LONDON — More than 40,000 spectators packed the sparkling Stamford Bridge stadium on a cold, rainy Wednesday evening. Most paid more than 60 pounds ($86) a ticket. They did not come to see a top-flight struggle of soccer titans, but a one-sided match-up between ubur-rich and talented Chelsea against a plodding and struggling Middlesbrough. (It would be the equivalent of going to see the Tigers play the Yankees in their new stadium.)
Long gone is the working-class sport and spectacle of traditional English football, replaced by a sleek Americanized middle-class passion. Economic crisis? England's most prosperous football clubs, such as Chelsea, may yet be buffeted in coming months and years, but for now, both foreign and television money continue to pour into the sport. The result increasingly is super leagues in big countries draining talent away from small countries, and within the big country leagues, an increasing divide between rich clubs of superstars and poorer clubs of journeymen.
Television sparked much of the initial change. Starting about three decades ago, Rupert Murdoch discovered that soccer could become a major draw to lure subscribers to his satellite television station.
Around the same time, a European Union court ruling abolished the previous limit of three foreign players on a team. Just as any citizen of the now-27-nation EU has the right to work anywhere in the bloc, any football players were freed to move as they pleased.
The impact was sudden and dramatic, much like the advent of free agency in American baseball. Buoyed by television revenues, clubs bid up the sales of the best players. Some clubs raised money on the stock market; others became targets for rich financiers. Americans now own both Manchester United and Liverpool, and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich spent about 60 million pounds to buy Chelsea and started spending on expensive talent.
On this evening, Chelsea starts only three Englishmen, midfielder Frank Lampard and defenders John Terry and Ashley Cole. A Czech, Petr Cech, guards the goal, German Michael Ballack, Ivorian Saloman Kalou, and Frenchman Florent Malouda stride along the midfield, while Frenchman Nicolas Anelka struts up front as striker.
All these stars represent their country's top level teams in international competitions such as the World Cup. Brazil's former World Cup coach Luiz Felipe Scolari directs this band of superstars, many of whom of earn more than £100,000 ($144,000) a week. Chelsea now stands third in the Premier League.
In contrast, lowly Middlesbrough lines up few well-known players. The team has gone 12 Premier League matches without a win and is mired second from bottom. If it doesn't improve, Middlesbrough risks being relegated to the English football equivalent of baseball's minor leagues.
Against Chelsea's stars, playing on Chelsea's home field, the underdogs deploy a defensive posture, stringing two lines of four players in their own half of the field and rarely manage to get the ball near Chelsea's goal.
A similar split is visible across national lines. France is historically one of Europe's strongest soccer nations, a World Cup victor in 1998 and finalist in 2006. But because French club teams pack less financial firepower than Spanish, Italian, or English rivals, almost the entire French national team plays league soccer abroad. Small soccer-mad countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands struggle to support any first-class clubs.
The differences are visible in games on and off the field. Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium recently was renovated and sparkles. In contrast, most Belgian clubs labor away in dirty, dingy stadiums.
Will the game continue to prosper? Chelsea's owner Abromovich reportedly has seen his fortune falter and may no longer be able to finance a superstar-studded team. Broadcast rights could drop.
Yet so far, English football has seemed to sidestep the global economic crisis, even though it has hit England with particular force. Abu Dhabi's royals recently bought Manchester City and have been breaking records to buy players. Late last year, Manchester nabbed Real Madrid's Brazilian striker Robinho for 32.5 million pounds ($47 million). Just last month, Manchester made a 100 million pound ($144 million) bid for AC Milan's Brazilian magician Kaka. (Milan's owner Silvio Berlusconi turned down the offer.)
Television fees are also holding up. The BBC just has agreed to pay over 173 million pounds ($250 million) for three years of rights to show highlights of Premier League games, an increase on the 171 million pounds it paid for the current deal that expires at the end of the 2009-10 season. Although some question whether a commercial broadcaster — the BBC is government funded — would pay so much, the game does remain England's top television draw. Negotiations over the live rights, which raised 1.7 billion pounds ($2.4 billion) last time, are ongoing.
On the field, Middlesbrough's tough defense manages to repel Chelsea's attacks for the entire first half. But in the second half, the home team's relentless pressure finally wears down the undermanned opponent. Chelsea's Salomon Kalou scores a first goal from a header off of a corner kick at the 58th minute. Chelsea continues to press and Kalou heads in a second goal, also off of a corner kick at the 68th minute. The final score is 2-0 and shows once again that when it comes to European soccer, it pays to be rich.