It happens every year. There’s a crushing surge in Bangkok, an outbreak of boy-band over-excitement in Jakarta, a sixty thousand sell-out crowd in New York at which someone somewhere suggests it can only be a matter of time before the Premier League returns to the idea of the 39th game. Just look how popular the English clubs are as they undertake their pre-season tours to the Far East, South Africa and the USA.
If they can whip up a crowd this big for a meaningless stroll in the sun, imagine how intense things would get if they played a match in these territories that actually meant something. To which the only answer is: as if the suits at Premier League headquarters hadn’t noticed themselves.
The 39th game was written off by most observers when first mooted by the Premier league chief executive as Scudamore’s folly. It was widely seen as a symptom of hubris, of an organisation a little too pleased with itself. Its expansionist purpose smacked just a little too much of imperialism.
But you always got the sense that, even as they backed down from the idea of sending the Premier League clubs overseas to play an extra round of fixtures abroad, it was not an idea that was entirely dead. English football is rapacious in its urge for new territories to conquer. That is why our leading clubs are out there right now. It is certainly not to help preparations for the new season.
In what way is flying half way round the world, playing at half pace in exhibition games and doing endless commercial appearances conducive to the build-up of long-term fitness that used to be the purpose of pre-season? These days clubs see the few weeks without structured competition before the season starts not as an ideal opportunity to work intensely on fitness or tactics, but as the chance to get out there and make more money. As if the millions they already earn from overseas television rights is not enough.
But no, get the lads out pressing the flesh. Much more important to act as brand ambassadors than to strengthen themselves ahead of rigours anew.
And if they can do that pre-season, why not get them playing real matches over there, earning real money? You can almost hear the argument being trotted out once more. It is an argument, moreover, that will be gaining traction among the 20 chairmen who ultimately make the decisions for the Premier League. Particularly now they are likely to be joined by a sixth American franchise owner.
Shahid Khan, in negotiations to buy Fulham from Mohamed Al Fayed, is a pioneer of the off-territory game. He owns the Jacksonville Jaguars who are contracted to play at least one regular season match at Wembley this year. Khan loves the Wembley game. At Jacksonville, the Jaguars rarely fill their home stadium. At Wembley it’s a sell-out. No wonder the rumour has it they may soon be playing two matches in London, perhaps eventually moving the franchise here permanently. Export the match to the place it will draw the biggest crowds: he loves that idea.
That is what the 39th game has long been about. Never mind the crushing blow it would inflict on the local league where it is being staged. Never mind the financial burden it would impose on fans who like to attend every home fixture of their club. Never mind the ludicrous logistical mess such non-organic growth would bring (who would play who in the 39th game? And why?). Just feel the money.
Ask anyone involved in the tours currently being undertaken by Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal and everyone involved would say they would prefer not to have to do it. The players would actually like a bit of time with their families in a way that will be impossible once the treadmill restarts. Coaches and managers would like properly to work with their squad. Press officers would really rather the endless drip-drip of transfer speculation was not given further fuel by correspondents obliged to file stories in order to justify their long overseas jaunts. Even the locals don’t appreciate it when they turn up in the expectation of seeing the big names, only to discover they have been sent home with a hamstring problem and they are paying top dollar to watch the stiffs.
The only people who relish the ludicrous shenanigans of the overseas tour are the money men. And in modern football they are the ones that count. And they are the ones who will, in the end, decide on the 39th game. It is an idea that, like the central character in Carrie, refuses to be buried.
- Sports & Recreation
- the Premier League