By Paul Gardner
In its 16 years of existence, the English Premier League has been won by only four different clubs. You could really make that three -- for Blackburn's win in 1995 was something of an aberration. Otherwise, it's been Arsenal (3 wins), Chelsea (2) and Manchester United (10) all the way.
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter recently took a beady-eyed look at that situation, and professed himself worried by it: "In a competition where two-thirds or three-quarters of the participants in the league play not to be first, but not to be relegated, there is something wrong."
Although Blatter didn't spell it out, there is really no secret about what is "wrong" here -- the EPL has so much more money than any other league, and its top clubs can vastly outdistance the rest when it comes to big-spending.
But what is "wrong" with that? Nothing, because that is the way competitive capitalism works. Everything, because the continuous dominance of only three clubs makes a mockery of that very word, competitive.
The situation is hardly new. It is only the extent of it, the overwhelming impression of irresistible power that the top English clubs now radiate, that is causing Blatter -- and many others -- to ask whether this is not too much of a good thing.
The dominance of English clubs, inevitably, is making itself felt outside of England. Last year's Champions League final featured two English clubs, and the situation so far this year -- with four EPL clubs in the final eight -- suggests the likelihood that the same thing will happen again.
To have the world's No. 1 club competition become the private playground of just one country, is that also "wrong"? After all, if the clubs win their games, if they prove they're better than the rest on the field -- how can that be wrong? Was it "wrong" for Real Madrid to dominate the European Cup in its early days by winning the first five editions? No one thought so at the time, and certainly no one looks back on those days as a dark age -- very much the opposite, in fact.
It seems that the real "wrong" of the EPL clubs is not so much that they are super rich, but that they are becoming super-successful. They are crudely exposing a fact that soccer would like to keep hidden: that there is a direct link between riches and trophies, that success can be bought.
The Americans -- much more up front about the necessity and the benefits of wealth in sports -- confronted the matter decades ago and came up with various ways of trying to ensure parity within pro sports leagues.
How odd that the Americans use what are suspiciously socialistic schemes to bring about equality while the Europeans allow the free market to reign unbridled.
The soccer picture is complicated in a way that American sports are not by its heavily global nature. To talk of an "English dominance" is decidedly misleading. Of the 44 players who started the Champions League games for Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United this week, only 9 are English. None of the four coaches is English. Hardly a triumph for English soccer.
The actual English contribution to this English domination is remarkably slight. One cannot even accuse "English money" of being behind the imbalance, for so many of the EPL clubs are now financed by foreign owners. Three of the four clubs mentioned above are foreign owned (Liverpool and ManU by Americans). Arsenal soldier on with a (mostly!) English ownership, but their position looks increasingly like that of a beleaguered holdout.
Blatter's fear is that the rise of the rich takes the competitive spirit out of the game -- and that it is also likely to eliminate the extra attraction of inter-national rivalries, the very thing that underlies the whole idea of national teams and the World Cup.
Maybe. We have yet to see any convincing evidence of such damaging effects, but they loom as likely possibilities. What we do know is that having all the world's best players concentrated in Europe, and particularly in England, and maybe even more particularly at Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, cannot be a good thing.
Why not? Well, because it doesn't seem like a good thing, it doesn't sound like a good thing, it can't be fair ... dammit, it's just not right. Emotional arguments that get battered to nothingness in the marketplace. But beneath them lies a very real emotion, a fear of wealth, fear that wealth will trample on everything, will destroy tradition, will re-shape the sport until it is nothing more than an unrecognizable money machine.
I exaggerate, perhaps, but Blatter's complaint evokes some such fear. The fear that, when money rules, sport is no longer sport. Soccer games should be decided by the players on the field, not by the execs in the boardroom. No buying of success!
But it has ever been that way. Money has always been the key in pro sports -- how would it not be? The "wrong" of the EPL is not that they are doing anything different from what has passed before. It is rather that they are making the financial underpinning of pro sport rather too obvious. In doing that they are destroying the myth of sport as something different, something clean, something above the sordid commerce of every day life.
I would love that to be true. But -- at least as far as pro soccer goes -- I do not see how it can be.