The choice of language describing and articulating the Premier League belies, helps construct and importantly legtimates an unjust global system

                                                   [Copyright-Free image courtesy of http://www.odt.org]

 

When managers, players and commentators call the English Premier League the ‘best in the world’, or even ‘greatest’ league, they do not make a simple statement. Such a contest seems only winnable by the Premier League when looking at viewing figures; this is not an argument I will get sucked into, except that I feel it speaks to something sinister behind the Premier League. The widespread belief in its supremacy over other domestic leagues should worry, as it arguably justifies an unjust situation which speaks to the very structure of modern, ‘global’ football.

Pele famously predicted that there would be an African winner of the FIFA World Cup by the end of the Twentieth Century. We know now that he was, simply, wrong; but what of the last winner of the 20th Century, France? Their ‘rainbow team’ drew on talent from all over French society, especially from former French colonies – Zinedine Zidane from Algeria, for example. Indeed, the ‘rainbow team’ was a highly positive thing in France: this example of a cohesive, wonderful team drawing players from a range of backgrounds helped to contradict and challenge racist politicians such as Jean-Marie Le Pen – the leader of the far-right Fronte Nationale (or FN). It challenged not only the assumption that French society must be judged on its colour, it also speaks to the fact that a ‘footballing culture’ is to do with place, to do with geography and location. It seems a can of worms to argue that the rainbow team were, in-fact, African and not French – that isn’t something I will be drawn into, except that it is this relationship between being French and (for example) Algerian which is of interest.

The Premier League’s ‘supremacy’ very much rests on this – not only does it depend on monetary wealth, but the exploitation and importation of talent from abroad. Few teams in the EPL lack a star from a country formerly under colonial rule. These players are often among the most celebrated – Peter Odemwingie of Nigeria, for example, at West Bromwich Albion; Michael Essien of Ghana at Chelsea; Luis Suarez of Uruguay at Liverpool. All of these came through non-English leagues, cycling around the global domestic system before reaching the ‘promised land’ of the Premier League (something to mock and question, I feel).

What do I mean, then, by ‘Postcolonial’? Postcolonialism is a term used usually in the study of literature, but also of history and other subjects. There are problems with universalising the study and critique of the colonised and colonisers. A person who studies postcolonial India will know that it will differ from, say, Nigeria: it’s useful however to draw them both under the general field of ‘Postcolonialism’. To guard against a loss of specificity, which could lead us to ignoring elements by taking to wide a survey, is an important problem and concern which scholars have taken.

In summary, it is this relationship, where we study the ‘effects of colonization on the cultures of both the colonizers and the colonized’, which concerns ‘post’colonial studies [definition taken from Ian Buchanan, Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, Oxford University Press 2010]. The contention is often, that colonization may have officially ended with independence, but countries in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific still have a relationship with the ‘the West’ which is uncomfortably similar to imperialism and colonialism. We see popular political resistance to this in terms of struggles against 'globalisation', something which is producing reasons and situations to struggle against every day. It is this globalisation which perhaps concerns this discussion the most. If the reader does not have an understanding of what 'globalisation' is, I can only encourage in this space to research, as it's something which will make you look back at your own society (whichever side you are on - 'globalisers' and 'globalised', as it were, to return to our central dialectic). 

This relationship is evident in football, too: consider the fact that teams in the European Union are only able to sign a limited number from outside the EU every year, or the very concept of ‘home grown’ players, and the ways clubs attempt to effectively get around these restrictions. What is being created with these policies is a situation whereby one person is classed as one thing and the next person in another way: these policies categorise and control individuals, and help control the horizons of what it is to be a footballer outside of Europe’s free borders. Teams such as Arsenal rely on vast networks of clubs (‘feeder clubs’ as they’re often called, over which they suffered a scandal five years ago) in order to negotiate with these systems so that their players can gain work permits. Rather than such players developing in their own countries, the emphasis is on the extraction of these players as youths and their (eventual) importation into English football. We thus have situations such as the recent one where Emmanuel Frimpong, a defensive midfielder for Arsenal, had the choice of opting internationally for Ghana (where he was born) or England, where he has spent his life since he was 9. Even then, this process is controlled on a global level by the authority that is FIFA:

‘To complete his nationality transfer, Frimpong must await Fifa clearance - which is dependent on the world governing body receiving paperwork from the Football Associations of both Ghana and England.’ [See previous link] – There are obvious problems with the need for such a global authority to control and legitimise individuals’ careers.

This begs the question: would Frimpong have developed into the player he is today if he remained in Ghana? The answer matters for what it says of how Ghanaian football is forced to be effectively subservient to non-Ghanaian football. To play devil’s advocate, there is much to be said of players improving by developing away from their ‘home’ nation – take Owen Hargreaves as an English example, developing in Germany and being an arguably ‘different’ kind of player. Joe Cole has moved across the channel to LOSC Lille and is now flourishing. This geographical diversity can be strength, but it can also be a weakness. At the international level, the weekly togetherness of club football cannot be replicated. Unless players are at the same club, they will not be on the same team except when they line up for their country. This is why the ‘national team spirit’ is stressed, which depends on a national spirit existing – such as Brazil’s Samba football, South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, and England’s ‘hoof-it’ 4-4-2 (to be less serious). But we must ask an important question: would national footballing cultures such as that in Brazil (narrated brilliantly in Jonathan Wilson’s book Inverting The Pyramid, where he plots the tactical development of several other national games) have developed had most of its players been abroad as adults? This is a great worry for African national teams, who must battle this scattering of their personnel, but also the ‘inconvenience’ created by the sheer distance of having to travel across the globe.

Take the illustrative example of Youssouf Mulumbu, the Congolese midfielder, a highly talented and youthful central midfielder who plays for West Bromwich Albion. He is famed in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo [this is an excellent article, by the by], who experienced the complex relationship which modern football has produced: he played for France at the youth level, but opted to play for the DR Congo national team. Despite the fact he did this partly to help heal the Congo, a country which has seen immense conflicts for some time, he has since retired from international football in order to protect his career. As a player who soaked up the footballing culture not only in France, growing up in an urban ‘banlieue’, but had his professional career begin in earnest following a move to English club West Bromwich Albion (he was the 2010-11 season player of the year), he is an excellent portrait of a modern African footballer, caught between the worlds of ‘unglamorous’ internationals and the immense popularity and fame of the Premier League. There is no way to know what the ‘discussions’ Mulumbu had with his family and advisers contained – but it seems highly odd that a player who can boast the fame equivalent to David Beckham would shy away from such fame. Indeed, should Mulumbu bother? He can be watched by hundreds of millions in Africa, who flock to watch English football, especially the ‘big four’. Whatever the case, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has lost one of its most talented footballers. In the Postcolonial world of football, players such as Michael Essien can be nurtured and produced: but they can also be lost. But so long as the supremacy of the Premier League and other prestigious competitions is accepted and supported, we may have to wait some time for an African winner of world football’s highest accolade. Yet again, a situation where human resources – both in terms of fans as well as players – flow from the (post)colonial countries into Europe and America is in place.  This is deeply unsettling, hardly ever questioned, almost hidden and even necessary to support the marketing of the Premier League as the ‘best in the world’. Has imperialism and injustice really died, or has it now got a new, sporting face?

(Part of a series on 'Deconstructing Football')