How Premier League got found out at the World Cup
Neil Clark: The best league in the world? Forget it. World Cup performances have exposed the myth
The belief that England's footballers were among the most talented in the world has been rudely shattered by their abject performances at the World Cup.
But even after the shambolic 4-1 defeat by Germany, one myth about English football still persists: namely that the Premier League, where all of England's players ply their trade, is "the best in the world".
Look at the squads of the four semi-finalists of the World Cup and one thing strikes you: the small number of players from the so-called best league in the world, who are still involved in the competition.
Germany's brilliant team, who on Saturday demolished Argentina 4-0 in one of the most impressive World Cup performances ever, all play in the Bundesliga. Uruguay, in the last four for the first time since 1970, have no Premiership players. Spain have just three Premier League players in their squad and while Holland fielded four in their 2-1 win over Brazil, the majority of their team play either at home or in Germany.
Most of the stars of this World Cup have been those who play their club football away from England. Players such as Marek Hamsik of Slovakia, Keisuke Honda of Japan, Carlos Salcido of Mexico, Asamoah Gyan and Kwadwo Asamoah of Ghana, and of course the fabulous Germans. Diego Forlan, branded a 'Premiership reject' after his spell at Manchester United, has led the line brilliantly for Uruguay, scoring three goals in the competition to date.
By contrast, many of the biggest names of the Premier League - including England’s ludicrously over-hyped striker Wayne Rooney - have proved total flops. After England, the team with the most Premier League players in their squad was Nigeria, who failed to win a game. France, with six Premier League players, scored just one goal and finished bottom of their group, while Ivory Coast, who also had six (and a former Premiership manager), also failed to progress from the group stage.
Out of the teams with sizeable contingents of Premier League players in their squads, only the USA, superbly coached and motivated by Bob Bradley, performed better than expected.
Defenders of the Premiership will point to the fact that, unlike in other leading Leagues, in England there is no mid-winter break. Premiership players, because of the need to play continuously from August to May arrive at the World Cup too tired to perform at their best, so the theory goes.
But, as Martin Samuel pointed out in the Daily Mail, the theory doesn’t quite explain how Holland’s Dirk Kuyt, who made 53 appearances for Liverpool last season, has looked as fresh as a daisy compared to England’s players, some of whom played a lot less games.
The poor performances by Premier League players in the tournament owes less to fitness levels than it does to the fact that the league is nowhere near as good as it's cracked up to be.
Most Premier League games are extremely uncompetitive. A huge gap in class exists between the mega-bucks top clubs and the also-runs: last season the champions, Chelsea, scored seven goals on three occasions, and finished the season with an 8-0 victory over Wigan.
The internationals who play for the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal may look like world beaters when they are scoring hat-tricks against Hull and Burnley, but appearances can be deceptive.
For all the hype surrounding the Premier League, only two English teams have managed to win the Champions League in the last decade. Contrast that with the period 1977-82 when English sides won the European Cup six years in a row.
The reason why English teams fared better then was that the old First Division - the predecessor of the Premiership - had more strength in depth. In 1976, QPR, one of London’s smaller clubs, came within 15 minutes of winning the league title.
In 1978, Nottingham Forest, won the title just a year after achieving promotion: they went on to win two European Cups. In the 1970s, any one of up to ten teams could be considered title contenders. Today, the Premiership is effectively a two-horse race.
With its gross inequalities in wealth, the Premiership reflects the neo-liberal Britain of the early 21st century, in the same way that the old First Division reflected the more egalitarian Britain of the 1970s. Watch an old Match of the Day from the 1970s and you will be struck by just how many good quality footballing teams there were in the top flight. Anybody really could beat anybody - and because of the competitive nature of the league, standards were raised.
If England wants to have an international team able to compete at the highest level again, then the Premier League must go. But other countries ought to be aware of how the financial pull of the Premiership may adversely affect their chances of success, too.
Even allowing for his injury problems, does anyone believe that Spain's Fernando Torres - one of the stars of the 2006 World Cup when he was playing for Atletico Madrid - is a better player now that he plays in England?
In Germany, Ghana's Kevin Prince-Boateng was regarded as a villain for making Michael Ballack, the country's only Premiership based player, miss the tournament through injury.
But look how Germany have done without Ballack. Perhaps Prince-Boateng did the Germans a favour. ·
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