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Simon Heptinstall On February - 21 - 2013

Has Modern Football Lost Something?

 

In the coming months we will see domestic and European titles decided throughout Europe. Between March and May title races should start to heat up and we will see which clubs have the ability to get over the finish line and which clubs don’t. But as exciting as this all is, is modern football lacking in something? Yes we still have drama. Anyone watching the Champions League final or the climax of the English Premier League last season can testify to that. But are we no longer enjoying football as we once did? Or are we all simply guilty of remembering the past in a way more fondly than is healthy?

 

Having been born into football in the 90’s I can’t offer first hand experiences of anything older than the middle of that decade. Looking back on it now, I seem to remember reasonable transfer fees, a general level of football just isnt there these days and clubs ran more on a footballing basis than on a financial one. Has football evolved passed enjoyment and onto a level of big business that is taking what was once enjoyable out of the game? It’s easy to argue yes.

The Champions League was reborn and rebranded in 1992 into the competition we know and love today. Except that that’s not really true. What we have today is celebrating mediocrity and living for financial reward. The first Champions League simply involved champions of their countries with runners up from the league entering the UEFA Cup. Back then champions would play off against each other for the right to gain entry into a group stage made up of other winners. If you then won your group you would go onto the final against the winners of the other group. It made sense that the final involved two teams who had won their respective leagues the season before. It also meant that clubs from outside Europe’s big leagues could hold onto players easier because only they could offer Champions League football, compared to a host of clubs from bigger leagues these days.

With no team finishing 4th in England or Spain having access to the elite club competition it made the concept of a Champions League purer and made the term “champions league” seem a worthy title. This in turn made the UEFA Cup, as it was then and the Cup Winners Cup more exciting and valid as competitions. Today the Cup Winners Cup has gone and UEFA Cup has been remade into the Europa League. It is a competition that is looked down on by the big teams. Or at the very least it is not a top priority. Winning the UEFA Cup for a club like Inter Milan was considered a big achievement in years gone by. Now having to play Thursday nights and then Sunday because of the Europa League is considered an unwanted burden. Instead of going for a trophy, they now care far more about finishing in the top 3 and securing a Champions League finish. Not going for the title necessarily, just going for a top three finish. This means that competitions that offer Europa League as a prize to winners have become less valuable too. First and foremost get into the Champions League, anything else is a bonus. And with the money from the Champions League that allows better players to be bought and it also means that clubs who go a few seasons without it are at a massive disadvantage. Players are also aware that the Champions League is the biggest shop window in the beautiful game. You don’t have to win the competition if you’re at a smaller club, simply be good enough for any of the big boys to take notice. We even had the ludicrous situation of Chelsea winning the Champions League last year and the first reaction for some people was “well that’s them qualified for next season’s Champions League” rather than “well that’s them Champions of Europe.”

We are now at the point of something close to an arms race in football. Restock for next season by finishing in the top three or four and continue to put distance between ourselves and the clubs below us. That’s where the money is and that’s how you attract the big name players. The difference between coming fourth and fifth in England for example is the difference between “winning a trophy” and being a “loser”, condemned to Thursday night football on ITV4. Fourth place is a trophy according Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Fourth doesnt even get you noticed in an Olympic final but in the big money world of football it can be the lifeblood of a club.

Arsenal are the perfect example of a club who aim for mediocrity. Is it any surprise that Wenger’s side continue to lose in “smaller” competitions when he himself says that finishing 4th is more important than winning an FA Cup or League Cup? Maybe that’s why his players didnt perform against a team from the fourth division in the League Cup a few weeks ago or why his team lost to Birmingham City (who would later get relegated) in the final of that same competition two years ago. His teams don’t know how to win because winning is no longer a measurement of success. Instead we label teams finishing 5th as being useless while teams finishing just one place higher are somehow “champions”. When this is the case it’s no wonder we look back on the “glory days” of 90’s football when quality players seemed more evenly spread out and money hadnt given us financial dopers like Chelsea and Man City who spend more than a club of their size should allow. Look at Sinclair at Man City. He never plays a game for The Sky Blues and yet earns far more than he did at Swansea where he was a key player. I would imagine he’ll be chewed up and spat out much like Adam Johnson was after his big move to Man City ended in disappointment.

