Is The English Premier League’s Popularity A Result Of Colonialism?

6 months ago Chad 3

It can be guaranteed during any weekend of Premier League action, that the commentators and pundits will remind you at least 14 times that it is the bestest league in the whole wide world. Ever Ever. Feet up on the sofa, crisps in a green bowl and the pasta-bake in the oven. Premier League is the best. Premier League is the best. This will continually assault your ears for the next two hours, making you reach for the vodka.

I for one don’t buy any of this spiel, which when examined closely is nothing but flimsy folk wisdom with splashes of jingoism, because whilst the likes of Jamie Rednapp and Paul Merson will remind you that that it is just oh so intense (because that only happens in England), I know that, like much of what is good about Britain today, look no further than colonialism and the material and psychological exploitation of much of the world for the source.

I for one don’t buy any of this spiel, which when examined closely is nothing but flimsy folk wisdom with splashes of jingoism, because whilst the likes of Jamie Rednapp and Paul Merson will remind you that that it is just oh so intense (because that only happens in England), I know that, like much of what is good about Britain today, look no further than colonialism and the material and psychological exploitation of much of the world for the source.Is It The Never-Say -Die English spirit?

They will oddly blurt out, ‘just look at the bloody passion of the players and the fans; you don’t see that in Spain.’ As the former Manchester United player, failed football manager and Sky TV commentator Gary Neville said, “When people talk about the DNA of English football, we’ve got one: we work hard, we’re organized, structured, resilient, hard to beat, that never-say-die spirit.”

Never-say-die spirit?

Never-say-die, I would add, except when failing to qualify for World Cups and European championships; qualifying for said championships and World Cups then failing miserably. But that’s by the by.

EPLEnglish fans, we are told, have come to expect a high tempo, blood-and-thunder style of football, compared to the slower more technical European style making the Premier League a quicker, more open, more physical and more attractive game for international viewers.

Yet, the proportion of English players in the Premier League has been consistently falling from over 70% in the inaugural 1992-93 season to 30% in the 2016–17 season with many technically skilled foreign players now playing in England. So perhaps it’s not simply down to ‘bloody passion,’ right Merse?

Lousy Sunderland Can Beat Chelsea On Any Given Sunday, Right?

Another common refrain from English soccer personalities is that the English league’s popularity is due to its highly competitive nature. It’s often heard that the EPL is the only league where “bottom can beat top” and where upsets happen at a much higher frequency than in other top European leagues. For instance, Gareth Bale, the former Tottenham player and current Real Madrid winger compared the Premier League to La Liga in February 2017:

“In every game in the Premier League you have to be at 100% for 90 minutes or you will lose. In Spain, you can be up at half-time against the bottom club and you can take your foot off the gas. You can rest players and take people off. If you only try for 45 minutes you won’t win a match in the premier league…On any given day, 20th can beat top in the Premier League. Here, not so much.”

The Manchester United manager and agitator extraordinaire, José Mourinho also compared the EPL to La Liga, the league where he managed Real Madrid:

“To go to matches knowing that you are going to win for sure is not the best thing. In Spain everybody knows that two teams are top of the world. But after that there is a huge competitive difference and that’s why the record is 100 points, 126 goals. In England, 100 points and 126 goals is impossible. If someone reaches 100 points and scores 126 goals, it’s not the best competition for sure, they can be the best team, but not the best competition.”

These comments regarding the supposed higher competitive balance in English football often go unchallenged. But just how true is this narrative? It’s the most competitive league in the world! Anybody can beat anybody on their day! There are no easy games in this league! The mantra of the Premier League apologists is well known. …It’s nonsense, of course.

James Curley and Oliver Roeder sought to test these claims by examining results and final standings data from six top European soccer leagues from 1995–96 and 2013–14. The leagues are England’s EPL, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga, France’s Ligue 1 and Holland’s Eredivisie. When looking at the number of unique winners of these European leagues, it appears that no one team dominated.

For instance, in these 20 complete seasons, Bayern Munich and Manchester United won their domestic leagues 12 and 11 times respectively, and Juventus and Barcelona won the Italian and Spanish leagues 10 times each. Further, England has only had four unique winners during that time, Spain, Italy and Holland have had five, and Germany six. France’s Ligue 1 is the only league with more diversity—it had 10 different winners in 20 seasons.

But What About The Top Four?

Examining winners may be too simplistic to come to any significant conclusion. Another way is to look at wengerthe diversity of teams in the top four places at the end of each season. From 1995–96 to 2014–15, the same four teams account for an astonishing 80% of EPL , 76% of Eredivisie, 68% of La Liga, 65% of Bundesliga, 65% of Serie A and 58% of Ligue 1 top-four finishes.

In terms of unique top-four finishers, 16 different teams have finished in the top-four of Ligue 1 and 15 different teams in La Liga. Conversely, just 10 unique teams have finished in the top four of the EPL and Eredivisie.

