Football is the undisputed king of mind-numbing debate.
This week, Chelsea tumbled out of the Champions League and, in all likelihood, Arsenal and Manchester City are set to follow them through the exit door within the next seven days. Liverpool fell at the first hurdle in both continental competitions and Tottenham were eliminated during the Europa League’s first knockout stage.
Crisis, crisis, crisis…what has become of English football?
It’s a reasonable question: domestic participation in the latter stages of these competitions has become noticeably rarer over the last decade and the logical conclusion is that the Premier League is no longer the apex of the European game.
It’s also reasonable to ask why. English football is awash with affluence and yet, somehow, our sides look increasingly limited when they go abroad. Superficially, it seems anomalous; the dichotomy of decadent wealth and under-performance is worth a couple of paragraphs every so often, but these issues are actually quite easily explained - examine the stylistic qualities which make the Premier League so entertaining, for example, and you’re halfway to understanding the current malaise.
What irritates, though, is the regularity of this conversation. Football is cyclical and teams - and regions - rise and fall semi-regularly. In this country, though, we’ve developed an unhealthy obsessions with our place in the hierarchy. Every time an English club loses a game to a side from a supposedly inferior league, the same questions are asked and the same post mortems are held.
“Something must be done.”
European competition is a serious business and, of course, every fan would like to see their team do as well as they can in as many tournaments as possible. Chelsea fans will understandably be devastated by what happened at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night but why, for the rest of us, does it really matter? What is the actual significance of knowing that, for the time-being, the best Premier League teams are not amongst the continent’s elite?
Don’t tell me that it’s because of the UEFA Co-Efficient, because that’s a lie. Yes, it’s important to retain four Champions League places, but that’s a latent concern which doesn’t really justify the regularity of this discussion.
The last twenty years have seen a swell of foreign players into English club football and, whilst that has risen the median standard, it has come at the cost of collective spirit. Up until maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, British supporters used to take a night off from the partisanship when one of ‘our’ sides were playing in Europe. After the ban on English clubs elapsed, there was a renewed novelty to continental football and the natural response was to get behind whichever team was representing the country.
Barring exceptional circumstances, that doesn’t really happen anymore. We enjoy seeing Chelsea cut down to size, a Manchester United failure is always welcome, and Arsenal’s annual failure troubles nobody outside of their fanbase.
It follows then, that the collective concern for these sides’ welfare outside of domestic football is very strange. It’s almost as if, after years of Sky Sports’ hyperbole and Gloucester Avenue rhetoric, our resistance has failed us and we do now look at English football as a ‘brand’.
That would explain this hand-wringing. Rather than mourning sporting failure, the reaction to European under-performance seems built around our fears of how we are perceived from the outside.
“Oh, what would the Germans say? I’ll bet the French are laughing at us. The Italians must be enjoying this….”
That’s thoroughly modern. Worrying about how our ‘product’ compares to the equivalent in other nations is a commercial rather than an athletic concern and it should be well beyond the pay-grade of the average fan.
What, for the neutral, is the impact of all the English clubs being eliminated prior to the Champions League quarter-finals?
Will it mean that, instead of enjoying wins and raging about losses, English fans will spend the weekends shrugging indifferently, knowing that their league has been rendered pointless by the Bundesliga’s perceived superiority.
No, of course not - and that illustrates the futility of this endless discussion.
Arsenal probably shouldn’t be losing to Monaco and Chelsea probably should have had enough quality to advance beyond Paris Saint-Germain, but those are issues for the individual clubs and neither defeat really warrants a league-wide self-examination. There are stylistic traits which possibly put Premier League teams at a disadvantage in Europe and there have clearly been failings in the past, but those issues require a localised response rather than a national break-down.
The pattern of decline isn’t irrelevant and it is worthy of some discussion. There’s a line between concern and melodrama, though, and - with this topic - it gets crossed far too often.
It’s a minority concern, a problem which afflicts a small group of clubs and is of little consequence to the majority.
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