When Andy Warhol was asked his opinion on photography he replied: “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person.” No doubt Warhol would have found a lot to like about Fifa’s The Best awards, which took place in London last month, and featured a swarm of very famous footballers looking glossed and styled and engaged as ever in an unofficial competition to source and procure the most appalling plum-coloured velveteen triple-sequinned dinner jacket available to mankind.
This year The Best also featured a famous football photograph. In its own way it is a defining image of a certain era, the selfie taken by the host, Idris Elba, that managed to cram all 11 members of Fifa’s team of the year in front of the same camera lens.
Looking at that picture various thoughts occur immediately. Firstly, from Neymar to Gianluigi Buffon this is clearly a very decent era for top level footballers. Secondly nobody puts Cristiano in the corner (he’ll smile for now, but there will be consequences and this isn’t over). Thirdly none of them play in the Premier League or are likely to in the near future. And finally quite a few of those bedded-in megastars are pretty old these days.
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The last two of these, taken together, are significant. As the league season takes its final autumn break there is the usual rush to divvy up and take stock of the state of the footballing nation. Teams of the season so far have been drawn up, new arrivals ranked, early player of the year contenders flagged.
In England we have become used to the fact the wider awards process, the best of The Best, no longer touches our league, a feeling the real star presences are located elsewhere. Only one solely Premier League-based player (Wayne Rooney) has been in the Fifa team of the year in the past eight seasons. Luis Suárez didn’t get a spot until he left for Barcelona. Even when Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012 Ashley Cole, who was brilliant that year, lost out to the immovable Marcelo.
It is hard to argue with this. The Fifa team is voted on by footballers around the world. This isn’t a stitch-up or a fix. It is a measure of star wattage, of established pedigree, of the disorientating brilliance of the Messi-Ronaldo godhead, and the footballing success of La Liga.
And yet there is a chance we might be about to enter a new cycle this season. Given the Premier League’s riches it was always likely the balance might alter a little. What is interesting is the way this has begun to happen.
There are two things here. Firstly, after a fallow few years there really is a rising tide of quality in the Premier League. Kevin De Bruyne, player of the season so far, is as good as any playmaker in Europe right now. Harry Kane is an elite centre-forward, fit for any club side anywhere. The level has risen, the gap closed, to the extent that a Premier League XI could at least hold its own a little against Fifa’s best efforts.
So, let’s have a go then. A Premier League best XI from the calendar year might look a bit like this: David De Gea; Kyle Walker, John Stones, César Azpilicueta, Benjamin Mendy; N’Golo Kanté, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne; Eden Hazard, Harry Kane, Sergio Agüero.
Again this is not an attempt at a definitive, forensic ranking. It is instead an all-star team, the kind of XI the FIFPro process would spew out, selected to the same standards of gloss and prestige and sustained success. There will be the usual outrage at absences, slights, the focus on “the big six”. Plenty of other players would be in the reckoning for a genuine best XI: Sead Kolasinac, James Tarkowski, Sadio Mané, Leroy Sané, Dele Alli, Gabriel Jesus, Christian Eriksen, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Mo Salah, Philippe Coutinho, Wilfred Zaha, Marcus Rashford, Ederson and Paul Pogba if he gets going again.
But this is the other thing about the Premier League’s rising tide of talent. The best players are almost exclusively younger players, certainly compared to the Elba selfie crew, whose average age is 32. By contrast only David Silva of all the Premier League players listed above has hit 30.
Some disclaimers here. There are obviously stellar young players in every other league around Europe. Borussia Dortmund bow to no man when it comes to processing elite youth footballers. Spain continues to produce exhilarating talent. France has a frightening depth of young players. Plus of course the Premier League still does not produce its own, but buys pretty much everything in from outside
But the league is providing a stage and a finishing school. That buying power has been applied to this demographic, and to good effect. Seven of the 25 current Golden Boy nominees are signed to English clubs, more than any other league. Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United have three of the four youngest squads in the division, with Chelsea and Manchester City also in the top nine, making it the only league in Europe where youth corresponds to points.
There are probably some textural reasons for this. The Premier League is a draining, bruising place. It makes sense that younger players should thrive there. This is a sensible buyer’s policy, not least when elsewhere the aristocrats of the European game are ageing together, kept aloft by their own star power, by the fact sports science and extreme financial rewards will allow careers to be extended at the very top.
Real Madrid have benefited from stability in recent years, the fact there is nowhere for their best players to be lured away to, while elsewhere in Europe every other promising clique of players is raided and picked off every summer.
But this might just have passed into something else now. The midfield was overrun by Tottenham at Wembley last week. Their best players have aged together, as have those at Barcelona. Bayern Munich are still rebuilding. For the first time in some time there are no unassailable superstar XIs in the Champions League. Perhaps come the next all-star Fifa selfie – give it another Ballon D’Or, one more lionising of the La Liga supremacy – we might just see a few Premier League-based faces gleaming in the glow of the old giants.