This analysis of the more successful sides in each league would actually suggest that the EPL is the least competitive league, while Ligue 1 is the most competitive.

Barcelona Want No Part Of Stoke On A Windy Monday Night

But perhaps focusing on the top teams is a too restrictive view of “competitiveness.” To get at the common refrain “anyone can beat anyone on their day,” a more appropriate analysis might factor in the performances of the weaker teams. To do this, Curley and Roeder examined the success of the bottom four teams in each season when playing against the top four teams.

They asked how many points the bottom four teams were able to accrue in games against the top four. In each season, the bottom four teams play a cumulative total of 32 games against top four opposition—a win is worth three points and a draw one, making 96 possible points available. In no year, in any league, did the bottom four achieve more than 28 points against the top four.

Football StatsNotably, in the EPL, Bundesliga and La Liga, the significant trend is toward the bottom four teams performing far worse against the top four. France is the league with the highest number of seasons where bottom four teams achieved more than 20 points against top four sides—but even this league hasn’t had such a season since 2006.

In Holland and Italy, the trend was fairly flat for a while, with the bottom four teams gaining on average only 10 points per season from their 32 games against top teams. Again, this shows there is actually some evidence that the EPL is becoming the least competitive in terms of these top-bottom matchups.

The English Premier League may well be the most popular in terms of worldwide audience, but, from this analysis, this is not because of “competitive balance” or “upset likelihood.” In actuality, a strong case could be made that all other leagues—with the possible exception of the Dutch Eredivisie—are far more balanced.

After this analysis the question still remains: why is the Premier League so popular? Perhaps it could be as simple as the league’s higher scoring. Fans love goals, after all. While the EPL was historically a high-scoring league, it was never as high-scoring as the Spanish league. Over the last 20 or 30 years, the EPL is actually very similar in goals per game to La Liga.

During the same period, the more competitive French league has relatively low scoring, whereas the less competitive Dutch league has been relatively high scoring. It appears that the disproportionate popularity of the EPL may not be due to competitive balance, upset likelihood or high scoring. What’s more, the most competitive league—Ligue 1—is relatively unwatched outside of its own country. Equality certainly does not equal popularity.

The Grip of Neo-Colonialism 

But the number one anecdotal reason guaranteed to be trotted out, like a lawyer with armed with a lie, is that it is the most viewed league in the world. People all over the world just love it, we are told and there is not really much you can say to that, now is there you contrarians? Well, as it turns out Merse, there is something to be said.

The invisible aliens believe that the Premier League’s popularity is simply down to the fact that having colonised most of the world, Britain has left enough traces of soft power across the globe, allowing them to infiltrate those countries in a variety of ways. Rather than send their militaries to further their interests, the British government in the era of Post-World War II austerity, sought to exert influence abroad by what Joseph S. Nye once described as ‘soft power’.

This involved getting what one wants by co-opting other actors rather than by coercing or inducing them to act in a particular way. The cultural colonization of the world by McDonalds, KFC, Hollywood, Starbucks, Apple Computers etc. is also apparent when one examines Premier League Football.

The lingering stench of colonialism sways in the wind of the Middle East and North Africa for example, where, according to www.premierleague.com, there are 311 million viewers; in Sub-Saharan Africa where there are 276 million viewers; in North America and The Caribbean where there are 287 million viewers; in Asia and Oceania where there are 857 million. In Central and South America (where most do not speak English), interestingly, there are ‘only’ 149 million viewers.

The Tyranny of English

The best thing going for the Premier League is not the technique of the English players. God no! Nor it is their ability to dribble, pass or shoot. It has nothing to with their personalities or likeability. Rather, the EPL benefits from being broadcast in English, the language spoken by imperialist, slave-driving Britons for 400 years.

The best thing going for the Premier League is not the technique of the English players. God no! Nor it is their ability to dribble, pass or shoot. It has nothing to with their personalities or likeability. Rather, the EPL benefits from being broadcast in English, the language spoken by imperialist, slave-driving Britons for 400 years.

“Everyone who matters speak English.” So say many in Britain and America. Whilst hyperbolic, this crude approximation is true: in globalised enterprises, whether science, finance or sports (football), the world’s single scholarly language is increasingly indispensable.

Today’s status of English is the result of the expansion of British colonial power and the emergence of the English speaking economic power of the United States. Across Africa, India, the Caribbean, North America, Australia, the Premier League is incredibly popular, in part, because the language makes it accessible. Even in those countries where English is not the official language (most of South America, for example), there is an incredible appetite to learn the language because it is seen as the international language of business; a language that upwardly mobile people (incidentally, those most likely able to afford to watch Premier League games) feel the need to learn.

