How bad is English soccer?

“We are not Chelsea, we have no Abramovich. We work with the resources we have,” says Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger.-AP

Gone are those happy days when, on a weekend, every top division game began at 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon.

It was that once famous American comedian, Jimmy Durante, who coined the phrase, “Everybody wants to get in on the act.” Seldom more so, these days, in the case of football where, a consequence no doubt of its immense popularity, all and sundry want to give us their opinions. Notably, of late, an English critic and writer called John Sutherland. In a recent edition of a national daily paper, he expatiated on the supposed woes of the English game, beginning with the far from original premise that the failure of the England team in international competition is down to the hectic over hurried nature of the club game. Thus putting our teams, one is supposed to assume, at a disadvantage against foreign sides which play more precise, unhurried football.

To the riposte that the Premier League now, in fact has substantially more foreigners than English players, Sutherland responds that these too are caught up in the frenzy of the English style.

Just a minute. Does my memory fail me, or for the first time ever, aren’t two English clubs, foreigners and all, contesting the Final of the European Cup in Moscow? And weren’t three of the semifinalists all English teams? Dear, deluded Mr. Sutherland; you cannot have it both ways. If sheer pace and excessive physical commitment are holding back English football, how does he explain the fact that Arsenal in the European quarterfinals accounted for Milan, beating them at San Siro, and that Liverpool won there too, against the other great Milanese Club, Inter, besides having the better of the first leg quarterfinal at Anfield? His argument is full of great holes.

Yet, it would be wrong to state smugly that all is well with English football, and no one is more ready to admit as much as myself. As soon as the so-called Premier League, which I instantly christened the Greed is Good League, was brought into being by the leading first division clubs and the Chief Executive of the Football Association, Graham Kelly, something beautiful and historic died in English football. I said then and say again that Kelly ironically enough the previous top man at the Football League, now wretchedly overshadowed, had betrayed the FA’s trust; which was to hold the ring, never to make common cause with the big fish at the expense of the lesser ones.

So it is that we now have a top division in which the same four clubs monotonously dominate. Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. Just as for so many years Italian football was carved up by Milan, Inter and Juventus. Greedily our top clubs embraced television money, in such hyperbolic quantities. Transfer fees and players’ remuneration soared exponentially. How could the lesser clubs compete, even in the Premier League itself? And since he who pays the piper calls the tune, the television companies, notably B SKY B but now Setanta as well, were able to dictate just when the games should be played, with not an ounce of concern for the supporters. Gone are those happy days when, on a weekend, every top division game began at 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon. Now, there will be games on Sunday, even Monday, with the companies even agreeing what time the kick offs should be. Lunch time? Late afternoon time? Whatever.

Then there is the arrival of the foreign magnates who, with the obvious exception of Chelsea and their billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, are interested only in making money from the clubs they buy; as often as not — and again Abramovich is the exception — with massively borrowed money, which, in the case of Manchester United and Liverpool, both American owned, into an alarming degree even charged against the clubs concerned.

Chelsea may be a case apart, but the significance of what has happened at Stamford Bridge is no less dispiriting. I had every sympathy with the Arsenal Manager, Arsene Wenger, when he complained near the end of the season, “It’s not right. Every company should work with its natural resources. Morally it’s not right. We are not Chelsea, we have no Abramovich. We work with the resources we have. When we have paid our debt back, we work with higher resources.”

When the Russian oligarch Abramovich bought Chelsea, it was hideously in debt. Ken Bates, its Chairman and owner walked away with £17 million. Abramovich then proceeded not only to pay off the club’s enormous debts, but to send a further fortune on acquiring players. Money literally no object. So Chelsea were enabled to win their first Championship title for 50 years, in 2005, not to mention successes in the FA Cup and League Cup. Thanks, to their Russian millions, they have severely unbalanced the English game. In the most literal sense, they have bought success.

There is no doubt that for Abramovich, soccer is a hobby and a diversion. In any given week, he seems to be buying a vast new yacht or a huge new London house. But the Glazers, the American family who have taken over Manchester United at enormous expenses, with money to a large extent borrowed at high rates, the Americans Gillett and Hicks, the warring pair who took over Liverpool and have reduced a once steady club to administrative chaos, and the egregious Thaksin Shinawatra, who has bought Manchester City, present another less altruistic — if that be the word — picture.

That a man with Shinawatra’s alarming background should be able to take control of a club as old and distinguished as Manchester City without a peep from the football authorities tells you how far the English game has sunk. Formerly President of Thailand, where he has been accused and convicted of corruption, accused by Amnesty International of torturing and even killing political opponents, accused of giving the order to wipe out hundreds of minor drug dealers, Shinawatra has shown no patience with his manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, hanging by a thread in the last weeks of the season, though in its early stages, the team was flourishing. How significant that the City players rose up in arms, offering to boycott their club’s proposed summer tour to Thailand though, to his credit, Eriksson demurred.

Yes, there is indeed something rotten in the state of English football, even if Sutherland signally fails to see what is wrong. Nor does there seem any imminent prospect of things being put right. If some of the present owners I have named seem fit and proper persons, “What price morality?”