English Premier League season kicks off with hopes that Olympic spirit will rub off
Modesty and sportsmanship of athletes during London Games provides food for thought for millionaire footballers as new season kicks off
After two glorious Olympic weeks when cycling, rowing, athletics, swimming and boxing captured the imagination, Premier League soccer emerges from the shadows and back into the spotlight this weekend.
For once, in England at least, the trials and tribulations of the big clubs, and their close-season transfer spending sprees have been pushed off the back pages by the exploits of Usain Bolt, Mo Farah, Michael Phelps, David Rudisha and the other stars at the London Games.
Although it will be the usual frenetic, high-octane business on the pitch when Manchester City kick off their title defence against newly promoted Southampton, and European champions Chelsea visit Wigan this weekend, some post-Olympic re-evaluation would do soccer no harm.
Twitter and other social-messaging sites have seen thousands posing questions such as: "What can soccer learn from the Olympics?" And in general, the answer is that fans want to see an end to arrogant, spoilt-brat behaviour and diving and cheating from players.
The fans want a return to a far more Olympian sporting sense of fair play, and even Fifa president Sepp Blatter agreed during the Games that soccer could learn much from other sports - and male players could take as a good example the conduct of their female counterparts now playing the game at a high standard.
"Absolutely, we can learn a lot," Blatter said at Wembley. "There is even a difference between women's and men's football.
"In women's football, simulation practically doesn't exist. They are not lying down and saying they are injured. They stand up.
"We can learn inside our sport and also outside our sport. You can learn something every day."
Once the Olympic glow has faded, however, all the fans will probably learn over the next few weeks is what they knew already - that the title will probably go to either Manchester City or Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal will likely finish in the top four, and promoted Reading, Southampton and West Ham will all be fighting against an immediate return to the Championship.
City, who clinched their first title for 44 years last May with Sergio Aguero's last-minute winner in their final match against Queens Park Rangers, warmed up for the new season with a 3-2 win over FA Cup and Champions League winners Chelsea in the Community Shield on Sunday. The Citizens have made only one major signing so far, buying England international midfielder Jack Rodwell, 21, from Everton on Monday for £12 million (HK$146 million).
Robin van Persie, the league's top scorer last season with 30 goals, is moving from Arsenal to Manchester United for £24 million, where he will link up with Shinji Kagawa. The Japanese striker , 23, moved from German champions Borussia Dortmund for a reported fee of £17 million to boost United's bid to take the title back from City, with the Red Devils starting at Everton on Monday.
Long before the deal for Van Persie, though, United boss Alex Ferguson had already received some good news with the return from long-term injury of club captain and central defender Nemanja Vidic.
The Serbia international is clearly anxious for United to make amends for losing the title to City. "Maybe we relaxed a bit last season," he said recently. "We were punished and we can't allow that to happen again."
Chelsea will be without long-term talisman Didier Drogba after he left for Shanghai Shenhua but have been busy spending £64 million on new players, including exciting Brazilian playmaker Oscar, Belgium striker Eden Hazard and Germany winger Marko Marin.
The Blues' billionaire owner Roman Abramovich kept faith with Roberto di Matteo after their Champions League success, while Andre Villas-Boas - replaced by Di Matteo seven months into his Chelsea tenure in March - has a new job, replacing Harry Redknapp as Tottenham Hotspur look to repeat their top-four finish last season.
Domestic rather than European success still seems to be the yardstick for City boss Roberto Mancini.
"Chelsea took maybe 10 years to win the Champions League, because it is not easy to win this competition," the Italian said. "We would like to win it this season, of course, but our main target is the Premier League and a domestic trophy."
Liverpool, still chasing former glories, have signed Joe Allen from Swansea for £19 million and tomorrow begin life under new manager Brendan Rodgers against West Bromwich Albion, who are managed by former Liverpool assistant boss Steve Clarke.
Reuters, Associated Press