More than 85% of the scientific, technological and academic production in the world today is performed in English. A study by the British Council, Britain’s international propaganda arm, into the economic impact of learning English in developing countries has concluded that learning English can increase the earning power of individuals by around 25%. Almost 30 % of the world population are already “reasonably competent” in English. As the language of commerce, economy and politics, English is the most widely spoken language with regards to a number of countries, even though Chinese, Hindi and Spanish have more native speakers. The English Premier League is a direct beneficiary of this.

The Invisible Aliens Reflect

Anecdotally, growing up in Jamaica The Young Invisible Aliens first gained limited access to European football in the late 1990s. This was the time of the great Italian and Spanish teams, stocked with players such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Batistuta, Zidane, Figo, etc. but what did the local broadcasters show us? The local tvPremier League, of course, and with good sense too.

They couldn’t invest in foreign language commentary and background details of each club so my friends and I watched the Premier League, lapped it up, became Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea fans, eventually attending games and buying merchandise and ‘forcing’ our children to do the same.

If we spoke Spanish or if Italian was a global language of business that we needed to learn, then I have no doubt we would be supporting Inter Milan, Celta Vigo and Madrid.

In addition, with the dissemination of colonial English and culture, our relatives lived and worked in Brixton, Manchester and Birmingham. They didn’t travel to Frankfurt, Marseille or Rome because the colonial links didn’t exist. They had stories of John Barnes and Liverpool and Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. For much of the world this was both more accessible and easier to relate to than Italian and Spanish football. It had nothing to do with the quality of the football.

In Francophone Africa, the French League is popular and stocked with French African players. This has nothing to do with the quality of League 1. Rather, it has everything to do with cultural affinities and ties forged in a colonial climate. Many players from Francophone African countries seem to gravitate towards France to debut their professional career due to the ease of communication and cultural affinity France shares with a number of French speaking countries in North Africa and those South of the Sahara.

Had France the good sense to colonise more countries and embed French as the world’s lingua franca, then The Invisible Aliens would have been perched on our sofas in Jamaica watching Lyon and PSG in our youths.

Had France the good sense to colonise more countries and embed French as the world’s lingua franca, then The Invisible Aliens would have been perched on our sofas in Jamaica watching Lyon and PSG in our youths.

I also recall that around that time the FA cup was shown on Saturday mornings and the English commentators spiel about it being the greatest cup competition in the world ever ever ever, seeped into our young impressionable minds. We just loved football and this is what we were served up. It was and is much the same in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria as attested by my friends from Africa and the comment sections on ESPNFC, for example.

war on englishBy giving the world English, Britain and its businesses still benefits from the soft power it engenders. It builds trust in the UK and its institutions. Cambridge and Oxford University. The BBC. The Premier League. The English language is a soft power tool that has increased trust in the UK and renders it attractive abroad, thus inducing others to emulate its socio-political values and engage commercially with the UK.

That the English language is a subset of culture and thus a soft power asset which connects billions of people and allows British values to be disseminated, even emulated, is central to the British Council’s narrative. The global power of English has helped the Premier League (and UK) to grow and maintain its position as a cultural superpower with every chance of continuing to grow its soft power influence in today’s highly networked world.

Take a glance at London’s supreme hold on being the financial, legal and investment capital of the world. Companies relocate here and seek British wisdom, not due to the inherent genius of the British, but rather due to the long standing, centuries long grip of these fields of enterprise. The critical mass built up over time has been invaluable.

Or Just Good Ol’ Cultural Globalisation?

More generally, alongside the colonising grab of English, it seems that the popularity of sports is a direct result of economic imperialism and the ensuing global media reach of the two rich English speaking countries in the world. If you look, for example, at the NBA or NFL in the United States gaining popularity with little kids waking up in Jamaica and Africa and Brazil, they are watching these foreign sports and have intimate knowledge and love of their rules and players.

I cannot think of a sport in any non-English speaking country with anything approaching the reach that the NFL, for example, with its quirky rules, has. Some will say the Premier League or the NBA is well marketed and whilst there are elements of truth in this, it simply does not hold up under scrutiny.

Who would have known that when Queen Elizabeth and Francis Drake and the other marauding British conquistadores and slave traders and missionaries dragged themselves from pole to pole conquering distant lands and subjugating the dark peoples of the world, that it would lay the groundwork for the phenomenal growth of an innocuous, little game where a round ball is being gloriously kicked around a field and into a net?

In the end, it is clear that the answer to the Premier League’s popularity lies beyond the database and that which is served up on the playing field. Who would have known that when Queen Elizabeth and Francis Drake and the other marauding British conquistadores and slave traders and missionaries dragged themselves from pole to pole conquering distant lands and subjugating the dark peoples of the world, that it would lay the groundwork for the phenomenal growth of an innocuous, little game where a round ball is being gloriously kicked around a field and into a net?