Soccer is considered one of the oldest games in history.
So, it may come as a surprise that its wealthiest competition, the Premier League, is just 25 years old.
On August 17, 1992, the league was founded in England as media moguls and presidents of Britain’s largest football clubs, chasing better broadcasting revenues, clubbed together to create an elite championship.
A quarter of a century later, clubs like Manchester United and Manchester City are valued in the billions and the Sky television network pays around $13 million to air a 90-minute match.
While ratings aren’t as high this year as in previous seasons, the league last season was broadcast into 1 billion homes around the world.
Alan Shearer, once soccer’s most expensive player and now a pundit on BBC’s “Match of The Day,” has been there since the beginning.
“Genuinely, I think it is the best league in the world as a whole package,” Shearer says, as he meets CNN’s Talk Asia at the Hong Kong Football Club (HKFC). “The stadiums, atmosphere, managers, players, you put all that together and the size of it is just incredible.
“It’s just been a hell of a success, it really has.”
In the beginning
In 1992, Shearer started the first Premier League season as a Blackburn Rovers player, scoring 16 goals in 21 games. Since then, his name has become a synonym for success.
Three years later, Rovers won the title. Shearer’s 34 goals that season took one of England’s minnow clubs into the glory books, in a way that was subsequently unmatched until Leicester City’s famous 2016 upset win.
In 1996, Shearer became soccer’s most expensive player when he was sold by Blackburn to Newcastle United for £15 million ($20 million). The Newcastle-upon-Tyne-born player famously rejected an offer from Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in favor of playing for his boyhood club.
He became Newcastle’s highest ever goal scorer, putting 206 balls into the net. His career haul of 260 Premier League goals is a record that remains undefeated.
Tottenham Hotspur superstar Harry Kane, 24, could surpass it, Shearer concedes.
But Kane would need to keep scoring at his current rate for nine more seasons, while avoiding serious injury. Tottenham, too, would have to ward off suitors such as Real Madrid, a Spanish club with pockets deep enough to make Kane the world’s most valuable soccer player.
A money game
To understand things have changed since 1995, you only need to look to the money changing hands for players.
In 2016, French player Paul Pogba was sold by Italian club Juventus to Manchester United for £96 million ($127 million). This year, captain of Brazil’s national team Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, commonly known as Neymar, left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain for the grand sum of €196 million ($230 million).
“When I left Blackburn in 1996, I was the world’s most expensive footballer, (I was sold for) £15 million — I actually, foolishly, said then there would probably never be a better time to be a footballer, for financial reasons.” Shearer says.
“How wrong I was. It’s gone up and up and gotten bigger and it’ll only continue to grow. Because while TV companies continue to pay huge money then the sums that footballers demand will continue to grow, also.”
But what of football’s reputation as the everyman’s game, played across the world from London to Lagos with players only needing a round, kickable object? Today, signing a child up for coaching classes in Hong Kong can cost around $6,000 per year. Has soccer become elitist?
“The one thing that can bring everyone together is football. To have it costing too much money is not right,” Shearer says.
A kick out of you
On the afternoon CNN meets Shearer, the Hong Kong chapter of his old North Tyneside youth team, the Wallsend Boys, has arranged for him to have a kick around with underprivileged children from the Po Leung Kok Foundation at the prestigious, members-only HKFC.
The Hong Kong group has raised money, partially through charity events with famous old boy speakers such as Shearer, to put 10 children through football training at the club’s cutting-edge facilities.
“We know what football means, how it can give a chance to these young boys and girls who are unfortunate and underprivileged. We want to give them a chance to enjoy it, to try to pass on tips that we’ve had over the years, to them,” says the British footballer.
Shearer, who grew up in a working-class area of Newcastle before finding worldwide soccer success, knows the life-changing power of the beautiful game first hand.