Everybody loves the English Premier League, right?
With more big clubs, electric crowds, action, drama, television exposure and commercial impact than any other competition on Planet Futbol, why not?
Usual suspects Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have their legions of fans in every corner of each continent, but nobody would forget that Manchester United, despite last season's jaw-dropping tumble down the standings, continued to outsell and outdraw the lot of them both on and off the pitch.
Yet a gnawing problem is creeping at the shoulder of the Premier League's powerbrokers.
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For all the hype and hysteria and an endless pot of television-enabled wealth to lure players from more than 100 countries, the very best players in the world are nowhere to be found in England's top division.
That pattern was extended over the summer by the departure of soccer's serial chomper – the extravagantly talented Luis Suarez – who left Liverpool for Barcelona. His bizarre tastes and suspect temperament did not prevent him from being the standout player in England with 31 goals in 2013-14 to match the Premier League's single-season record, and the effort anchored him as one of the world's elite performers.
Lionel Messi, Suarez's new chum at the Camp Nou, has never come within a long free kick of seriously considering an EPL stint. Cristiano Ronaldo, the only plausible rival for the twinkle-toed Argentine's claims of global supremacy, did his time at Manchester United but departed five years ago and never looked back.
Just 12 months ahead of Suarez's switch, Gareth Bale similarly parlayed his status as the EPL's shining light at Tottenham Hotspur into a mega-move to Spain to become another member of Real Madrid's Galacticos. And when the World Cup brought a fresh round of musical chairs involving those who excelled the most at the tournament, Colombia's emerging icon James Rodriguez took his talents to Real instead of the Premier League.
Indeed, a straw poll of experts invited to name the game's top 10 superstars would likely throw up none who are currently plying their trade in the Premiership. Wayne Rooney no longer belongs in such elite company. Didier Drogba is back at Chelsea but long after he was of such worldly caliber. Eden Hazard? Borderline maybe, on his very best of days.
So with billions of pounds, dollars and any other currency you can think of, should there be nervous mutters of concern at EPL HQ for fear that the competition's luster is starting to fade?
Well, probably not.
While the Premier League has had, at different times, men who could lay claim to the most cherished of individual accolades, that has never been the primary source of its appeal. England doesn't have the most beautiful soccer in the world, but it has what is surely still the sport's most fiercely contested league.
The Premier League is not soccer's version of an art gallery. It is where you go to watch a good, old-fashioned scrap featuring punchers who have both technical ability and the willingness to slug it out standing toe to toe.
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Even without the biggest names of the summer spending, the EPL has introduced plenty of fresh and thoroughly credentialed newcomers from the major international centers of excellence. The additions of Chelsea's Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, Manchester United's Ander Herrera and Manchester City's Eliaquim Mangala promise renewed and ferocious tussles for regional and national supremacy.
True enough, the rich seem to be getting richer and the poor poorer, but it would be foolish to dismiss some of the EPL's lesser lights who have also been painstaking in their attempt to become more competitive than ever. The strength of the English game, as ever, rests with its ability to surprise – to produce a contest in which on any given weekend a minnow can severely embarrass one of the top clubs and throw all calculations into confusion.
That said, United expects Louis van Gaal to succeed where the hapless David Moyes could not, and Liverpool diehards are tipping their beloved Reds to prove even more of a challenging force by replacing Suarez with a half-dozen newcomers.
Manchester City inexorably ground their way to the title last May, displaying just that bit more nous than Liverpool or Chelsea, although the roles might be reversed this time around. The romantics, meanwhile, are wondering aloud whether Arsene Wenger, by far the most senior and high-minded philosopher of Premier League coaches, might finally have Arsenal in position for a sustainable title challenge.
Mind you, in nine months time, we may know better. And that's the thing about the English Premier League.
Don't look away. Because you don't know what you're going to get.
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