For the world’s most successful soccer league is increasingly dominated by non-English players and managers, most of the latter from other European countries. In a nominal sense alone is it the top football league of England, the paramount country of the UK, of the “British” state otherwise composed of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Premier League has been vaunted as evidence that the UK is a true 21st century country: Globalized, progressive, open for business etc. Yet the symbolism of Brexit is liable to indicate that the UK no longer wishes to be closely involved with its immediate European neighbours, let alone the world at large. Many factors contributed to the Brexit vote but not the least of them was white English nationalism, a “nativist” backlash against the EU fueled by anger over immigration, a feeling that the EU’s insistence on the free movement of labor has robbed the UK of control over its borders.
It is striking that the ever less English “English” Premier League has not become caught up in the Brexit campaign to “take back control”: The anti-immigration ex-leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, has not raged against its wholesale importation of foreign players.
It can seem that the UK has become reconciled to being a mere provider of lucrative historic settings for foreign enterprise — to what has been called “Wimbledonization,” on the analogy of how Wimbledon, the long-established tennis club in south east London, has served as a famous venue for displays of international talent. The foreign commerce-dominated City of London is Wimbledonization in its financial aspect; the Premier League, built on the English football heritage, another instance of it in sport.
It was the New York-based, Australian media baron, Rupert Murdoch, who transformed English football when, in 1992, he acquired the right to broadcast the Premier League on satellite television, a development that has enabled English clubs to attract global football stars and pay them at astronomical rates. By itself, England could never have sustained a football league that commanded worldwide attention. Indigenous English talent cannot compare with international talent: The recent World Cup defeat of England by Iceland underscored the woeful discrepancy between the foreign prowess on display in the Premier League and the dearth of it among home-grown footballers.
Belatedly, concern is growing that the cosmopolitan Premier League has undermined “English” football. Reliance on foreign stars has undoubtedly meant that scant attention has been paid to nurturing the local game. At the same time, what was once the recreation of the industrial working class has been re-invented as a sport that blatantly caters to the affluent. Televised images of packed football stadia disguise the alienation of many who cannot afford the Premier League’s exorbitant admission prices.
Yet the arguably atrophying effect of foreign players on the native game has gained little traction as a public issue. How could it when the Premier League enjoys such popularity? It is otherwise when it comes to larger national deficiencies. Much Brexit sentiment is bound up with the belief that the European Union has brought the UK low. Few accept that it is suffering from inherent inadequacies — though the truth is that just as there would be no Premier League without foreign input, so the UK would struggle to sustain much else, not least its national health service, without imported personnel.
Whether the Premier League’s fortunes could be affected by Brexit remains to be seen. As yet it is not even certain what the word means. British politicians appear no clearer on the matter than many who voted for it. The great irony is that the British government is reportedly going to have to hire foreign lawyers and civil servants to assist with the vastly complex negotiations that Brexit will involve. In other words, the UK may even require foreign help in its efforts to re-assert its independence.
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