Listen to this article
We take it for granted that this weekend millions of people across the world will be watching football teams from English provincial towns such as Manchester, Nottingham and Portsmouth. In fact, it is bizarre.
This half of a small island produces few great footballers. Since 1985, English clubs have won only as many European Cups (two) as have the Dutch or Portuguese. England’s national team has won one major title, five fewer than Germany. England’s domestic market consists of 50m people, Germany’s of 82m.
Yet English football is fast becoming the world’s game. People in bars in Shanghai and Los Angeles today will watch Birmingham v Reading in the FA Cup, not Eintracht Frankfurt v Schalke. The world’s best-known footballer is an Englishman, David Beckham, although nobody thinks he is the world’s best footballer. “We’ve got the most successful football in the world,” Richard Scudamore, the English Premier League’s chief executive, told the FT’s sports industry summit last November.
Here are the main reasons for England’s supremacy:
●The accidental genius of the English stadium. It owes its form chiefly to cheapness. In the maxim of Simon Inglis, the expert on football stadiums: “Form follows whatever the club chairman’s builder pal from the Rotary Club could come up with at a cut-price.” To save space, English stands towered steeply from the edge of the field. There was no athletics track because athletics didn’t pay. That meant the fans were crammed up against the pitch. The low cheap roofs amplified their singing. The concentrated noise urged the players into constant action. This gave the English game its frenzy, which persists even now that most of the players are foreigners.
Thus arose the atmosphere that football fans everywhere think of as “English”. “The English stadium works,” says Inglis, “in the same way that the four-piece guitar band works, the double-decker bus, the London taxi. It’s just one of those happy inventions.”
Jacques Herzog, the Pritzker-prize winning Swiss architect, built the Munich stadium for last year’s World Cup and is now building Beijing’s Olympic stadium. Explaining why English stadiums are his favourites, he says: “The people become the architecture.”
●English football combines the two industries in which Britain excels: heritage and youth culture. The world’s oldest clubs offer the appeal of tradition, while the players provide youth.
Since youth culture began, in the 1950s and 1960s, the American and British versions have sold best globally. Thus the declining port town of Liverpool produced both The Beatles and Liverpool Football Club, complete with fans in the Kop singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Later, British youth exported football hooliganism.
David Beckham is an unusually successful product of British youth culture. His body is a work of art in progress – the creation of hairdressers, tattooists, football coaches, couturiers and his wife, who redesign him endlessly as if he were a doll.
The French cult of the largely forgotten English footballer Chris Waddle is another example. Waddle, while playing for Olympique Marseille, incarnated the experimental British youth culture that has no equivalent in France. Waddle could dribble but he also changed his hairstyle constantly, recorded a pop song and inspired a generation of French boys (whose mothers fought to stop them copying Waddle’s haircuts). Typically, Arsenal’s brilliant French striker Thierry Henry names “Magic” Waddle in his all-time world eleven.
I asked Malcolm McLaren, creator of the English punk band The Sex Pistols, why he thought English youth culture dominated. “I think it’s because the English hate kids,” McLaren said. “The Italians love kids – they all live at home till they’re 30, 35. The Americans are kids.” But in Britain, he said, children were sexually repressed and often banished to boarding schools, and so they rebelled.
●English football appeals precisely because English footballers are flawed. Firstly, says Rogan Taylor, director of Liverpool University’s football industries group, the frequent mistakes produce exciting moments in front of goal. Secondly, the English game relies on hundreds of imported foreign players. That gives the world a stake in the Premiership. Qiang Yan, Chinese author of a book on the Premiership, told the International Football Arena conference in Zurich about 100m Chinese sitting up at 1am to see two Chinese play in an Everton v Manchester City match. “That’s ridiculous, right?” What goes for the Chinese goes for the French or Israelis: the Premiership belongs to them.
●The British love of the free market. In 1992 Premiership clubs sold the television rights for their matches to the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. This meant that only BSkyB’s subscribers could watch games live.
More social democratic countries like Germany or the Netherlands long resisted such a sale. They considered football a public good, which had to be shown free on state channels. Other countries also kept ticket prices cheap, letting poor fans attend matches. But English clubs sucked fans dry. The cheapest season ticket at Chelsea costs nearly four times as much as at Barcelona.
Consequently, English clubs raked in cash, which they spent on foreign stars. That helped them sell their games abroad. The Premiership just sold its overseas television rights for an unprecedented £625m for three seasons.
The Premiership is now so much richer than any other league that it has finally bought the best football. All four English clubs topped their groups in the Champions League last autumn. So did all three English clubs in the Uefa Cup. This week the French sports newspaper L’Equipe asked Fifa’s president Sepp Blatter whether the Premiership was becoming the “NBA of football”: the league where the best players congregated, like the National Basketball Association in the US. “It’s a danger, though we’re not there yet,” said Blatter. “But to avoid such a scenario, we must react.” It’s hard to know how.
Get alerts on News when a new story is published