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The Manchester-Arsenal dialectic

As the English Premier League turns 20, two teams present divergent paths for soccer’s future.
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Europe's best coaches pose for a family photo on Sept. 5, 2012, during the Elite Football Club Coaches Forum at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. At the meeting Arsenal's coach Arsene Wenger repeated his plea for "Financial Fair Play'' regulations. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

To watch the English Premier League, or EPL, is to witness a televised existential crisis. There’s a soul-searching tug-of-war going on, and nowhere is that best reflected than in the difference between the teams Arsenal and Manchester City.

What’s happening now is the logical result of two antithetical managerial styles that matured in the 1990s and set the stage for today’s "buy it" or "build it" wars.

In 1995, Louis van Gaal, manager of the Dutch team Ajax, won Europe’s Champions League by acquiring talented young players and training them to superstardom. That same year, Blackburn, an EPL team infused with steel tycoon Jack Walker’s millions, won their league by purchasing ready-made stars.

Then a legal battle by Belgian soccer player Jean-Marc Bosman changed everything.

The Bosman ruling, as it’s now known, opened the transfer market, allowing teams unrestricted access to foreign players who joyfully jumped ship. Ajax and Blackburn lost their best players and neither has won a championship since.

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Today, Ajax trains world-class players who eventually leave for more competitive teams and fatter paychecks. Ajax has unwillingly become a feeder club — a training ground for other teams’ future stars. Current manager Frank de Boer has admitted as much.

“We have become an academy for those clubs and we realize that," he said. "What we see these days is that players leave Ajax in their early twenties for a bigger salary elsewhere."

It’s easy to overlook that historical baggage when bombarded with Herculean goals via the highlight reel. But the past has a way of taking a long arc around the universe and then smacking you upside the head when you least expect it. The Greeks called it tragedy, which brings us back to Arsenal vs. Manchester City and the conflicted soul of the EPL.

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Today, Arsenal has enough money to satisfy every superstar’s oversized ego. But its manager Arsene Wenger refuses to adopt a blatant "buy it" approach, although he’s not opposed to the occasional multi-million dollar purchase. Wenger won’t accumulate debt for trophies.

“I felt it would be an interesting experiment to see players grow together with these qualities, and with a love for the club,” he said a few years back. But this approach, he soon admitted, is “an idealistic vision of the world of football," one where styles and philosophies compete instead of bank accounts.

Arsenal has won more than its fair share of championships, but that was before a financially motivated exodus began on Aug. 31, 2006, when Ashley Cole was sold to Chelsea, the day the term “feeder club” began to haunt the dreams of Arsenal fans.

Arsenal has desperately tried to avoid following Ajax’s decline into mediocrity as its best players — most recently the talismanic forward Robin van Persie — keep leaving for richer teams. Since 2005, all Arsenal has seen in its trophy case is its own reflection.

Last year’s EPL champion, Manchester City, was also the biggest financial loser, purging itself of $313.4 million dollars. Since 2008, its owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nayan has spent over a billion dollars on the club, a lot of it signing 22 new players, many who used to play for Wenger.

They have a term for all that ails Arsenal. They call it financial doping.

American football and basketball avoid that problem by restricting the amount of money teams pay their players. Salary caps, while imperfect, at least make sports a little less about whose sugar daddy has more liquidity.

But the UK’s Football Association (FA), an increasingly meek regulatory body, says it won’t institute anything like a cap because (in your best mock-baby voice) the Italians, French and Spanish won’t.

If the FA introduced wage-capping, it says, “we may well see English players (and English-based players) moving abroad to earn a (better) living, which would ultimately affect the English national game.”

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The Union of European Football Associations is trying to curb financial doping with financial fair play regulations, but so far real action on that front seems tenuous. Ok, they've made a little progress, but not much.

One thing keeping the EPL competitive is shared TV rights income — money teams get from allowing networks to televise their games. Every team gets a piece of the multi-billion dollar pie. But in Spain’s league, La Liga, teams negotiate TV rights separately, which perpetuates inequity.

The problem is that in a 20-team league, only Real Madrid and Barcelona have a chance of winning. It stands to reason that if the trend continues and La Liga becomes increasingly top-heavy, people might stop watching. Who wants to watch Goliath win every time?

In these days of political fervor and financial depression people want to/need to/should believe that good ideas succeed, that the best candidate will win, and that plutocrats or wealthy politicians with the most Super PAC cash won’t. To believe that power, easily bought, can win over a brilliant idea is to accept the cynicism that suffuses pretty much all sports and politics.

The EPL needs to decide if it will stay its schizophrenic self, become La Liga or grow into something better.

The integrity of the competition is at stake, and in a way, so is peoples’ belief in a world that, if it won’t stand at moral attention, should at least slouch a little toward the ethical.

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