Premier League at 25: A fascinating product that entertains and demoralises in equal measure

Dilly ding, dilly dong, and with that Claudio Ranieri has left Leicester City, where the eccentric and brilliant Italian forged a tale so thrilling, with nondescript players, that he was catapulted into the pantheon of coaching greats. The Tinkerman did precisely what he always tends to do — tidy, touch-up and polish. He neither implemented wholesale personnel changes nor proffered tactical revolutions.

He crafted Leicester’s glory, and yet today he is gone. In isolation, his dismissal is a moot point, with the defending champions hovering dangerously close — almost comically suspended in mid-air — to the relegation zone. Ranieri’s sacking is but the climax of a curious, if not bizarre, trend: four — Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho and Ranieri — out of the last five Premier League winning managers were either sacked or replaced before the end of the following season.

 Premier League at 25: A fascinating product that entertains and demoralises in equal measure

Claudio Ranieri with Leicester City players after they won the Premier League title in 2016. Getty

Did Leicester City’s Thai owners commit regicide with their heart-breaking defenestration of Ranieri or has the Premier League, at 25, simply become a wretched business, derailed by the investment of global ‘capital’ and consumed by the ever-growing entertainment market, perpetually proclaiming, with much aplomb and success, to be the best league in the world?

At times the managerial rat race in the Premier League suggests the league has long foregone any sense of perspective. The English league is a worldwide commercial spectacular, long since transformed from what was once a declining working-class game, steeped in an old football culture with a thick web of morals, values and identities.

Eric Cantona recalled of his first goal on English soil that ‘the thousands of supporters who were behind the goal seemed to dive toward the pitch’ and that only in England ‘ecstasy could be found.’ That delirium was still a reminiscent of the old era, when fans, almost metronomically, flocked to the stands on a Saturday afternoon at 3 PM. Cantona arrived in England in 1992 at the intersection of British football culture meeting a ‘brave new world’ with the arrival of modern media and global money.

The Frenchman was the Premier League’s first hero. The league was founded as a defensive mechanism, conjured up by the ‘Big Five’ Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham, who, following the Hillsborough disaster and the damning Taylor report, were frightened by the prospect of bankruptcy. They broke away from the historic, four-division Football League.

What followed was the transformation of English football, well beyond any plausible vision of catapulting the game into another stratosphere. Today, the Premier League is football’s Bullingdon Club for the famed and the greedy, with the godfather of football journalism Brian Glanvile calling it the ‘Greed is Good League.’ The clubs’s revenues are £3.3 billion and the current three-year TV deal is worth a staggering £5.136 billion.

Those vast riches have translated into a 25-year influx of spangled coaches and star players, resulting in riveting exploits of footballing delight, with the local media — today the global media — sustaining unending narratives around the competition. To varying degrees, Cantona, The Invincibles, Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United, the Special One and Ranieri — to name but a few protagonists — have all contributed to, and in turn, buttressed the greatness of the Premier League.

In a mediagenic era the Premier League becomes a fascinating ‘product’: high performance, competitive sports in fabulously-constructed stadia in multimedia form, generating compelling stories and, crucially, tapping into profound senses of tribalism, a 90-minute cure for an ailing, individualistic society.

The Premier League is now a part of the British and the global conscience, broadcast in 212 territories, with a major TV reach. By exposure and popular demand, the Premier League is the best league in the world. Yet, is that not a fallacy, propelled by good marketing and a media fighting for clicks? Crass commercialism, propped up with stardust, doesn't per se make for the world’s greatest league.

When faced with Europe’s elite, English clubs tend to fail. Winning the Champions League is still the highest good in the club game and trumps the Premier League. Ask Chelsea — the club had long been driven by an obsession to win the European Cup. They gave it their all and when they finally won it, in dramatic fashion on penalties, it was a triumph and fulfillment for owner Roman Abramovich, another questionable club owner in the English circuit. Back in 2012, Chelsea were the last English club to win the European Cup.

Ever since, Premier League clubs have played an insignificant role in the latter stages of the competition. In the 2013-14 season, Chelsea went on to reach the semi-finals against Atletico Madrid. Last season Manchester City played Real Madrid in the last four, Fernando’s own goal in the second leg proved to be the difference between the two clubs. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid (twice) and FC Barcelona have all won the European Cup since that night at the Allianz Arena.

This season Manchester City may sustain the Premier League’s challenge in Europe, following a spectacular 5-3 first leg win against Monaco — but it is perhaps a paradox that Premier League clubs cannot consolidate their status on the continent, in turn warranting the question — is the Premier League really that good? The league has many fine-traits: it is swash-buckling, played at a great pace, often physical and can surprise. The tussles at the top, in mid-table and at the bottom pander to all fans.

Above all, at 25, the Premier League is entertainment — at times thrilling and exhilarating, at times deflating and demoralising, as Ranieri experienced on Thursday.

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Updated Date: Feb 24, 2017 12:08:42 IST