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Is the Premier League slipping?

Rory Smith
January 16, 2014
Is the Premier League slipping?


Just as Arsenal were arriving at Villa Park on Monday night, at the Ballon d'Or ceremony, Ruud Gullit and Fernanda Lima welcomed the final three members of the FIFA FIFPro World XI - Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo - onto the stage in Zurich's Kongresshaus.

Their arrival confirmed what we had known all along: Though some 14 Premier League players had made the 55-strong list of nominees, for the third time in four years, not one of them would be elected to the final XI.

Looking at the players selected ahead of them, it is hard to argue. The 50,000-plus professional players who voted had constructed quite a side. Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and Franck Ribery from Bayern Munich; Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Daniel Alves and Messi of Barcelona; two players from Real Madrid - Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo - and two from Paris Saint-Germain in the form of Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic.

True, the midfield looked a little imbalanced. Perhaps it is time for FIFPro to recognise the way the game has gone and carve up the long list a little more. It is currently divided into goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and attackers. Maybe a "defensive midfielders" category could be introduced. We could call it 'The Sergio Busquets' award - or perhaps a nod to the man who defined the role in the modern game, Claude Makelele - and have done with it.

The suspicion is that the Premier League may need similarly special treatment if it is to be recognised in coming years. That is not to say that there are not outstanding players in England. There are, obviously. There's Yaya Toure, David Silva, Aaron Ramsey, Eden Hazard, Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez, Hugo Lloris, Sergio Aguero and Wayne Rooney, for a start.

But it is not beyond the realms of the imagination to suggest that the balance of next year's FIFPro XI will be broadly similar to this one's, drawn largely from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. The Premier League giants will have to compete for the few remaining slots with France, Italy and the rest of Germany.*

The natural conclusion to this is that the Premier League is not quite the bastion of brilliance it sets itself up to be, to remark that the very best players in the world do not play in England.

That is broadly true, at least in the sense that the number of top-class players who have come to the Premier League in their prime is very few: Jurgen Klinsmann, Dennis Bergkamp, Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Ballack, Mesut Ozil and possibly Yaya Toure.

Bergkamp one of the few world class stars to join the Premier League in their prime © PA Photos
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The vast majority of others have either come before it - Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Suarez - or after it - Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and most of the rest of the initial invasion. There have been some who have found sanctuary here after being undervalued at clubs abroad - Henry again, Patrick Vieira - and others who have come from smaller leagues, where success is not, rightly or wrongly, seen as the ultimate gauge of quality: the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ricardo Carvalho.

More often than not, the very best do play in Europe. Some never show any inclination to come to England; some consider it and refuse; some do a brief stint and then depart. What the Premier League does instead, then, is to create stars, some foreign, some homegrown. It is an environment in which players become world-class. That is no bad thing; indeed, that sense of vigour and ambition and urgency is one of the reasons it is so alluring.

But this creates something of a quandary. The nature of the FIFA awards - including the Team of the Year - is not so much a celebration of excellence over the course of the last 12 months, but a contest based largely on popularity and fame.

A glance at who missed out and who went in proves that. The year 2013 was not a vintage one for Ramos, Iniesta, Xavi or Alves, although of course they all do remain among the finest players in the world.

But David Alaba, the Bayern left-back, had a better 2013 than Alves, a right-back selected in his position. He is, though, not quite as famous. The same goes for Mehdi Benatia, now at Roma, who lost just two games all year. Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ilkay Gundogan and Robert Lewandowski all missed out, too, for their successes with Bayern and Dortmund respectively.

Such omissions suggest that the players who vote for the award are not doing so because they have carefully studied every game each of the 55 contenders has played over the past 12 months. They are, quite often, just noting down who they think is "the best" generally, not who they think has been the best over the course of the year.

Here, then, the crux of the issue and the start of the quandary. The FIFPro XI is a popularity contest which featured no players from the most popular league in the world. It is voted for by professional players -- so, in all fairness, we should probably respect their judgment - offering their opinion on the rather nebulous concept of who is "the best" over an unspecified period of time and in an unspecified way.

What, then, does this say about what people think of the Premier League? Judging by the views of the players, they do not think it contains the best players in the world, but still they watch it, just as everyone does. But are they doing it because it is exciting, or because they believe it is home to genuine excellence?

By the time Ibrahimovic, Messi, Ronaldo and the rest were stalking through the mixed zone in Zurich, flanked by minders and swaddled by apparatchiks, Arsenal had gone top of the Premier League. Just two points separate the top three, then come a gaggle of four clubs, including Liverpool and Manchester United, before a relegation battle that encompasses everyone from Hull, in 10th, down.

Even by the heightened standards of the deliberately melodramatic Premier League, this year is shaping up to be a classic. No doubt many of the players who cast their votes for the team of 2013 will be glued to their screens in anticipation as the campaign builds to its inevitably overblown crescendo.

Are they watching it, though, because they believe it to be high art? Are they watching it because it is the most beautiful? Or are they watching it because it is entertaining, breathless, frenzied? When the world sits and watches, is it the football equivalent of going to the ballet or the opera or the theatre, where you see the very finest exponents of those skills at their very best, or is it akin to going to the cinema and seeing the latest Michael Bay blockbuster? Lots of explosions and lots of action, but not much art?

*Ordinarily, this changes a little in a World Cup year, with the winners of the tournament sweeping the awards, wherever their players ply their trade. That was true of the original World Player of the Year in 1994 (Romario), 1998 (Zinedine Zidane), 2002 (Ronaldo) and 2006 (Fabio Cannavaro). In 2010, despite a disappointing World Cup, Messi won it, ahead of Xavi and Iniesta. It will be an intriguing measure of the World Cup's relative importance to players to see how much influence it has on the awards, individual and collective, this season.

The World XI line up, but there was a lack of English-based players © Getty Images
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