The plan to stage Premier League matches abroad is an act of brazen greed—but may yet come to pass. Plus, why Spielberg was right to walk out on the Olympicsby Geoffrey Wheatcroft / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
In a league of its own
Asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton, replied with deathless concision, “That’s where the money is,” and Pascal Chimbonda recently gave another unarguable explanation of why he wants to transfer from Spurs to Newcastle: “It’s all about the money.” His words could be carved above the headquarters of the Premier League, or on a keepsake for Richard Scudamore, the league’s chief executive.
Ever since it was created in 1992, the Premier League seems to have been inspired by the character in an old Daily Worker cartoon whose label reads “Boss Class” and who sneers from under his silk hat as he thinks up new ways to get rich by exploiting the masses. But the proposal to stage an “international round,” or additional 39th match, abroad—in Qatar or Tokyo, America or China, Greenland, Zembla or the Lord knows where—went beyond satire. In his complacency, Scudamore clearly didn’t foresee the universal hostility and derision his wheeze would excite, from fans, from Alex Ferguson, from Australia.
More significant was the objection from Mohammed bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Federation, who said meiotically that, “it is not a good idea to organise domestic leagues in territories other than their own.” And most threateningly of all, Sepp Blatter has called the plan “an abuse of association football” intended only to make rich people richer. The president of Fifa added that it could endanger any bid by England to host the 2018 World Cup.
As a spectacle, English football is as exhilarating as it has ever been, and of a much higher technical standard. February saw the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, which killed half of the Manchester United team. All the tributes paid, notably at the match between the two Manchester clubs, were very moving, not only for those of us old enough to have heard the terrible news as little boys but for fans not even born then.
That was before the days of televised football, and when Bobby Charlton says that Duncan Edwards was “the only player who made me feel inferior,” we have little more than his word for it: Edwards, Billy Whelan, Roger Byrne and the other dead heroes survive only on scraps of flickering film. But the truth is that the First Division as a whole was a poor thing then compared with now: anyone with dim recollections of Wolves trundling away against Preston North End knows the game has changed in kind rather than degree, and the change has accelerated thanks to a huge infusion of money and foreign talent into the Premier League.
And yet it isn’t just sentimental nostalgia to think that those who observed a minute’s silence at Old Trafford were mourning something we had lost beyond those eight footballers. Now players move from club to club at the snap of an agent’s fingers, and teams are indistinguishable armies of mercenaries, bought and sold like any other businesses. What we still call clubs—with all that word implies—are on the way to becoming franchises on the American model, which can even be transported bodily. I know New Yorkers of my age who have never quite recovered from the trauma of 1957, when two of the city’s baseball teams—the New York Giants and, still more painfully, the Brooklyn Dodgers only two years after they won their one and only World Series—were moved to California by their owners.
The general view is that Scudamore won’t get his way, but I wouldn’t be so sure. The Premier League was, after all, designed to make Rupert Murdoch a great deal of money. It has duly done so; the 39th Step would make still more; and, as they say at the Wall Street Journal, what Rupert wants, he gets. I shall not be astonished to see Arsenal playing Chelsea in some oil-rich, human rights-poor Gulf state. What price—the phrase more apt than usual—the “Emirates” club ending up in an actual emirate?
Even if it took a while, Steven Spielberg has finally noticed that China, while arranging to host this summer’s Olympics, has given aid and comfort to the horrible Sudanese government. Come to think of it, he could have added that the Chinese communist regime itself has killed some 70m people since 1949, and has committed horrors in Tibet dwarfing those of Darfur, or anything Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds.
It may well be that only totalitarian states are now fit to stage the Olympics, and not just because the games bankrupt their host cities, as London will soon discover. When Orwell said that “international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred” he instanced the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but that wasn’t the whole story. In fact, the Berlin games were run in a superficially sportsmanlike way; the real point was that, as the scholar and diarist Victor Klemperer saw at the time, they were “an entirely political enterprise.”
So are the Beijing Olympics. The appalling old waxworks (in the Prince of Wales’s phrase) who rule China are looking forward to “a beautiful day, a great day,” as Goebbels described the opening ceremony in 1936, “a victory for the German cause.” The waxworks have always wanted another victory, for the Chinese cause. President’s Bush determination to attend suggests they may yet get it.