The investment of money from the Champions League and from overseas investors has not only meant the stockpiling of players but also the increase in ticket prices. The English Premier League has the most expensive tickets in the world and this has meant the pricing out of some traditional fans who simply can’t afford the prices being asked of them. And that’s fine by the clubs. Instead they look to new fan bases to sell shirts to and who will spend hundreds of pounds flying over to England for a game, buy all the merchandise in the club shop and buy five match day programmes, one for each member of the family. This is who Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea etc want as their new fan base, not the guy who works for minimum wage just around the corner from the ground whose family have been supporting the club for the last fifty years.

Of course these clubs would argue that they need this new kind of fan investment in order to compete at the highest level. Wages and transfer fees are going up so it only makes sense that ticket prices go up too. And for some fans they may be willing to accept that. Unless of course your club suddenly stops winning and a rot sets in. Like at Arsenal. Soon money is no longer going on the best players but rather players that will make do. Why spend £30m on a player who might win us the league when £8m is just enough to get someone who should get us fourth? Once the money men start prioritising finance over football then fans will start to ask questions. Yes no club wants to end up like Leeds, but for a club like Arsenal have they gone too much the other way? Has the ambition to win been replaced by the priority of mediocrity? Has this safety net of finishing fourth become a noose to strangle winning out of the club? Or are they victims of living within their means while clubs like Man City ruin football with their gross and unhealthy spending? Either way, something doesnt feel right.

It should also be pointed out that as well as rewarding mediocrity, football now has become so self inclusive that the chance of winning the league unless you finished in the mythical top four the season before has been eliminated. Gone are the days of a mid table team having a group of good players, getting a quality manager in & then challenging for domestic and European honours. Aston Villa will never win another European Cup. Preston North End will never win the Premier League. For these clubs there are now glass ceilings that they will never break and that is sad. Never mind the top clubs rewarding each other for finishing fourth, the middle and smaller sized clubs will never again achieve success beyond their current reach. Unless of course they are transformed by billionaires who want to collect trophies and players as if they were cars in a garage.

So with an increase in ticket prices and transfer fees and a move away from clubs being represented by home town players, has the enjoyment of football been lost? Are we now worse off now than we were 20 years ago? Perhaps we are. But what of the quality of football we have today? How does that compare to the product we were served in the 1990’s? And have our expectations changed?

If you were to ask Man Utd fans what they thought of their 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 teams compared to their side of 1999, Im guessing most would say that the modern teams arent a patch on that “classic” side of 1999. And while that side did win the treble that season, they finished on lower points in the league than the 10/11 and 11/12 teams, with 11/12 coming joint top (behind Man City on goal difference) and finishing 10 points ahead of the 98/99 team. Not to mention that the 2010/11 team reached the Champions League final too despite being considered a reasonably poor side by Man Utd’s high standards by many experts and fans alike. In La Liga Barcelona and Real Madrid now hoover up points like nothing ever seen before in Spain or indeed in Europe. Last season Real Madrid reached 100 points and this season Barcelona are on course to beat that mark. That team had Ronaldo firing all guns blaring and has still outshone by Messi when it came to goals and assists. But for all their brilliance has La Liga become a glorified SPL? Maybe despite the brilliance of Barcelona or Real Madrid, the challenge from other clubs simply isnt there any more.

In Ronaldo and Messi we have the two defining players of their generation so why do I and so many others still wish we instead lived back when players like Christian Vieiri, Gabriel Batistuta, Figo, Zidane and the original Ronaldo were playing? Maybe we considered the 90’s a happier time in general and these were the starts of that time so it makes sense to us to pine to see them on the pitch instead of today’s players. After all it’s not like we don’t appreciate Xavi, Iniesta, Ronaldo, Messi etc. So was the general level of football higher back then so it was harder for those players to score 40+ goals a season like we see today with Messi, Falcao and Ronaldo? And does that also mean that teams like Real Madrid were challenged more in domestic football back then so points totals were lower? Does this explain why in an age of Messi and Ronaldo some of instead want to go back to Rivaldo and Raul?

