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Football's new world order

W hen, back in 1963, Sam Cooke sang of the change that was gonna come, he most likely wasn't addressing the fortunes of western European football.

Shakhtar Domtesk's Henrikh Mkhitaryan clapping in celebr ation after scoring against Nordsjaelland in the Champions League Group E match in Donetsk, Ukraine   Photograph: AFT
Shakhtar Domtesk's Henrikh Mkhitaryan clapping in celebr ation after scoring against Nordsjaelland in the Champions League Group E match in Donetsk, Ukraine Photograph: AFT

These days, however, the game is most definitely dancing to a different tune, and it's not one of US origin, however popular 'soccer' is as a participation sport stateside.

Consider the fact that Chelsea and Juventus – who meet in Turin on Tuesday in Group E of the Champions League – yesterday rested a number of players in their respective domestic league encounters.

It's not hard to see why. With Shakhtar Donetsk and Chelsea on seven points, and Juventus on six, Tuesday smacks of a potential knockout game. With cellar-dwelling Nordsjaelland rounding out the group you could have, until recently, concluded that a draw might have suited both. Juventus would have then strolled into Donetsk and won their final group game, advancing on the head-to-head record while Chelsea would have beaten up Nordsjaelland to top the group.

Think again. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention will tell you Shakhtar Donetsk are far and away the best team here. Which is to say the champions of Ukraine are well ahead of the champions of Serie A and the champions of Europe, at least on evidence thus far.

Juventus have a 14-game unbeaten streak in European competition, but that's less impressive than it sounds when you consider they've drawn nine of their last 10 games.Chelsea have simply failed to deliver in Europe this year. They let a two-goal lead slip at home against Juve. They were rattled by Nordsjaelland for 75-odd minutes, before nailing three at the end for a 4-0 win that was anything but comfortable. And, over two legs against Shakhtar, they were comprehensively outplayed: only an improbable and – frankly – fortunate comeback allowed them to get three points against the Ukrainians at Stamford Bridge.

Whenever a team such as Shakhtar put Europe's elite to the sword it used to be pretty straightforward. It became a question of how long it would take the big western European sides to cherry pick their best players. Not any more.

Shakhtar's Armenian attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan was asked after the Chelsea game whether he fancied a move to La Liga or the Barclays Premier League.

"Maybe one day," he said. "I'm 23, I'm happy at Shakhtar, I earn good money and we have a chance to do important things in the Champions League. There's a lot of tradition in the west but who knows what football will look like in a few years? Life here is pretty good, and so is the football."

Which is not to say that if Real Madrid called, he might not pick up the phone. But the automatic choice of moving to the big western leagues for fame and fortune is no longer as automatic.

Whatever else you think of the Premier League, they know how to shift product. It's not just the much-hyped £3.018 billion domestic rights deal with which, from 2013 to 2016, BT and BSkyB will deliver the games. Yes, that marked an increase of 70% over the previous contract but it also smacked a bit of desperation arms race. BT, with the deepest of pockets, wrote a virtual blank cheque and Sky – whose model is largely predicated on live football – had to match them. Whether it's sustainable or makes sense remains to be seen.

Remember that TV is Sky's core business: without giving people a reason to tune in, they shut down. Not so with BT. Launching a channel based on Premier League rights is basically a way to market their main products: telephone and internet services. If they can get folks to buy into all three, they'll be laughing. If not, and this turns into a giant money pit, expect them to get out by 2016. In fact, we've been here before: between 2007 and 2010 they acquired the rights for a service along the lines of Sky's Football First, which allows viewers to watch games on delay that same evening. They also had the rights to 125 on-demand games from the Football League. How did that all work out? The plug was pulled in 2010.

Where the Premier League has truly excelled is in selling its rights overseas. Right now, they earn around £460m a season from foreign rights. At the rate they're going this could rise to £700m or more.

They've also been a little more judicious in the way they've sold them. Take China. In the past they opted for the highest bidder, a new subscription TV service that ended up with very few subscribers, partly because of price, partly because of internet piracy. This time they went with a series of partnerships involving local, free-to-air TV channels owned by the state, as well as webstreaming services.

Previously, if the league or its broadcast partner complained about illegal streams they got a polite shrug of the shoulders. The new deal means, among other things, they've effectively teamed up with the Chinese government. And if there's one thing we know the Chinese government knows how to do, it's patrol the web.

Now that England have been "Zlatanised" – the big Swede scored a goal for the ages and became the first man ever to put four past an England goalkeeper – you can only hope Paris Saint-Germain face a Premier League side in the round of 16. Presumably we'll no longer get the "overrated bottler" pre-match comments from the ex-pros. But, of course, if he fails to impress against whichever English side he faces, we'll be back to talking about how he can't do it against top opposition in a meaningful game.

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