't worry boys, it's not your fault
On Thursday, the announcement that World Cup 2018 was to be held in Russia and not England was greeted with disbelief, outrage and a great deal of animosity by most English people who cared.
I, on the other hand, wasn't really that bothered or surprised.
Maybe it's because, for a while now, my contempt for top-flight football is growing—England's poor showing in the World Cup, the downward spiral of my club Liverpool FC, the growing influence of billionaire sugar daddies or players that are as admirable as Pete Doherty in the role model stakes. The night before the announcement Aston Villa and Birmingham City fans indulged in their ritual handbags (I was almost caught up in such a fracas in last month's derby) so is it really a surprise?
It's no use berating the Russians and comparing their stadiums and infrastructure to ours; because to be honest, Russia could do with the World Cup, it will do the country good. And why are people so angry about it? Has everyone forgotten that we have the Olympics coming here in eighteen months' time? For me, that is a bigger deal.
In my opinion, England doesn't deserve to host the World Cup in 2018. English football is swallowing itself up, and I can only hope that something like losing the bid will be the kick up the backside it needs, because the game isn't in the best state at the moment. Let me lay it all out on the table—you'll find it's as ugly as the pig brain and fish eye buffet on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!.
In league terms, the money that commercialised top-flight football and reinvigorated the sport is now turning into a poison infiltrating every club. At one end of the scale you have the teams that don’t have much money and are unable to compete, whilst at the other end Manchester City and Chelsea throw millions around to buy success, which has inflated the market to new heights of ridiculousness. Even Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has to search the bargain basement for gems as opposed to splashing out.
Speaking of Manchester United, they are in an awful lot of trouble off the field at the moment. The performance of the team seems to be papering over the cracks successfully for now, but one can’t help but think that United will "do a Liverpool" and end up in a club-threatening ownership struggle. Then what will the Premier League do when its most successful and commercially popular club is in the gutter?
I snooped around a few Liverpool FC message boards at the time of their ownership battle/joke/saga, and the majority of posts were about legalities, finance, injunctions, administration, high court battles and ownership. The fans were so embroiled in the future of their club’s very existence that they forgot about the happenings on the pitch.
That’s not what football is supposed to be about.
Fans are supposed to turn up to the game and support their team without having to worry about whether their club will exist the next day.
At the other end of the scale are Chelsea and Manchester City, who are as rich as the day is long. Man City in particular are shameless in their pursuit for the cream of the footballing crop, yet somehow they end up paying through the nose for second-rate players.
I wonder why that is? Manchester United fans will happily point to the fifty-odd years that City have gone without a trophy to answer that question.
There is no such thing as "unlimited" money, however, and the time will come when either spending is restricted severely or these owners will choose to draw their purse strings. When that happens, it will be the fans that pay the biggest price for the actions of those at the top. Ask the supporters of Leeds and Portsmouth.
Mismanagement, irresponsible spending and an inflated market have in turn forced clubs to hike ticket prices in to generate more revenue and have any chance of buying half decent players to compete. Those fans that have been forced to worry about the financial state of their club are also being priced out of attending matches. It is not acceptable, and it is appalling that the people who run the English game have not stepped in.
Back onto the football, there is another worrying side effect to the popularity of the Premier League—the lack of English talent coming through club academies. I remember about ten years ago when the major topic of discussion was the amount of foreign players in the league and the possibility of them blocking the development of home-grown players, and now we’re seeing those fears manifest.
There’s no denying that the league has been better for its ability to attract the best players in the world, but at the same time the flow of talent coming from youth academies is now a trickle, and it is harder for youngsters to break through into the first team of a top club. Arsenal and Aston Villa are exceptions, with some exciting players coming through from both clubs. A handful of clubs producing talent is not enough however and with this happening, where are the future stars of the England team going to come from, and will they be good enough?
Speaking of England, various players have been feasted upon by the gossip-hungry English media for all the wrong reasons. I don’t know which was the bigger disappointment, the irresponsible behaviour of the players off the pitch or their incompetence on it.
Rooney in particular has been a great source of headlines, especially with his recent contract dispute with Manchester United. It is baffling that Sir Alex Ferguson allowed it to happen, but players now have more power than they deserve. Money, not passion, is what drives them. You only have to look at the new-found pulling power of Manchester City (a club that hasn’t won a trophy for decades) to realise that.
The Premier League is still regularly championed as the best in the world, with the most enthralling football, the best players and the most unpredictable matches. To some extent, that is still true. It’s great when a newly promoted team such as Blackpool pulls off some shock results. In addition, there are still exciting players in the league such as Cesc Fabregas and Didier Drogba.
That does not make the Premier League the best in the world, and despite the star names and hype, doesn't give England the right to host 2018 World Cup.
At the moment, the bad clearly outweighs the good with top flight English football and something will have to give. Will it be the collapse of Manchester United? (Who is able to buy out their £800m debt?) A mass exodus of top players? Fan boycotts? An England team that fails to qualify for tournament after tournament? Those seem to be the worst-case scenarios, and as each season passes and more trials and tribulations are publicised, those scenarios are becoming more real.
Some effort has been put in to try and stop the downward spiral. Bans from European competition have been threatened for clubs that report huge losses, which should curb the reckless spending. UEFA and the Premier League have introduced "home-grown" player rules to make sure squads contain enough players from youth academies. However, the fruits of all these efforts are yet to be seen.
And how to dampen the over sized (and mostly unjustified) egos of the players? Wage caps should be introduced to take away players’ negotiation power (see Wayne Rooney). Clubs that charge ridiculous ticket and merchandise prices also need to be addressed. The Premier League is extremely competitive financially, but it is the fans that hold it all together and over charging them will take its toll.
So football won't "be coming home" for a while at least, and until English football decides to get up off its arse and clean up its act, the wait may be a very long one.