One Small Voice

2009-04-17 00:00

THE stately progress of three English clubs to the last four of the Uefa Champions League for the second successive season is profoundly satisfying in many ways.

First, it properly reflects the status of the FA Premier League as the outstanding domestic league on this and, as far as we know, any other planet. In fact, if they do play football on Venus, Neptune or Jupiter, they would be hard-pushed to provide the kind of entertainment served in the pulsating 4-4 draw between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge last Tuesday. Passion, skill and courage shown by the best players playing in the best stadiums and watched by the best fans creating the best atmosphere — as they say, English football ain’t shabby.

Second, it ensures another year of relative failure and misery for their major European rivals: the Italian clubs appear beset by corruption, the Spanish are beset by debt, the Dutch are beset by hooliganism and every league east of Berlin seems sadly infected by racism on the terraces.

Above all, however, the continued domination of English teams in Europe provides another bout of severe indigestion to Michel Platini, the well-fed president of Uefa, an archetype shrugging, sighing, gesticulating Frenchman who played with amazing style and grace through the 1980s and has now returned to global headlines recast as a 21st century Napoleon in the boardroom — stylish, maverick, brave, outspoken, perceived as a tad dictatorial and, perhaps, ultimately doomed.

In essence, as nominally the most powerful man in European football, Monsieur Platini doesn’t fancy the rosbif and obsessively rants against the growing wealth and continued domination of clubs anglais such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. The more he moans, the more they win.

Having been narrowly elected as president of Uefa on January 26, 2007, he eagerly launched his mantra when he labelled English clubs as cheats, accusing them of demonstrating a win-at-all-costs mentality in which success is imperative “not to win trophies, but to pay back debts”. He wailed: “Is Champions League success built around who has the most money? I think so. It is run on credit now, and it annoys me.”

He has subsequently criticised the English for hiring a foreign manager for their national team and including too many foreign players in their club sides, and barely stopped short of lambasting the former Empire for its generally poor dress sense, lamentable “yoof” culture, bad weather and barely edible food.

Well, he’s French, you might say.

That’s true, but Platini is also mistaken.

The English clubs are the richest and can afford to buy the best players because they play the most entertaining football, which means more viewers worldwide want to watch the matches on television, which means the league generates the most TV rights revenue, which means the clubs are the richest and can afford to buy more players etc.

Arsene Wenger, the cerebral manager of Arsenal, has correctly pointed out that Platini should not seek to “save” other European leagues by attacking the strongest league.

The Uefa president’s most recent brainwave is to restrict European club competitions to clubs that comply with a new set of licence conditions, notably a regulation that expenditure and wages should be capped at 60% of revenue. His declared aim is to prevent clubs racking up immense debts, and his perceived aim is to undermine English clubs.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s response was blunt: “If that goes through,” he said, “there won’t be any Premier League clubs in the Champions League at all.”

Again, Platini misses the point.

Many leading English clubs do carry significant debt, but only because they have had to pay for stadium rebuilds, which are funded by governments elsewhere in Europe.

Perhaps the monsieur should relax, take another glass of Krug, sink into his padded chair in the President’s Suite at this year’s Champions League final in Rome, enjoy the spectacle of two great clubs disputing the main prize and then urge the other leading European clubs to match the English standard.

Then, the following day, if he really wants to do some work, he could focus his attention on addressing Italian corruption, Spanish debt and East European racism … rather than English quality.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby general manager of SABC sport, and has been involved in various bid campaigns.

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