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Football, Failure and Laissez-faire

With its dominance by overseas players, managers and finance, the Premier League is a symbol of the UK's failed economic model.
Jeremy Fox
16 July 2010
[champions] Chelsea x Juventus : 1

Fabio Capello remarked some time ago that less than 40 per cent of the players who feature regularly in the Premier League qualify for selection to the England squad.Accustomed to seeing more foreign stars in the Premiership than home-grown ones, we have also in recent years grown used to foreign managers taking charge of our clubs: - Arsène Wenger, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafael Benitez, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Gerard Houllier, Gianfranco Zola and so on.Top football clubs, the traditional incubators of national excellence, are now primarily commercial businesses. Their first objective is to make money for shareholders. If there  is a dichotomy between the emotions these clubs arouse amongst fans - which are essentially local and tribal - and the demands of capitalist enterprise - it disappears when it comes to winning. Fans and owners alike are happy to have success purchased rather than built.The rationale is easily framed in the form of a question. Why develop local expertise and skill - which takes time, dedication and the risk of “failure” - when you can buy ready-made brilliance on the world market?Nothing, perhaps, more clearly demonstrates the denationalization of the game than the passing of so many famous clubs into foreign ownership. Half of the Premier League’s twenty teams are now in foreign hands, including Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and shortly - if media reports are accurate - Arsenal. The unwritten neo-liberal bible tells us that this is the way to produce the best of all possible results in the best of all possible sporting paradigms.That the model doesn’t satisfy the larger pretensions, hopes and aspirations of the nation is irrelevant. Or rather, according to the laissez-faire template we have inherited from the Thatcher-Reagan years,  it offers - like a linear programme - the least worst outcome, even if at times of national defeat we may think otherwise.What has happened to football has also occurred in the wider economy, of course.No significant nationally-owned car manufacturer remains. We have all but closed UK shipyards. Our aircraft industry is a pale reflection of what existed fifty years ago. We no longer make our own clothes, refrigerators, televisions, telephones, trains, computers, printers, footwear, sports equipment. Most of our pottery and tableware is imported; and much of our food too.

Sheikh bin Zayed Al Nahyan, owner of Man City.

Those who lament the passing of UK industry into external control point out that we are still a major exporter of manufactured goods. This is true, but it wholly misses the point.  Manufactured products exported from this country come largely from assembly plants, not from centres of creative industrial enterprise. Assembly plants merely put together products designed and engineered elsewhere - often with imported components. Just like football, we no longer invest long-term in the skills and know-how needed for national success. The world’s innovators, the engineers, tool and die makers, industrial designers, increasingly reside elsewhere - most notably in those countries that have eschewed laissez-faire to a greater or lesser extent in favour of managed trade and economic development policies.

Countries that exercise more care about ownership of their industrial profile (Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, India, China, Brazil  among them) also tend to be the strongest swimmers when they find themselves plunged in the forbidding waters of an international recession.

Similarly, those with few foreign players in their domestic football competitions - the South Americans are prime examples - have little difficulty putting together first class national teams.

Footballing beneficiaries of the neo-liberal model consist of a clutch of over-paid players many of whom make their fortune here while returning home to foster their country’s success on the international stage.  

Another, stranger kind of beneficiary has also emerged. In a fascinating manifestation of material decadence, a select few clubs have become the trophy playthings of billionaires. World-wide, there may be many thousands rich enough to acquire a trophy spouse. But to own a Premier League football club - now that is really something. Short of owning a country, English Premier League clubs are arguably the costliest toys in the known universe.

The solution for English (and UK) football - and for our industrial and economic vitality - is to reduce foreign participation in the game. As far as concerns football, that won’t happen until our Premier clubs enter the final lap of their race towards financial ruin. How long that may take is anyone’s guess, but  by some accounts they are well on their way.Perhaps our national economic profile will follow the same course - ineluctable decay followed, we may hope, by a revival of the creativity and entrepreneurial drive that inspired our first industrial revolution.

We should not, however, hold our collective breath, for we have not yet reached the bottom of the hill. Revival, moreover,  is far from assured, and the second time round - should it occur - will require us to stand on our own feet rather than on the backs of  peoples who right now may well be contemplating the pleasure of standing on ours.

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