After Sergio Aguero's impossibly late strike resulted in the Premier League's most exciting finish in its 20-year history in May, England should have been eagerly anticipating the new football season like never before.
Instead, there has been an unusually low-key build-up to the new Premier League campaign. London's hosting of the Olympic Games was an unparalleled success -- after seven years of grumbling and reservations about the finances, never before has the country been so gripped by sport. The clamour to attend events meant thousands were disappointed, while unticketed events, such as the marathon and road cycling events, were attended by millions. Ninety percent of Britons watched some part of the Olympics on television, helped by the BBC providing 24 channels of exclusive Olympic action. It was, unquestionably, the biggest sporting event in Britain's history.
Yesterday, London was noticeably quieter. The party was very obviously over.
This should be football's cue to take centre stage -- and, give it a couple of weeks, it will. But Sunday's Community Shield game felt like a complete non-event, an irrelevance played in front of a few thousand empty seats at Villa Park. Unlike at the Olympics, these weren't corporate seats that hadn't been filled; they simply remained unsold. England's friendly on Wednesday night against Italy also feels like an triviality, partly because it is being held in Switzerland. Out of sight, out of mind.
Football has suffered, rather than benefited, from the Olympic hysteria. Last season may have been exciting in pure sporting terms, but it also featured some of the Premier League's most unsavoury incidents -- the Suarez-Evra and Terry-Ferdinand racism cases went beyond football's usual problems, and painted the sport in an extremely negative light. In stark contrast, Britain's victorious Olympians have proved popular not merely because of their great success (the third-most gold medals, behind the U.S. and China, was the best Britain could have hoped for) but for their humility, professionalism and respectfulness. The comparison is plainly unfair. Footballers are subject to constant scrutiny, rather than a quick burst every four years. Besides, there are fewer traps, fewer journalists deliberately trying to catch them out, and on a more cynical level, Olympians have to come across well for commercial reasons -- many earn far more from individual sponsorship deals rather than directly from competition.
But, crucially, they've also been competing in a more favorable atmosphere with thousands willing them to victory -- no boos, no jeers -- rather than the hostile surroundings of a football stadium.
Football must present itself in a more favourable light -- and it can learn lessons from the success of the Olympics. One of its key slogans was 'inspire a generation', casting the Olympics as an event that would have a significant impact beyond the two-week festival of sport. This was noticeable right from the opening ceremony -- when the flame was lit by a set of promising young British athletes, rather than by, as is customary, a sporting legend. The 'legacy' of the games has been debated more than the sport itself, with many hopeful that it will result in more time dedicated to physical activity within schools. Considering a recent health survey found that Britain had the highest obesity rate within Europe, this could be extremely important.
The lesson, clearly, is that the Olympics understood its place within a wider context. Seeking not merely to glorify itself and promote individuals as celebrities, there was a concerted effort to do something for the public good. Of course, this is natural when 9 billion pounds of government funding is involved, and replicating this will be impossible for the Premier League, especially as more clubs become controlled by businessmen who don't even reside in this country.
But football remains the national game -- by far the most played sport in England, by far the most watched on television, by far the most well-attended. Its place in the culture of the country is considerably more important than that of any other, more significant than the Olympics because of its permanence.
Football does many things well -- clubs, in the broadest sense, understand their responsibilities very well. It is impossible to attend a match without becoming aware that the home club is working with a certain charity, and it is difficult to flick through the matchday program without learning that the club is trying to play a significant role in the local community.
Many footballers are also aware of their duties in this sense. Didier Drogba, for example, has set up a foundation that provides financial support in health and education to Africans, particularly in the Ivory Coast. Craig Bellamy does something similar in Sierra Leone. There are countless more examples, but these two are good examples -- for all their on-pitch disciplinary problems, these two understand how they can use their fame and fortune positively.
A key area for improvement is the behavior of fans. We've largely moved on from the widespread hooliganism problem of the 1980s, but subtler issues remain. For one reason or another, soccer produces incredibly ferocious supporters and fierce rivalries. At its best, this produces tremendous entertainment and turns average matches into thrillers because of the emotions involved.
At its worst, it becomes a barrier to social progress; club loyalties were a key part of many debates about the two racism cases last season. That such an issue should transcend such party lines goes without saying, yet a quick search on a social networking site revealed the grim reality.
Sport's popularity here didn't reach an all-time high in the past two weeks because of the sport itself, or because of Britain's relative success. It became popular because the Olympics felt like a true national event, where people weren't just keen to play a part, but proud to.
That simple concept of positive support is often lost within England's national sport. One way or another, soccer will regain its supreme popularity, but it should try to regain its sense of self-worth too.