Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Twenty Two
The new season should be a time for new hope and anticipation and, for the Premier League, it is. Exciting new players, even more exciting new managers, a sense that there are at least six sides challenging for the top-four spots. An English club has broken the world transfer record for the first time since Newcastle United signed Alan Shearer in 1996. English football is still warmed by the glow of the Leicester City fairy tale.
But elsewhere the picture is far less rosy. Bayern Munich will win the Bundesliga. Juventus will win Serie A. Paris St-Germain will win La Ligue. Sometime around March, they’ll get round to playing a meaningful game as the Champions League gets to the quarter-final stage, but until then it’s just a case of trotting on, accumulating points until the league is won, probably with half a dozen games or more to spare. La Liga, with a whole two, maybe two and a half, challengers seems thrillingly competitive by comparison.
This is the grim result of the modern economics of football, something England has escaped in part because of the collective agreement on broadcasting rights, ensuring a more equitable division of revenues, in part because oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds have sought to buy in the Premier League, and in part because those broadcasting rights are worth so much that the Champions League does not have such a distorting effect.
Until its final stages, the Champions League has come to seem something of a slog, a trudged through mismatched encounters until the big five and a couple of English sides meet in the knockout stages. The sense is that its appeal is waning, so it’s no great surprise that there will be changes from 2018-19. Allowing the four major leagues to have four guaranteed slots each in the group stages is probably the least bad scenario in terms of maintaining a sense of diversity, but it’s yet another step that removes a sense of jeopardy, that ensures the rich will remain rich and get richer.
It’s impossible, though, to hide from the logical outcome of football’s increasing inequality. Simple league titles, ultimately, will become tedious for the most successful – as well as for those habitually being beaten. A lack of domestic competition is already afflicting Bayern and PSG, who keep being exposed in big games because they’ve forgotten how to defend. The only solution, for them, is a Super League.
Every year, it feels, it comes closer. If access to it starts to be determined on such criteria as “historical merit”, it becomes a de facto franchise system and the beautiful sense of organic growth and one enormous interconnected pyramid that has sustained European football for so long will be lost.
Oddly, the main obstacle now is probably the wealth of the Premier League: why would English clubs want to give up a structure that is working very well for them?
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