If you listen carefully at the edges of this World Cup – in between the cheers, the roars, the weeping, the sound of Louis van Gaal being right – it’s just about possible to pick up something else beneath all the noise. Yes: it’s the sound of the Premier League not happening.
Even as those thrilling early stages slide into a more stately endgame, one of the many refreshing things about this tournament is that it has felt so profoundly different from the routine excitements of the English top tier.
Brazil 2014 has been not just a fine tournament but a discrete footballing experience, confirmation that even now there are teams and players who will emerge as a glorious surprise, and that even at this stage in its relentlessly dissected modern history the game can take on new textures and new rhythms.
Look away now if this all seems too soon, a bit like talking about the plane trip home with a week of summer holiday still to go. But from an Anglocentric point of view, and with the tournament in hiatus before its final knockings, now is perhaps the moment for a quiet little state of the Premier League review. The fact is for a league that presents itself as a global affair, it is notable how little presence the Premier League has at this tournament
This is nothing new: for all its cosmopolitan expansionism there has yet to be a genuinely Premier League-flavoured World Cup. France 1998 was perhaps the closest, although this is only really in retrospect as half that victorious France team and a clutch of itinerant Brazilians washed up in the seasons that followed. Two things stand out again this time round. First, it is hard to think of a Premier League player who has had not just a great World Cup, but even a particularly good one. David Luiz would have made the cut but he has already been hoovered up by Paris Saint-Germain and remains largely unappreciated in England. Mesut Özil has done well. Chuck in a few Belgians, Tim Howard, and Robin van Persie’s fine start. Not much, is it?
There is at least some wider consolation here. It is not just the England team with their nose pressed up against the World Cup’s windows but players from the English league generally, for all its best-in-the-world bluster (now downgraded, grudgingly, to “most exciting”). In fairness,a basic head count of the semi-finals suggests a comfortable stasis. In 2014 the Premier League has seven players left at this stage (including used substitutes), with nine in 2010, nine in 2006, five in 2002 and 10 in 1998. This time around, based on last starting XIs plus returning suspendees, the 44 footballers who will contest the semi-finals are likely to be made up of 10 Bundesliga players, seven from the Premier League, six from La Liga, six from the Eredivisie, four from Serie A, four from Ligue 1, two from the Turkish league and one each from Russia, Brazil, Portugal, the US and Mexico.
Within this, Bayern Munich will provide the same number as the combined Premier League, while Real Madrid and Barcelona have six between them.
Beyond the bare numbers it is more a case of general lack of Premier League influence. There is a tangible impact-deficit here for a league that has always presented itself as a style-setting administration. Özil, Fernandinho, Martín Demichelis, Oscar, Ron Vlaar, Van Persie and Pablo Zabaleta have all played well at times in Brazil. But Luis Suárez – for the bite that was and then wasn’t and then was again – is the only Premier League player likely to feature between the headline bongs at the end of this World Cup.
To date only three Premier League players have scored more than one goal. Of 154 tournament goals, 28 have been scored by Premier Leaguers, while since the start of the knockout stages only two of 12 matches have featured a Premier League goalscorer.
There is a broader textural absence. Of the top 20 passers at the World Cup, judged on total completed, only Gary Medel and Per Mertesacker play in the English league. The top 15 crossers of a ball are all based elsewhere, and this is a common theme: the Premier League, with its much-trumpeted attacking style, has not done much attacking in Brazil. The top 12 players with most shots all play in other leagues. The top 15 dribblers into the penalty area do not feature an England-based player. Even the top 15 tackles made – get stuck in! – has only Giorgos Karagounis sneaking in at the bottom.
Goalkeeper’s saves? Howard, the USA’s bearded firewall, is No1, but the rest are nowhere. Thank heavens, then, for fouls: Van Persie, Antonio Valencia and Mikel Jon Obi all make the top five. Also, two English-based players are in the top 10 for most throw-ins completed (solid work from Zabaleta and Mathieu Debuchy). All hail the Premier League: land of fouls and accurate throw-ins.
This is totally irrelevant to the World Cup itself, which is getting along just fine thanks very much indeed. It is significant on a domestic level, if only because the Premier League has been such an aggressively expansionist product, its stated aim to provide a stage for the world’s best players – it certainly does not produce any of them – and for a high price (financial and otherwise) to lay on the best possible product. Not by these measures, though.
It could be argued the Premier League is mixed up in some of the least appealing parts of this World Cup. Brazil are the most Premier League-ish of all the semi-finalists, villains of their own tournament thanks to that much-vilified, all-Premier-League midfield pair, the foul-kings of Fortaleza. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Seleção even play a bit like a better version of Premier League-era England with its star celebrity No10, muscular spine, set pieces and long passes from the back.
And to an extent the Premier League, along with every other lucrative foreign leagues, is complicit in the homogenising and muscling up of Brazilian footballers generally. The values the Premier League rewards so richly – relentless running and full-blooded contact – also run through this Brazil team. Ramires, to pick an example, is a brilliantly skilful footballer (remember that goal against Barcelona) whose athleticism and vigour have become his defining quality in England. Similarly Belgium, a kind of Premier League all-star B-team, were eliminated having spent the last 15 minutes of their quarter final playing long balls to Marouane Fellaini like David Moyes-era Everton chasing a League Cup tie. There is even a theory the Premier League’s riches have encouraged a predominance of defensive-minded footballers in parts of Africa, a tendency for the most talented players to be re-stationed in that most sale-able of roles, as shown most clearly by Mikel, who arrived in England an all-round box-to-box midfielder and was instantly restyled as a muscular pivot. There are many other reasons for the anti-chemistry between Premier League and World Cup. It is a notoriously exhausting place to play, sandwiched between midweek cup competitions and with each match presenting a relentlessly high level of physical challenge. Not entirely unrelated, the Premier League has also become the place the real stars go to be polished and prepped and whipped into shape for that dream move to La Liga’s big two.
Since the Premier League started, it has had only Michael Owen in 2001 and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008 as European Footballer of the Year or Fifa’s World Player – those who get close to the now merged Ballon d’or these days tend to move on. Beyond this there is that central schism between an independent Premier League with responsibility only to its shareholders and broadcasters, and the concept of international football as a game you just want to win for the sake of it, where resources and time and patience must be expended regardless (witness the Costa Rica FA’s sports science training camps, which began last September).
From this perspective the basic idea of the Premier League, where clubs buy ready-made and then sweat their assets, is anathema to all this old-fashioned geographically specific midsummer glory. It is here that the Premier League jags away on its own tangent. In the past 20 years there has been a Ligue 1 World Cup, a Brasileiro World Cup, a Serie A World Cup and a La Liga World Cup. It is no secret how this has happened. The best national teams have been serviced by notable successes in their own domestic leagues, with players tending to arrive in clumps, nurtured by some happy combination of the right system and the right talents at the right time. Perhaps this time round we may even end up celebrating a Bayern Munich World Cup.
This is something that seems a long way off in England, where teams are bought in on the hoof and where there is no functioning youth-to-first-team pathway. Until this blockage is removed and ambitions rejigged it seems likely the Premier League will remain a summer-tournament outsider, a league that fills in energetically at the edges, that provides soap opera and personality rather than players – and as a result has seemed most engaged at Brazil 2014 during the familiar moralising paroxysms of bites and fouls – and which will rake over the high-priced scraps in autumn. But which, beyond that, remains a background noise beneath the real action.