The Limey
Friday November 13th, 2009

Don Fabio Capello has ensured that England already has booked its place at next summer's World Cup, and this weekend, the Three Lions are sunning themselves ahead of a showpiece money-spinner against Brazil in Qatar.

But while Wayne Rooney & Co. enjoy a kick-around in the warmth of the Middle East, many Premier League players are involved in win-or-bust matches to fight for potentially career-defining qualification for South Africa 2010. And thus, international soccer's main focus this weekend is undoubtedly the first legs of the European playoffs.

The match with by far the most EPL players is Saturday's qualification match in Dublin, where the Republic of Ireland plays host to France. It's surprising that the French, winners in 1998 and runners-up in '06, missed out on automatic qualification, and most of the blame falls on beleaguered coach Raymond Domenech.

The Frenchman expanded his league of enemies by describing Ireland as "an England B team." The Ireland captain, Aston Villa's Richard Dunne, threw the broadside straight back across the Celtic Sea, mischievously surmising, "Every time a tournament comes round, they have all these world-class players and then a man who seems intent on messing them up."

Dunne has a point. The French national-team rotation is full of genuine stars from the EPL: Arsenal's William Gallas, Samir Nasri, Abou Diaby, Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy; Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda; and Manchester United's Patrice Evra. Combined with world superstars Thierry Henry, Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema, they should match any international team. But failing to guide a side of such undoubted talent to automatic qualification has led Domenech to be seen as the French version of England's underachieving former coach Steve McClaren. He is public enemy No. 1 at moment in France, with the fans, press and even some of his players vocal in their resentment towards him.

Team Limey wonders how a man with such an awesome look in his playing days could face such resentment, but also doubts that an Ireland squad whose EPL contingent is dominated by players from Hull City, Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers (with apologies to Robbie Keane, John O'Shea and Shay Given) can beat such an abundantly talented French team. Or could it?

Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal side faces Bosnia and Herzegovina without its injured star player. Coach Carlos Queiroz finds himself on similarly rocky ground as Domenech, only making the playoffs by the narrowest of margins. However, Portugal should win against a team that has never qualified for a major tournament since its formation in 1993 following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Out of Russia and Slovenia, we hope the Russians make it to the World Cup to see captain Andrei Arshavin, a player who has quickly proven to be an EPL hit, grace the world's biggest footballing stage. Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov, Everton's Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Tottenham's (although possibly for not much longer) Roman Pavlyuchenko also line up for Guus Hiddink's side.

There's minimal EPL presence in the remaining playoff game, with only Liverpool's fourth-choice, mistake-ridden Greek defender Sotiris Kyrgiakos, featuring. The fact that his club teammate, Andriy Voronin, currently starts for Liverpool but doesn't even make the Ukraine squad, is indicative of the Anfield club's current plight.

Pity poor Team Limey. Staggering frail and famished through old London town, past sandwich shops whose paucity of wares made the provisions of a drab 1950s store in a peripheral output of Soviet Tajikistan look plentiful; blinded by hunger, we could only gaze at a nation's lunch rations while headed for the Premier League's HQ.

Somewhere beneath a tremendous trough of voluminous veal vol-au-vents and capacious cod canapés, a decision was made to not allow the leading Scottish clubs, Glasgow archrivals Celtic and Rangers, into the EPL.

Bolton chairman Phil Gartside's proposal to include the clubs in a new two-tier, 38-club EPL format was rejected by 14 of the 20 clubs who, in a salmon sandwich-smeared statement opined that "bringing Celtic and Rangers into any form of Premier League set-up was not desirable or viable."

Desperate for TV revenues to match their ambitions and stature -- their crowds only exceeded in England by Manchester United and Arsenal -- the major Scottish clubs, otherwise known as the "Old Firm," are big fish languishing in a small pond: a duopolizing Free Willy and Free Willy 2, floundering on a bed of restricted revenues.

Celtic has won 42 domestic league titles and Rangers has won 52, more than any other club in the world. They have finished first and second in nearly every season since the Scottish Premier League's 1998 inception (the sole exception being 2005-06 when Hearts, an Edinburgh team, was second to Celtic).

