England forgotten as the Prem spends
It was only a little more than a month ago that England returned home from the World Cup, tail between the legs. They had scored two goals and earned one point. They had been eliminated before they had even played all their group games. It was the worst performance in a World Cup in the nation's history.
What has not happened in the month that has followed is telling. There has been no talk of a need for urgent reform. There has been no mention of a Year Zero, as there has been in Italy (which also went out in the group stage). And there has not been a groundswell of opinion that from the ashes must rise drastic change.
Some elements of the media have sought to blame England manager Roy Hodgson, to suggest that at least some portion of the fault lies with the manager, but the Football Association does not seem to have bought into it. Greg Dyke, the chairman, told the House of Commons last week that he thought Hodgson was on holiday. That kind of said it all. There has been no debriefing, no inquest.
But what has happened in the subsequent five weeks or so is just as instructive. Because, almost as soon as England's players arrived home and were swept away from the storm that never came, what has happened is this: The clubs that constitute the Premier League have looked at their bank balances, bloated by lucrative television deals, and gone out and bought players at record pace.
Not just any players, either. Foreign players. Dyke was correct to assert that what has happened thus far this summer suggests that the paucity of top-flight players available to Hodgson is about to get worse, not better. As he said, apart from "the Southampton lads who have gone to Liverpool and Manchester United," pretty much every player brought into the Premier League this summer is not eligible for England.
Every time the Premier League announces a new rights deal, the eye-watering sums involved are worn as a sort of badge of honour, proof of English football's power, of its attractiveness. Television companies currently pay 3 billion pounds to broadcast games in the UK; the last round of overseas rights came in at 2 billion or so, almost double what they had previously been.
The rest of Europe, hopelessly lagging behind, are supposed to stand back in awe at the appeal of the Premier League. In reality, they must rub their hands in glee.
That is because that money, almost immediately, seeps back out to Spain and Germany and Italy and Ukraine in the form of transfer fees. Barcelona were given more than 60 million in exchange for Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) and Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea).
Atletico Madrid -- and the various interests who part-owned their players -- got 55 million or so from Chelsea for Diego Costa and Filipe Luis. Dynamo Kiev benefited to the tune of 9 million when West Brom came to buy Brown Ideye. Pachuca, of Mexico, have 15 million sloshing around their coffers after the sale of Enner Valencia to West Ham.
Of course, you could say that these deals prove the power of the Premier League, and to some extent they do. Look at the players its clubs can buy, thanks to all that lovely money from broadcasters. The more players they get, the more the product is worth. The more the product is worth, the more the TV rights cost, and the more money they get. It is a cycle that propagates the Premier League's primacy.
Except it doesn't. It doesn't because of one very simple process: Everyone knows the Premier League clubs are cash-rich. So when they come to buy players, they get charged more. Let's take Ideye as an example. If Kiev had decided they needed to sell and a German or Italian club had come for him, one of those clubs would have not had to pay such a premium. English clubs are quoted a higher price because they have more money. That is the rule of the market.
So, in reality, what happens is that the more money the Premier League clubs have, the more they have to spend to get the players they want. Of course, the funds available mean they have access to slightly better players than their equivalents in other countries, but only slightly: West Ham could have afforded Mario Manzukic, for example, instead of Valencia, but having the money does not mean the deal can be done. Instead, they end up paying substantially more for only a marginal improvement in quality.
Not that anybody seems to mind. Indeed, that is what has been most striking about this typically frenzied transfer window. Remember, it is less than a month since England were eliminated from the World Cup, thanks to the worst performance in the finals in the country's history. And yet her clubs' attempts to blow millions on yet more foreign players are not just accepted by their fans, but encouraged.
Manchester United supporters are desperate to see Louis van Gaal sign Arturo Vidal from Juventus. Why they are so convinced is something of a mystery. Serie A games, many of them featuring the country's champions, were shown on television last season. Judging by the number of people who are expert in Vidal's strengths and weaknesses, the viewing figures must have been in the millions. Maybe the Italian league are not charging enough for their overseas TV rights.
Liverpool fans -- and this is drawn from personal experience -- were keen to see Brendan Rodgers add a left-back to his squad. They wanted Ricardo Rodriguez of Wolfsburg, or Alberto Moreno of Sevilla. When Swansea's Ben Davies -- who is Welsh, but the point stands -- was suggested, there was an outpouring of fury. The exotic is always treasured over the familiar.
Why that should be is a subject that warrants serious consideration from someone substantially more intelligent than me, but a personal guess would be that it is related to the potential that lies in the unknown. Most know roughly how Davies ranks in the hierarchy of full-backs in England -- promising, talented, but unspectacular -- but because, say, Moreno is less familiar, it means he could potentially turn out to be the best in the league. Fans are inclined toward risk; that means they are inclined toward the foreign.
That is a reflex shared by the clubs, who understand -- correctly -- that they are now entities that exist in a global economy. To say they should shop domestically is to limit their potential talent pool; it is to deprive them of their competitive edge against their peers across the continent and across the world.
And that, ultimately, is the reality of where we stand now. It is little more than a month since England endured their most humiliating exit from a World Cup, yet already, those who might do something about it have moved on.
Clubs want to win. Fans want their clubs to win. That means getting the best players they can, even if they have to overpay to do it. It is understandable, and it is irrevocable. It is not their job to consider the requirements of the national side. That is not their concern. But it is diametrically opposed to what England need.
Over the course of the last month, what has happened is that the cycle has started again. Until it is stopped, there will be many more silent returns in ignominy and shame.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.