Is English Football Culture More Insular Than It Should Be?
At the start of this season, a rather large event happened to English football culture. Or, more specifically, to the way that the English consume European football culture. Both the Champions League and the Europa League began broadcasting exclusively on BT Sport, ending the seemingly unbreakable hegemony that Sky and ITV had enjoyed over the competitions for years. And yet, the first reaction of Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis seemed to be indifference, or even relief:
‘Over the last five seasons we have seen Champions League audiences fall 38 per cent. Last season we saw our lowest ever average match audience and not a single European game appeared in our top 40 football matches. In football, it’s the intense rivalry of our domestic competitions that matters most to customers. You only have to look at the viewing figures to see the evidence.’
Of course, this does sound suspiciously like sour grapes, and it does him no harm to rain on a rival broadcaster’s parade. But his claim that the general English football watching public simply aren’t that concerned with happenings on the continent perhaps bears weight. The diminishing figures ‘over the last five seasons’ run suspiciously parallel to the increasingly poor performances of English clubs in the Champions League; it would seem that the average watcher doesn’t want to watch two European heavyweights go at it if there is no English club involved.
This perhaps should not be surprising. It makes sense that an English audience is more interested in the fates of domestic teams than foreign ones, and the same would probably be true in most footballing countries; a French audience is naturally more invested in the fate of French teams. However, the English apathy toward the foreign game seems to be needlessly prominent in a country where all of the major European leagues are available to watch on television. One of the very seldom stated effects of the aforementioned BT deal is that, since coverage of the two English teams playing each night is not shared between two broadcasters anymore, there is no longer room for a major European fixture in HD. When Sky could only show one English team on a Champions League night (the other going to ITV), the other HD Channel (most recently Sky Sports 5) was instead dedicated to a fixture like Barcelona vs. PSG or Roma vs. Bayern. Now, both BT channels are taken up by English clubs, and major European fixtures are necessarily relegated to the inferior coverage of the red button. This will have to change in the later stages of the competition of course, but it seems to give an indication of the lack of enthusiasm that the average English viewer has for the foreign game.
This feeling has also been demonstrated by Sky, who this season replaced their flagship Spanish football show Revista de la Liga with a much slimmed-down highlights package. The excellent Revista was the only show of its kind: a genuinely in-depth look at the footballing highlights, issues and headlines of another country. Sky now obviously feels that the show was superfluous enough to replace it with a goals show along the lines of the Bundesliga and Serie A highlights offered by BT: a handful of key moments, accompanied by a commentator making only sparing reference to the wider context of the game (players’ scoring stats; new manager appointments etc.). This is doubly disappointing because it has meant the loss of journalistic talent like Guillem Balague and Graham Hunter, two figures with rare insight into the workings of Spanish clubs and qualities of lesser known players. The evident lack of sufficient interest in these opinions (which could, with some legitimacy, claim to be expert) for Sky not to renew their show is a shame, especially given that BT has not opted to follow ITV’s use of Gabriele Marcotti, another author and football ‘expert’.
An English audience seems instead to prefer BT pundits like Lineker or Wright, who, though talented at analysing domestic teams, show little more than a passing interest in the other major European leagues and seem to have a very limited knowledge about their teams and players. Admittedly, they are of a generation in which the opportunity to watch foreign teams regularly was clearly not readily available, but therein find themselves transmitting an ignorance of, and apathy to the foreign game that is no longer necessary nor helpful. Against this lack of knowledge, it is the younger generation of football fans who are picking up their slack, armed with the ability to watch foreign leagues on television, a myriad of player compilations uploaded to YouTube, and the (perhaps questionable) knowledge of foreign teams and players acquired from games like Football Manager and FIFA. During the average football pre-match pint, it is the fans under 30 who find themselves most able to comment on foreign players, transfer links, and the results from other leagues. Elsewhere, words like ‘rabona’ and ‘paneka’, well known to the international community, have only entered the average English pundit/commentators’ lexicon in the last few years, and almost certainly by virtue of a younger generation of Internet users.
This younger generation is still, however, only starting to turn the tide. It seems that years of being reassured that ours was the best league in the world has dampened our enthusiasm for watching other European leagues, and our ability to interact with other footballing cultures. It is, ironically, this blinkered confidence in being the best that has let other countries overtake us: Italy are dangerously close to grabbing our coefficient; Germany’s approach to money in football has led to a healthier league for both players and fans; and, as another Football Faculty article has pointed out, most Champions League teams on the continent could teach us much about what we should have learned from Guardiola’s revolution in Spain. Perhaps it is only by opening up to the rest of Europe that English football culture can hope to better itself- with our unparalleled access to coverage of leagues across Europe, we now have the chance to gain a more realistic view of where our game lies in comparison.