Maybe football was more democratic back then. World Player of the Year votes would always end in a different winner each year. Not today, that is Messi’s award now. But why? Are there fewer players capable of reaching that level in today’s game? Or were we simply living at a time when there was no one defining player like Messi to win all the awards year after year? A look at the stats reveals something interesting. In 1999 Christian Vieri won the player of the season award in Serie A with Lazio. He scored 12 goals in the league and Lazio finished second that season. The season before he scored 24 goals in 24 games for Atletico Madrid and was the top goal scorer in La Liga. Now how does that compare with today? Surely the fact Messi already has more goals in La Liga by January than Vieri did in a whole season goes to show modern standards are higher and yet we are pining for a past that perhaps never existed. Now is the time of great goal scoring in the modern era, now is the time to celebrate the top players.

Of course this might be used an argument for 90’s football and against the stats of today’s game. Perhaps league titles were harder to win back then due to a higher level of football from the middle and small ranked clubs and thus points totals for winning the league were lower than they are today when even a supposedly flawed team can win the league. It might also explain why goal scoring totals are reaching a level not seen in the professional game in decades. Did we hit a peak in the 90’s and now the general level of football has dropped? And has the ability to recruit the best players become easier so big clubs can create squads disproportionately better than the ones they could 20 years ago? Was the Man Utd team of 1999 better than the 2012 team but due to a drop in the level of the game they had a bigger challenge in amassing their points total compared to the teams a decade on? It’s very hard to conclusively say one way or the other on this. Quality is a hard thing to prove in football. Statistics can only ever tell a part of the story. But the 1999 Man Utd team were true Champions and despite a lower points total in the league I’d like to think they were the genuine article. Though the 07/08 Man Utd team were a very fine team too.

I started this piece by asking if modern football had lost something from the game I used to adore. If you feel the enjoyment that we seemed to enjoy twenty years ago has been replaced with a more business orientated game that has moved football from its original roots, then I think it is fair to say that things have changed for the worse. On the other hand, the brand of the Champions League has grown to a level where an elite European level has been born and produced a competition that is now harder to win than ever. But that has caused problems too and we face a sport now where the brand of “champion” has been severely watered down while at the same time this has helped to build walls that smaller clubs will never be able to smash through without selling their souls for oil money. There is now a plutocracy in football that there’s never been before and as transfer fees get larger, wages increase and the same clubs keep reaping the rewards of Champions League football season after season, mid table clubs who were once able to compete in an age when money wasnt everything have found themselves in a new struggle; the struggle to accept their place in the modern football world.

Aside from the corporate takeover of football which has changed the game so much both on the field and off, there is also the question of how we look at players today and if our nostalgia is getting in the way of subjective reasoning. Again it’s hard to have a definitive answer. But it is very easy to look back on a YouTube collection of goals or look up a club’s squad from a particular year and get a false sense of superiority compared to the players and teams of today. After all Spain and Barcelona are redefining football in a way never seen before and perhaps for a generation of football fans, this will be the decade to look back on and remember with a sense of longing.

For me, I defiantly enjoy football less than I did when I was younger. But that might be as much due to how I perceived the game back then compared to today. In a world without the internet, clubs werent under the same microscope they are today. The pressure to win and to buy new players is greater than ever and that in part is down to the way we take in football compared to in previous decades. That combined with all the money in the game (far, far too much in my opinion) that has made the world around football more repulsive and the players seem less a part of the club and more like mercenaries hired to do a job before they move on for more money elsewhere. As for how players are today compare to 20 years ago, that is harder to be rational about. Do I miss Bergkamp, Zidane, Rivaldo and everyone else who sparkled in that decade? Of course I do. But I must also be aware that they had bad games too. And every shot they took didnt end up in the net. And that players like Rooney, Ronaldo, Ribery and Van Persie, while not my personal favourite, are all exceptional talents in their own right. I can’t help but feel football has suffered from the changes made to the game over the past decade or so. And maybe we should get back to a Champions League purely for winners of domestic leagues. But perhaps what I miss most of all is watching Alvaro Recoba bend a free kick in from outside the box with that beautiful left foot of his. But that probably says more about me and my personal footballing memories than it does about the beautiful game in 2013.

*After I finished writing this piece, UEFA decided to fine Ajax for their fans holding up a banner that was anti “modern football” and the culture of oversees investment in the sport. There is a whole other article to write about what is wrong with UEFA and FIFA but that’s for another day.*

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