Celtic's '03 UEFA Cup final appearance provided a rare recent glimpse of famous European adventures that could occur regularly if its squad quality was supported by sharing the EPL's television rights. The new Scottish Sky/ESPN contract is worth about $21.5 million per season between the 12 clubs -- the Old Firm taking around $3 million each of this. In the EPL, Middlesbrough, relegated last season, received $52 million from TV rights -- the lowest of any EPL club. An obscure Chandler Bing-type analyst isn't required to explain the disparity.

For now, both Old Firm clubs will continue to face typically early European exits -- Scottish clubs backed by comparatively small amounts of money can't be expected to compete against the Barcelonas and Man. Uniteds of Europe. Meanwhile, the next foreign-rights EPL TV contract, where viewership is increasing in growing markets that include the U.S. and Asia, is expected to raise each club's revenue a further $10 million per season, while other sponsors, lured by huge worldwide television audiences, continue to lavish funds.

But why was Bolton so keen on incorporating the Scottish clubs into the lower tier of a new two-tier EPL? The idea was actually a small, though eye-catching, part of a wider strategy to gain a larger share of the EPL revenues for its smaller members.

In his annual report published last week, Gartside wrote, "Addressing this polarization of clubs and the increasing revenue differentials will, I believe, be the major strategic issue for the Premier League over coming years. The Premier League is an exciting product for supporters and for television viewers, but there is no doubt that as the years go by, and the same few clubs continue to benefit from the huge additional revenues from the Champions League, the remaining clubs find it enormously difficult to challenge.

"At the same time, the gap between Premier League revenues and those of the [English second-division] Championship continues to widen and I believe a 'fear factor' is beginning to emerge amongst Premier League clubs outside the top few."

Renegotiating the revenues received from the domestic television rights is a possibility, though the larger clubs will argue that the EPL's distribution is more equitable than in most other European leagues. The Champions League money, provided by UEFA, isn't the EPL's to redistribute. The possibility of perhaps Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester City and Spurs rotating with the current "Big Four" English clubs for those Champions League places is the only way the income gap could shrink. Those eight clubs are always likely to block any unification approach from Rangers and Celtic, who would fiercely compete for European qualification.

Gartside's plan seems largely based on self-interest. Celtic and Rangers would increase the television revenue of the EPL and would provide healthy away crowds to clubs, such as Bolton, which rarely fills its stadium. The second tier of his planned EPL, through negotiating its TV rights with the EPL rather than separately like the Championship, would become much richer, therefore reducing the risk of relegation from the top tier and the overspending on players induced by the fear of the drop.

And with only two clubs each season proposed to be relegated from an EPL tier two, Bolton and other smaller EPL sides would have little risk of a serious hit to their revenue bases. Team Limey, always keen to support the plucky little man, notes that Gartside's plan, for all its supposed altruism, protects the medium-sized clubs at the expense of smaller lower-league teams.

The EPL will consider Gartside's paper as part of a wider strategic review in December 2010. All involved would be wise to focus on one issue: Despite huge revenues, most EPL clubs are in debt or reliant on foreign sugar daddies, purely due to their huge expenditure of player transfer fees and wages. Rangers and Celtic might envy the EPL revenues, but would they make the Old Firm more profitable?

Jim Whiteacre of Denver asks why the EPL doesn't have a playoff at the end of the season. Jim, we think that the league should be won through sheer merit, through being the best team over a full slate of 38 games. It would devalue the competition if the team that finished eighth could end victorious through a playoff mechanism. It may be 20 years ago ago, but such was the excitement of Arsenal beating Liverpool to clinch the title from the Reds on the last day of the season, that it's still well remembered now. Legendary stuff. We don't dispute the excitement of the playoff format -- which dominate American sports -- but that hunger is sated in England with knockout competitions the FA and Carling Cups.

In response to our queries in previous columns, Will Schirmer of Madison, Wisc., argues that Manchester City may finish in the top four this year, possibly at Liverpool's expense, but that Villa and Spurs haven't got the talent, nor the money, to buy it.

As for our thoughts on David Beckham's shot at South Africa 2010, Alan Downer of Gallup, N.M., thinks that despite the former captain's lethargic playing style, England will be better for playing him at the World Cup.

Let us know your thoughts on the World Cup playoffs and Gartside's EPL proposals at the usual address: thelimey@hotmail.co.uk.

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