Even more than usual, May looks like being a very good month for overblown football superlatives. It’s the big one; the even bigger one; the dream final. It’s a feast of football, a soccer apocalypse. Manchester United and Chelsea have been competing for three major trophies and don’t we all know it. These days it feels like it’s judgement day every day.
There are obvious reasons for Sky Sports and the Murdoch newspaper empire to fan the flames of what is surely a largely imaginary public hysteria over the denouement to the season. They have a product to sell; not just newspapers and TV programmes, but the continued appeal of Premiership football itself. At the same time something interesting, or at least significant, really is happening at the top end of British football. And not necessarily anything to do with the state of Rio Ferdinand’s groin or José Mourinho’s latest inflammatory bon mot (which at the time of writing was to do with Cristiano Ronaldo having had a “difficult childhood... with no education”).
The concentration of teams competing for the major trophies in club football is unprecedentedly stark. At the same time it appears entirely predictable. Premiership football is a bit like global warming, where every day is the hottest day since the last hottest day, to a point where it all starts to seem like permanent shift into something radically different.
This year’s four Champions League semi-finalists are all owned and bankrolled by billionaire businessmen. Often predicted in the past, a dramatic stratification appears to have finally taken place, whereby it has become inconceivable that any club from outside the richest elite might challenge the oligopoly at the top.
What are we supposed to think about this? Football has always been a steeply hierarchical business. It’s the utter stagnation at the top that is new, the sense that even in the Premiership, let alone the pyramid beneath it, the status quo has become irretrievably entrenched. Even Sky seem to have acknowledged this. The (two horse) race for the title is now treated as almost a separate competition. Chelsea have played 59 games and United 55 this season, but on only 13 occasions have they been in action at the same time. It has become a separate TV mini-series, a two-handed melodrama. Man Utd and Chelsea will be playing two matches over the next month that may each decide the outcome of a major trophy.
It’s a sign of how absurd things have become that United, the wealthiest football club in the world, can now be presented in their encounters against Chelsea as underdogs, like a clean-cut wrestler taking on a 7ft brute who gains the upper hand through dirty tricks before losing in a flurry of wildly acclaimed dropkicks. (Next season it seems we can expect plucky little Liverpool to challenge the bad guy on the basis of a £40 million handout that Rafa Benitez is apparently to receive from his new American employers.)
At the same time the most minor of utterances by the principal players is raked over, and frequently misreported, in large type headlines, creating the lumbering back page dialogue occasionally referred to as “mind games”. No aspect of football, no sport on its own, can survive this level of scrutiny without beginning to seem at best trivial, at worst slightly moronic. This might be good for television and good for tabloid journalism. But is it good for the rest of us?
Of course, football goes on regardless elsewhere. Combined attendances for all matches last season added up to 29 million, but over 16m came from outside the Premiership – even allowing for the fact that there are always a few clubs on the verge of financial crisis, the game outside the top level is in startlingly good health. But while most lower divison teams can at least anticipate eventful seasons to come, supporters of mid-ranking Premiership clubs are unlikely to have any real cause for excitement in the near future. Their clubs are raking in huge amounts from television and spending it on players who will become millionaires during their careers without ever having won anything. With each new season the also-rans with 40,000-plus gates seem much further away from winning a trophy.
Super Saturday, Titanic Tuesday and Wonderful Wednesday might be noisily proclaimed once. But how about the same thing next year and the year after that? How long can we stay excited for?
From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month