It seemed no coincidence that on the same day all-time tennis great Roger Federer wrapped up his 16th Grand Slam title in Melbourne, in two other continents high-profile footballing results would have had book-makers and armchair pundits smiling with a knowing told-you-so satisfaction alike. Egypt completed a hat-trick of African Cups back to back in Angola, while in London Man Utd overcame serial ‘bottlers’ Arsenal in a ‘crucial’ game in the race for the Premier League title. All over the world on the 31/1/10 it seemed like a day to represent the predictability of modern football. Some aspects and results seem just too unsurprising to the seasoned viewer and sustained dominance by some sides is surely good for no-one. ‘Viva la status quo’ may be an uninspiring sentiment to live by. Depressing? Maybe. But maybe not…
It is beginning to look increasingly likely now that the 2010 Premier League trophy will (once again) be placed in either of the already aching cabinets of Manchester United or Chelsea this summer. While that obviously brings frustration to the legions of the other eighteen who occupy the same division, can there still be any entertainment or comfort in the predictability of the Premier League title race? And does the drama suffer because of it?
Fans of England’s Premier League often cast snide glances at their neighbours in the Scottish and French leagues, scoffing at the apparent lack of domestic competition, but upon face value England’s top tier looks almost equally uninviting to those seeking capriciousness and a competitive edge at the top end of the league. Manchester United have won eleven of the seventeen titles on offer since the Premier League was set up in 1993. And on top of that, there has only been three other winners. Two of those with the help of drastic sudden investment.
Fans learn early not to expect too much of their team, if they exist outside the pantheon of the ‘big four’. Avoid relegation, steady progress, stability and a chance at Europe (in a competition that no-one gives a toss about) are the base aspirations of many of the remaining sixteen. Few pile into a new season with the intrepid hope (or expectation) that this season will be a realistic chance at the title. And if they do, their fragile dreams are soon crushed by the consistency of their own inconsistencies, as they are inevitably turned over by the usual suspects with the ease and disdain with which Gary Neville might flip someone the finger.
You might argue I am reducing the point of the league to its base function (to determine a winner), over simplifying it to make a tired point and ignoring the subtle nuances and individual battles and struggles that make the Premier League so interesting. However, we still complain when Man Utd win again, when the ‘big four’ remain the ‘big four’ and the only way to get anywhere near the dizzying, nose-bleed heights of Europa League qualification is to spend until you go into administration.
Yet despite all this, the English Premier League is the most watched league world-wide and widely regarded (albeit debatably) as the most entertaining place to watch club football. The German Bundesliga, over the last couple of years at least, has boasted new competitiveness and unpredictability. With more surprise packages than an Al Qaeda mail room, six or more teams have put themselves within more than a shout of achieving first place. However, outside its own borders (where to be fair it has the highest average attendance league of any football league in Europe) the Bundesliga has nowhere near the same interest levels as Man Utd et al. in the Premier League. Although this has a lot to do with marketing and money, most overseas fans may watch top English sides for their supposed quality and consistency. Their predictability of success, as it were, hoping to see some of the very best athletes in the world playing at their finest.
It would be an impossibility to make the Premier League an even playing field for so many reasons it is not worth going into. Even the new trend of vast investment will not help. Continued success and indeed dominance by any team throughout an overly prolonged era is at times beyond tedious. However without it we would not enjoy the giant killings and upsets so much when indeed they do come along. In many newer leagues around the world where the idea of football as a professional sport is still younger than an Arsenal Carling cup team, where dominators and club identities have yet to be established (Australia’s A league, for example), some fans struggle to become fully immersed in the sport without the prospect of upsets or giant killings, without leaders to aspire to and pantomime villains to loathe. In a league where all are equally good, they can also be equally bad.
The likes of Man Utd perhaps serve as an example of this aspiration and a pantomime villain rolled into one. Many fans can at least (at times) admire their brilliance, while revelling (some more than others) in their occasional failures. Even if the table after thirty eight have been played shows less anomalies and plot twists than we would like, there is still entertainment to be had along the way in the individual games and moments which make our seasons as supporters.
In the Premier League, undoubtedly some remain more equal than others for various reasons, but it could be argued that the necessary evils of the sustained rulers of the division help raise the games of the others and inevitably also attracts some of the best talent to the country, raising the quality (if not the surprise aspect) of the league. On top of that, nothing lasts forever (other than Ryan Giggs it would seem) and who’s to say in a few years time Man Utd versus Arsenal won’t be a relegation-battling six-pointer rather than a Super Sunday title decider. Maybe. But maybe not. Last Sunday anyway it seemed more ‘Ski Sunday’ than super Sunday for Arsene’s team… It all went a bit downhill…