Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I Want My Premier League

The Premier League's worldwide success has always been a little hard to pinpoint. It is often explained away as the result of a sort of crass, immediately satisfying product whereby the all-action nature of the play is easily appreciated by the average watcher. This was never a particularly solid explanation however and has been disproved recently, most notably by Mourinho's tactical innovations (and less dramatic play) while at Chelsea.

John Terry said that on the first day of training Jose had to stop them completely, going ballistic at basic defensive errors which the players were used to being tolerated. This was quite a defining feature of the PL for me for quite some time. The volume of goals scored as the result of defensive howlers used to be exponential. Every Saturday, Match of the Day would feature half a dozen 'Titus Brambleesque' errors leading to goals that many would sniffily conclude as the defining factor of the league's success. Mourinho, and Benitez (who, not Ferguson, always seemed like Mourinho's true rival), did more than any other manager to stamp these sort of basic errors out. The popularity still remained however, and was now underlined by objective success. Before Mourinho came along an English side had not reached a Champions League final since 1999. Although Mourinho would not lead Chelsea to one during his 3 years at the club, the representation of an English club at every final in the 5 years following his arrival is in no small part due to his, and Benitez's, tactical innovations. Not just that, they seemed to snap Ferguson and Wenger out of their mutual dependency and force them to raise their standards, United certainly obliging, Arsenal maybe not.

Sometimes I think English success/popularity, in many things not just football, is down to their capacity as appreciators. They are truly the best fans in the world. At everything - music, art, sport. They will cheer you to the rafters, treat you like a god, write about you eloquently. Even, say, the massive success of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones can be seen to result to some degree by the band members' appreciation of other things - in this case black R&B. When looking back at the rise of the PL it has often been spurred by the English peoples adoption and support of previously unappreciated figures. The enigmatic wanderers like Cantona, the misused geniuses like Henry, the elder statesmen like Zola and Okocha had all had unhappy existences in more harsher climates before receiving the warm embrace of England, and all paid back the support handsomely. Watching Mourinho's miserable experience in Italy really hammered home how differently the English treat their heroes, or perhaps the criteria each use to verify such heroes.

This may not be a good thing of course. The way Mourinho was feted during his time in England was surely excessive. And perhaps it was contrived only by a rapacious press pack whereby we are all now living by the morals and codes of a small group of fan-boys. He did ruin that referee's career in order to gain a slight competitive advantage for his team, all based on lies. He did accuse the Reading ambulance service of purposely and potentially fatally harming Petr Cech, again all based on lies for who knows what motive. Maybe he is a scumbag. But he gives good quotes, which means the press like him, ergo us drones are forced to like him through media subjection. However what prevents me from being completely negative about the English league is, strangely, Americans.

Americans seem to have taken to English soccer beyond other leagues, and despite cliches to the contrary, they are usually a sound arbiter of good taste. Their patronage of the league elevates it out of the 'Big in Japan' level. Similarly Australians' championing of the league confirms the quality. To be honest I get the impression Americans and Australians are loathe to celebrate anything contemporary about 'Old England' so the league must have something going for it to grab them, but they're also two nations who are constantly looking out for 'the best', regardless of historical import, and will change allegiances more quickly than others.

Sometimes I wonder if the Premier League is more suited to American sensibilities than their present sports. The strange aspect of American sport I have always found (at least from casually looking at it from the outside) is that for such a capitalist country its sports betray socialist tendencies. The salary caps present in the leagues prevent, to a point, a monopoly of talent by a few clubs while innovations like the previous season's last team getting the first pick in the player drafts are something the PL Board would surely fight tooth and nail, at the behest of the big clubs, to prevent ever happening in England. Similarly the insistence on players attending college seems to go against the 'grab it while you can' nature which the US exhibits on a macro level. Although I'm faintly aware this has been challenged recently with some players drafting straight from High School, I feel this is being generally resisted. Does Glenn Beck have bits on Fox News castigating the sports bodies for this? Isn't it all a bit, well, liberal? (The underlying argument could be that America is liberal of course. Strong unions, good schools, decent working conditions are all ingrained there despite what some would like to present.)

While there still seems to be permanently successful clubs like The Lakers in America, there also seems to be teams that, either through appointing a great coach or getting a good draft can have a few years of success, winning titles along the way. The idea that a Fulham could win the title, without a sugar-daddy owner, the way a small American football club can is inconceivable. (But maybe nobody wants Fulham to win. Nobody supports them outside a small band. Maybe people want Man United, Chelsea etc. to be challengers every year so that quality, narrative, familiarity will all be ensured. The certainty is celebrated. Like people flocking to the cinema to watch Julia Roberts essentially play Julia Roberts again and again, it's the actors, not the performances, we crave.)

I think sporting success may be deemed a bit Eurotrashy in the US consciousness. When you look back at famous American figures, noted for intellect or political achievement, it's amazing how many of them are former accomplished US sports players - Hemingway, Gerald Ford, George Bush Sr., There is no real equivalent here (despite the odd Camus/Pope as goalie), you can be good at one but not the other. I feel this may have been somewhat planned by the US in their early days to more better fit the country's aspirations. Perhaps they were reluctant to celebrate something so unthinking and based on natural talent (and thereby unfair/unAmerican) as European sport, rather than hard work and application and so catered their sports around accommodating thoughtful personalities, so the quarterback needs to be a good thinker etc. While this might make for more rounded sports stars perhaps the games become more boring, and thus - here comes soccer, enjoy these noble savages.

