After watching last year’s World Cup on tv, I could swear English soccer is a different game. Having just seen several of the opening games of English Premier League (2011-12), featuring its top teams, I am already beginning to regret signing up for Sky Sports (at a steep extra $26 a month). And it’s not all because the first home match of my favorite team was postponed due to the ‘Tottenham’ Riots of August 7th.
I can see why the English Premier League is called the toughest in the world. Any number of brilliant players from overseas are forced to play the English way — faster, more physical, and less skilfull, typically pushing the ball and running in hope. Or lofting the ball far upfield, often to no one in particular as a (low) percentage shot. Of the ones who choose to tone down their skills for the English game, many still never adapt and end up labeled failures — until they are sold back to any one of approximately 200 countries where The Beautiful Game is played.
Of those who stay on and “tough it out”, injuries lasting three to five months through the prime of a nine-month season are becoming more and more the norm. Of course, English players too are more prone to injuries in the modern game. There’s only so much punishment week in, week out, that flesh and bone can stand. Even a moderately successful Premier League side will play the required 38 league games, plus a run of up to half a dozen FA Cup games, the same number of Carling Cup games, and maybe up to ten or a dozen games in European competition.
Under these conditions it is no surprise that, for example, Tottenham Hotspur, that rarely faces European competition, has no less than 22 full international players in its squad of 33, quality players from an array of countries — most of whom will spend months on the bench, loaned out to other teams, or injured, without the fans getting to see them. A sighting of these top-quality international players — Spurs fans can name them from Mexico, Russia, Croatia and Brazil — in a Tottenham jersey is about as rare as a 14-year-old virgin.
So having watched the opening games of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal on the first day, from whom great things are expected this season, there was no beauty on display, rarely even any excitement. It was 31 minutes, as told by the commentators before Chelsea’s $100 million superstar (Torres of Spain) lodged his team’s first serious shot at goal. Manchester Utd’s game, that was at least energetic and worthwhile to watch (thanks mainly to their opponents West Bromwich Albion), though I didn’t manage all of it, was won by a fluke goal that ricocheted in off a defender. This most famous football team in the world has many ways of being favored — and will probably win again this year, just because it’s expected. How powerful in the everyday ways of the world is the devious power of suggestion… Thanks be to the gods of football that when they came up against Barcelona a few months ago to play The Beautiful Game it was outside of England and with a non-British referee. Manchester Utd had no answer, just as the England team never does in the World Cup, all things being equal.
A day later I have watched Manchester City’s opening game, to confirm that this ‘ennui’ is a trend in English football. Sure enough, this most expensive team in Europe — from whom such great things are dreamt — in a home game took an hour to score against Swansea City, in their first first match ever in the Premier League. Highlight of the game — the magnificent performance and cat-like reactions of the young Swansea City goalie!!!
PHOTO: The better to ward off increasingly common season-long injuries. The future of English football with its physicality?