Soccer: Same old story - rich play, grassroots suffer

By Paul Hayward

Football's news bunker has concealed this season's mediocrity with a frenzy of retirements and sackings

Much as Barack Obama has been accused of governing America by sermon, so the English game proceeds by holding the back page, shock and awe on Twitter and the titillation of TV's favourite hook: "Breaking".

Breaking: Sir Alex Ferguson to stand down after 27 years at Manchester United.

Breaking: Roberto Mancini sacked in favour of Manuel Pellegrini.

Breaking: Nicola Cortese and Mauricio Pochettino threaten to walk out on Southampton.

Breaking: Rafa Benitez blows a raspberry to Chelsea's supporters after a back-post header wins them the Europa League and clears the way for Jose Mourinho to return.

The football reporting industry, which deepened with David Beckham's exit on the first day of a Lord's test, is not the only reason to ask whether perpetual news-frenzy is a healthy state for the game in England to be in.

The industry's volatility conceals an awkward truth. On the pitch this has been a Premier League campaign short on artistic merit; a fact reflected in England's World Cup qualifying campaign, in which Roy Hodgson is so low on resources that he now may have to unleash Andy Carroll on Brazil in the friendly in the Maracana.

A stroll through Ajax's De Toekomst academy in Amsterdam this week brought a reminder that in England, a vital cultural jump still has to be made.

In the main, they refuse to see football as something that needs to be taught to the young to enable them to play properly. In England, they send them out and assume they will learn amid the mud and the shouts of winter.

It is the equivalent of sitting an eight-year-old down at a piano with a hammer and expecting him to perform Chopin.

At elite level, the game is going to have to fight to regain control of the agenda next term or English fans will be condemned again to experience football as rolling news, as a plutocrat's playground.

Already there is the sense that the English game is really a vehicle for moving large sums of money around, with a ball thrown in.

The upheavals at Chelsea and Manchester City hardly encourage the hope that those two giant clubs will be thinking much beyond new power struggles.

A comparatively nondescript season ends tomorrow night with the relegation struggle settled, the Premier League in Manchester United's hands since April 22 and the fight for third and fourth places elevated into some kind of Homeric quest.

Gareth Bale, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Luis Suarez were the stars of this season's show. But the thrill-count has dropped from the days when Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo bestrode England's highest division.

The genius of the EPL, as some call it, is that it fills these aesthetic gaps with agenda-seizing news storms.

To call it a conspiracy would point to paranoia, but it sure writes a headline or two when Sunderland appoint a manager with a history of fascist sympathies, David Moyes leaves Everton after 11 years to take over from Ferguson, Queens Park Rangers descend into chaos and spring brings a rash of retirements: Michael Owen, Ferguson, Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand (from England) and finally Beckham.

Twenty years of English football is shuffling out of the picture and the disorientation is deep because there is nothing to replace these people, in the domestic sense.

Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, the Lennon and McCartney of midfield play, are steaming on, but the next generation is not sharply defined.

In Amsterdam, Chelsea seized the Europa League when a Spanish manager (Benitez) instructed a Spanish artiste (Mata) to deliver a far-post corner to a rising Serb (Branislav Ivanovic).

Cosmopolitanism is the Premier League's strength and England's weakness.

If there was one great shaft of light this year, it was Swansea City winning the League Cup and Wigan Athletic lifting the FA Cup.

Swansea's radiant playing style was conceived largely by Roberto Martinez (Spanish) and honed by Michael Laudrup (a Dane).

And Wigan went down after beating City at Wembley. All we know is that the English game is still chronically dependent on overseas 'investors' and foreign wisdom on the field of play.

Until that changes English football will continue to be the perfect microcosm of the English economy: unregulated, imbalanced, finance-dominated.

Those who like it that way had better shut their eyes and ears when Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund converge on London to pay rip-off prices for next week's Champions League final.

Der Klassiker will provide the real measure of where English football is at. You can sneer at the praise piled on the Bundesliga, but at least they can see beyond billionaires and bulletins.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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