I recently wrote a piece for The Secret Footballer website about 5 lessons the Premier League could learn from the NFL. It was meant to provoke and entertain by showcasing some ideas, big and small, that the Premier League could benefit from considering. (And to help sell my book, of course.)
You idiot, you don’t know what you’re saying
One of the suggestions that attracted most attention was that a salary cap was essential to tackling football’s financial madness, something that’s driving up player wages, imperilling clubs and, above all, creating a situation where only two or three teams could ever expect to win the league.
Most of the dissenting responses fell into one of two categories:
1. ‘I agree, but it would need to be done Europe-wide to stop talent leaving, which won’t/shouldn’t happen’, and
2. ‘You buffoon, if you did that top talent would just go abroad.’
I think both of these responses point to something those of us who are unhappy about the Premier League have been too slow to make clear: it is inevitable that reforming the Premier League will, at least in the short-term, lead to an outflow of talent. This isn’t an unfortunate side-effect, it’s an important part of the solution.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ll explain why I think this.
But I want to have my cake and eat it
The idea that we can have a reformed, fairer Premier League, but one that still retains its global pre-eminence is, I respectfully suggest, confused thinking. It rests, even if we won’t admit it, on the beliefs that the Premier League is inherently superior, that it deserves to remain so and that it can do so while still becoming fairer.
Here’s a few things I think we need to recognise about reforming the Premier League.
1. The Premier League is nothing special
It has no God-given right to be the biggest and the best any more than England has a right to win the World Cup. We are practicing a form of unjustified football exceptionalism when we assume that the Premier League should remain the top dog.
2. The top players are here precisely because the Premier League is so unfair
The wage inflation in the Premier League is a direct result of us allowing a small group of billionaires to plough almost unlimited sums into attempts to buy the title, forcing all other clubs to spend more to try and keep up.
3. The top players are in England but they do not play for your team
They play for Chelsea and Manchester City and Manchester United. They aren’t equally shared around. The Premier League TV riches haven’t provided for a world class player for even the top ten teams in the league. Having these top players here, in the UK, means watching them whip your team.
4. The top players aren’t all here anyway
The really top ones are in Spain. Not because Spain is exceptional and has a right to remain so. But because their financial controls are even more lax than here. And, of course, it’s not like we’re killing it in the Champions League the last few years anyway – so the worries about loss of pre-eminence may be a little late in the day.
5. The Premier League is distorting the market for talent across the world
The current situation isn’t a natural state of affairs. It’s out-of-control and, just as we rolled our eyes at Italian clubs buying up all the stars in the 90s or Spanish clubs summoning the top players now, so other nations roll their eyes at us.
6. Other leagues are under no obligation to help the Premier League
It’s like an alcoholic demanding all their friends quit drinking too. Why should they want to help the Premier League retain a disproportionate amount of footballing talent just because we can’t deal with all the money we’ve suddenly got? Why should they want to assist a league that continues to marginalise the middle level European leagues?
7. Not all players will leave
Contrary to point 1, England is actually pretty special. It is home to some of the world’s most historic clubs. The stadia are excellent. London is a global city. The fans are great. And, even with a salary cap, there will still be enough money to make the Premier League one of the better paying leagues. Look at the sorry history of players chasing money in Qatar and China and Dagestan and you’ll see that England won’t become a footballing minnow, just a slightly smaller whale.
8. An exodus of talent won’t just boost other leagues
It will force English clubs to address their selection and training methods. We will have to build instead of buy world class players. More English players playing abroad may also help the national team.
9. It might help edge out some of the undesirables
Part of the problem with the Premier League’s pre-eminence is that it attracts owners for whom a superyacht just isn’t exciting enough. People with no real interest in football. People with no ties to the club. People who just want the ultimate status symbol. Their lack of interest in making a profit makes them hard to shift. Except, of course, if there are bigger, shiner prizes elsewhere. Newer toys to play with. A fairer league may help achieve what the FA and government haven’t the will or courage to push for: change of ownership among England’s flagship clubs.
10. If the Premier League gave a lead, others might follow
A longshot, but England’s credibility is at rock bottom with the global football community. Before we can call for meaningful change in Fifa, we need to address our own financial problems.
Let’s get it over with
I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to question the assumption that controlling Premier League spending in isolation from the other big leagues is a bad idea. It rests, I think, on an unrecognised desire to keep hold of our unearned gains.
Now, does all of this mean that the Premier League would oppose change? Certainly. But since they’ve shown so little willingness to change, it will one day fall to the rest of football to force them.
As with giving up any vice, it initially feels like a deprivation until you get used to something and redraw your perspective on things.
Anyone, I suggest, who truly loves football and who is saddened by the Premier League’s status as the world’s richest three-horse race, must come to see that they are part of the global community of football and see that their responsibilities extend beyond just wanting their club to have a better shot at the title.
Once you do that, once you become accustomed to the need to be a part of safeguarding the world’s game, then you see that controlling excessive spending in the Premier League is for the good not just of the Premier League itself, but for non-league and lower league football, and European and world football generally.
So, returning to my starting point, yes, I understood the implications of what I was saying when I called for a salary cap. It could indeed cause massive disruption, an exodus of talent and a serious loss of prestige.
But this is exactly what the Premier League needs.
Bring it on.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.