And so the Premier League behemoth rumbles on, managing to turn places as dreary and prosaic as Bolton and Wigan somewhat exotic, and nobody's really sure why it's working so well or what indicators to use to judge it. Those in charge are too worried about damaging their jewel to properly examine it to see what's the cause, or what could stop it. It just works.

EDIT: I often read these posts later and cringe so just for my sanity can I say that I realise I've probably got this completely wrong of course. It could be that soccer is so desirable precisely because it is thoughtful and not so dependent on physical attributes as many American sports. Looking at basketball heroes, for example, taking Bryant, Jordan, Johnson - all three were at least six foot six. There's no equivalent in soccer really. Take Maradona at 5'5", or Pele at 5'8" or Zidane at 6'1", there's no physical pattern there. It could perhaps precisely be that because their wit, intelligence and skill can influence their performance above and beyond their physical attributes the sport is so attractive to some Americans. Often watching (only very occasionally) basketball now it seems to have turned into something resembling the scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest where it has reduced into getting the ball as quickly and most directly to a giant player under the hoop. While there is obviously a subtlety I can't pick up only being a casual observer (maybe the grace of the 6'10" guys?), that could be part of the problem - ignorant watchers like me just think 'isn't it whoever has the tallest player wins?'.

Then of course there's the colour thing. Basketball is black. American Football is black. Baseball is, what, Dominican? Even traditional white sports like Golf and Tennis now have the feel that white people reign supreme because of social and not sporting factors. But not only are white people good at soccer, you could say they're the best. They don't need to overcome more skillful minorities through attrition or physicality. They have grace, skill, natural ability the way America is so used to seeing black American sportsmen have. I don't even think this is particularly racist, just borne of honest surprise. In fact, I find it a little unsettling that at an American Football game the majority of the players are black while all the fans in the stand white. It seems bloody stupid (maybe I am racist though). Looking at it benevolently, Soccer has more variety. It's not as limited to a race or socio economic class and it's truly global. There's still a place, and hopefully always will be, for an Irishman or African or Spaniard or, now, American.

This is why this post on the excellent A More Splendid Life, admittedly by a Canadian not American, was so interesting (and I completely agree with it). Maybe North Americans know that descending down a road of tactical and physical prowess leads ultimately only to tedium. Hearing Pep Guardiola praise Theo Walcott as Arsenal's main threat because he can run the 100 metres in 10.3 seconds was annoying for the same reason - why doesn't he piss off and do athletics then, this is football.

Of course we have been here before with Americans trying to take to soccer in the late 1970s. Perhaps it's just history repeating and won't last although it does feel more substantial this time.


  1. As an American, I found it quite odd that I became attracted to the Premier League a few seasons back. But, it happened, and it changed my view of a lot of things, most notably England.
    It had nothing to do with wanting to emulate the English or to become a Europhile wannabe.
    It was as you say down to the product - what I saw in those first couple of matches on TV was incredible sport and entertainment. I was hooked.
    I would like to think I am "a sound arbiter of good taste.

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  3. Hi,

    Yeah, what I notice about American comments around English soccer is an underlying surprise that the English are doing something so accomplished and considered as their football and football writing/culture. The PL seems to act as a sort of gateway to English culture and many are shocked to see so much quality there in many different areas. It's not all the sordid Jordan and Peter Andre or Big Brother.

    When arguments on boards or whatever come up a lot of Americans can quickly revert to 'well the UKs just a fatwah state/one big council estate'. Part of me is outraged at this level of ignorance by Americans but another part of me is annoyed that the English are so unconcerned that they can actually present such a poor image to the world, you'd think they purposely select their worst to show to the world like they just don't care anymore. It's a brave attitude, and I'm obviously a lot more conservative than I used to be, but I really think they need to address this.

    I remember being in Australia and some mainstream highbrow talkshow did an hour long special with Malcolm McLaren. I never saw him on English tv, just Hollyoaks and 15 hours of Friends.

    A lot of worldwide viewers obv like Guardian Football and it's great. But the rest of the paper is absolutely horrible. Its dripping with snarky cynicism and jaded sarcasm. They take absolutely nothing seriously. The difference with their attitude to football is that there is a genuine affection and fondness underlying the sarcasm. It never descends into such tiresome nastiness as the rest of the paper.

    But there has to be more than football, especially to a city, say, like Liverpool. It's not enough to just have a great football team, especially when those living farthest away can often derive the most enjoyment from it (the PL really travels really well, every time I watch it abroad it seems to add an allure that is often not present on a wet Saturday afternoon).

    I don't like supporting the PL mainly because of this, it's success can inhibit much needed social change. Maybe it would be no harm if it went off the boil.

  4. After thinking about it a bit, my surprise that I grew to love the EPL was not that I was surprised to find the product had such a high quality. Instead, I was surprised THAT I WOULD BECOME TOTALLY IN LOVE WITH A SPORT IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY.

    That's a rather embarassing admission, but it's the truth.

    I love travel, and I have greatly enjoyed vacationing throughout Europe for the last 20 years. I thrive on learning about other cultures and languages.

    But, when it came to sport, it was American or nothing. Why bother with anything else? There couldn't possibly be anything to get excited about other than baseball, basketball, etc., etc.

    I had had a couple of flirtations with the game in Europe, but it just wasn't the right place or time, and I wasn't ready to receive it.

    When I was ready, it was a glorious revelation.

    I like your blog very much - keep it going.

  5. What proportion of Americans chiefly associate England with the culture of Jordan and Peter Andre or even know who they are? I think we're seen as tweedy, trendy or yobby (delete as appropriate). Good point on appreciators (enthusiasts) though as we see ourselves as cynics. Congrats on an enjoyable and thoughtful blog.