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May 16, 2011 | by  | in Online Only |
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The 7th Inning Stretch – The State of Football

When Manchester United systematically, professionally, and – most importantly – beautifully tore Chelsea to shreds on Monday morning, it all but ended the Premier League title race three weeks early. We all know the result, we all know the winner. End of story.

This year’s Premier League has been the best in recent years. I say that not just because I am a Manchester United fan, but instead because for once we have had a season of which the last month will not be about the top four. It will be a relief, for once, that we can all divert our attention elsewhere, and enjoy the last fortnight of football without wondering who will be in the Champions League. We all knew it anyway – it’s the four richest clubs.
Though Premier League football is the best of the best and is also the easiest to follow, I can’t shake the niggling feeling that it’s slowly killing the heart of football – the ‘beautiful game’. The top six or seven clubs are the richest, the bottom four or five the poorest, and – in the end – clubs are rewarded for selling shirts, rather than playing daring and beautiful football.

Take Blackpool, for example. For me, they represent a breath of fresh air to the modern game. Most newly promoted sides would play negatively to secure another season in the top flight. Not Blackpool – they’ve played fearlessly, and attractively, but without the squad depth of the bigger clubs, they sit remarkably close to the drop zone. With a game against Champions-elect Manchester United on the final day of the season, Blackpool look set to go down.

It’s a side like Blackpool that I think would have flourished in a more even environment. Even from myself, a Manchester United fan, I would love to see a more open, and a more even Premier League. Every year, I would like to see the smartest clubs (both on and off the park) win the league, not just the wealthiest. So how do you make the Premier League a more even and fair environment? It seems to work in other competitions, even other sports – there are all sorts of regulations in place. The NBA has a draft system. Some leagues have regulations on the amount of internationals, or over-21s in a team’s squad. Most modern competitions have a salary cap, and the clubs that choose to ignore them (we’re looking at you, Melbourne Storm) are punished. And it works.

From a neutral perspective I, personally, find the NRL more competitive and more exciting to watch than the Premier League. Not just that, but it’s keeping the game within their best interests. The A-League operates in Australian football’s interests. Without it, there would be very small an avenue for young Kiwi and Aussie players to make it into the world of football The NRL is doing New Zealand and Australian Rugby League a favour. I don’t see the same behaviour from the FA. In 2009, a game between Arsenal and Portsmouth became the first top flight game not to feature an Englishman. At the time, it publicly spelt doom for the future of English football. A year later, a humiliation at the hands of Germany at the World Cup spelt doom for the future of English football. Am I the only one to see a correlation?

Manchester United will line up against Barcelona in two weeks in the Champions League final. I suspect their team will be made up of a three Englishmen, a Welshman, Dutchman, Frenchman, Serb, Brazilian, Mexican, a South Korean and an Ecuadorian. I might be fooling myself, but a win in that final is barely a win for Manchester. Instead, it’s a reward for the businessmen who poured their millions into the side.

Imagine an English Premier League season in which each club had a salary cap, had to include an under-21 player in their team, and could only have two or three offshore players in the line-up. Sure, the FA might have to deal with complaints from a few Manchester United and Chelsea fans, a few Russian trillionaires might get grumpy, but overall, they’d be dealing with a more exciting league, one which is creating a pathway for new talent, and the possibility of an English side competing admirably at a World Cup.

Of course, this is nearly impossible. The FA is unlikely to listen to reason, more the sounds of their wallets bursting at the seams. For every unhappy fan in Stoke, there are twenty happy fans in South Korea, each happy to purchase Chelsea’s newest alternative-commemorative-away strip. Every year the Premier League and the FA will continue to produce high quality, imported football, and every four years they will embarrass themselves at a World Cup. For me, it’s a no-brainer.

But wait.

Have they tried sacking the coach?

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