The League of Shadows
By: Jon Townsend
Since its inception at the start of 1992-93 season, the Premier League has redefined the global branding of football. In a league known for its pace, power and competitiveness, the game has thrived with higher attendance figures, television monies and a massive injection of foreign finances and talent. The Premier League is, without a doubt, the most popular league in the world. The players gracing the pitches of the England’s top flight have both captivated global audiences and catapulted the league to the forefront of the modern sport’s market. In essence, the Premier League is a machination of ruthless beauty designed to showcase a league’s universal reach and influence, and it has become the juggernaut in the system for which it was designed.
The unveiling of the 2013 FIFPro World XI revealed more than the names of the world’s “best” players. None of the players on the list ply their trade in the world’s most popular league. Surely, this omission isn’t indicative of a possible lack of talent on display in England’s top flight, is it? It would be less than pragmatic to believe this, like many of FIFA’s competitions, is anything other than a popularity contest. The nominations, whether they’re derived from the players themselves or from one of FIFA’s bureaucratic selection committees, reveal the power of perception spliced with the voting masses’ conviction to rage against the machine that is the Premier League.
Many will hang themselves on the simple and elementary argument that the Premier League has world class players and teams. Of course it does, but the argument itself is mere conversation fodder in comparison to the reality that the Premier League is the Frankenstein nobody wants to tangle with or recognize in these types of competitions. The subjectivity flowing through the veins of such recognition-based ballets and galas suggests that the Premier League is too powerful for its own players to gain global acclaim. In comparison to La Liga, Ligue 1, or the Bundesliga, the Premier League makes it nearly impossible for the massive separation in the standings one sees in the aforementioned leagues. This fact alone makes the Premier League entertaining; but does entertainment equate to quality?
One aspect that the Premier League holds over most other leagues is the competitive nature of the league in a holistic sense. Many seasons find little separating the teams in terms of goal and point totals in sections of the table. The top four or five teams usually battle until the final weeks or day of the season while the relegation battle is both epic and powerful in its own intensity. Historically, in La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga, the top teams tend to run away with the league creating a viable and visible platform for individual stardom to thrive. In those leagues, star power is more noticeable and praised whereas in the Premier League, the proclivity for the David’s to slay the Goliath’s is on display almost weekly. In European football, Premier League teams compete and win competitions with some degree of regularity.
Competitions such as the FIFA Ballon d’Or and the FIFPro World XI have merit and the Premier League should have some representation on the ballots if the league really is as good as advertised. The self-aware football-loving public can only imagine the type of hell prolific strikers like Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero would presently unleash on defenses in La Liga, Ligue 1, or the Bundesliga. Sergio Aguero, for instance, bagged 74 goals for Atletico Madrid in 175 appearances while currently sitting on 48 goals in 79 appearances with Manchester City—perhaps suggesting he’s more clinical in a tougher league defensively. Each league has its loyal servants, and it’s possible the Premier League’s soldiers like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Ryan Giggs might have found more individual success playing abroad, it doesn’t detract from their quality as players and perhaps, their loyalty to the Premier League is a testament to its strength.
The world of football wants to see stars and it wants to see them shine brightly. In the Premier League, the talent is on display and the flair is there—but the focus is on the club as a collective. Those shining too brightly often leave for the Premier League (Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Arjen Robben, and Gareth Bale to name a few). Premier league players must be willing to bleed for their club and the league thrives off the numerous battles waged on the landscape of the Premier League table. In years where a clear frontrunner takes off with the league, the passion still exists and attention turns to the battle for European football qualification and of course, relegation. These elements of the Premier League are evident in all of Europe’s top leagues; the difference is those leagues are dominated by one or two teams—two teams that the league’s global image and vitality relies on. When Barcelona or Real Madrid loses to a smaller team in Spain, its bad business for La Liga. The same might be true for the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich, which is rightly considered to be one of the world’s best clubs.
For all its power, pace and its high entertainment value, the Premier League is the MMA octagon of football. It’s a league full of prizefighters, skilled tacticians, foreign flair, homegrown grit and loyalty—and they’re all battling at full speed week-in and week-out. To judge the quality of the league and the players populating it based on competitions like the Ballon d’Or (which was rightly awarded to Cristiano Ronaldo) or the FIFPro World XI is a fool’s game. These competitions are solely about individual achievement in the eyes of a biased group of voters. The Premier League powerhouse places emphasis on club success before that of individual players. There’s something remarkably powerful with La Liga pitting Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—two of the most popular footballers on the planet—against one another. But that’s the ticket, those players are marketable as individuals on a level unseen in the Premier League.
Perhaps the Premier League garners more holistic power and popularity than Europe’s other elite leagues, but its focus on club success over individual player success is evident. When a club’s marquee signing leaves for another Premier League side, echoes of, “No one is bigger than the club,” are muttered into pint glasses and press conference microphones alike because, in England’s top league, it’s true. Unique elements seen globally such as the jostling for league position, the intensity of each derby, and effort each team displays, regardless of league standing, suggest that the Premier League faithful won’t admit they pay attention to competitions where players clad in fancy tuxedos partake in a popularity contest current Premiership players have no chance of winning. The biggest league in the world might be shrouded in shadow—but in terms of the league’s branding and marketing potential, the Premier League is the bright-shining signaling buoy used to guide other leagues daring to navigate the dangerous waters of world football.