Sunday, 7 December 2014

Television sponsorship, star players and oligarchs have made English club football great again.


I'm prompted to write by a book review in The Spectator. Not, I'm guessing the first place to turn to for any deep or insightful assessment of football. And the review doesn't disappoint:

For all the sophistication of his analysis, Goldblatt provides no convincing answer to the question of why clubs, originally rooted in their communities, still command such loyalty when few of their teams contain local lads, and some not even a majority of English ones, but transient mercenaries.

Now this is a review of a book written by a sociologist which means we can be pretty sure that the author isn't an enthusiast for capitalism raw in tooth and claw. Indeed the review quotes Goldblatt saying football is  ‘social-democratic game in a neo-liberal world’. And as we all know, dear reader, anyone who uses the term 'neo-liberal' without irony is probably to the left of most mainstream politics in the UK.

But it's not Goldblatt's assessment that bothers me (and to be fair I haven't read his book) but the reviewer, Michael Beloff's view that television sponsorship, pampered star players and the vanity of oligarchs should be blamed for the current sad state of English football. Indeed, the truth - whatever this reviewer may say - is that English football is in a pretty good state. Unless of course you measure its success purely on the basis of how the national team performs.

Let's start with attendance - although levels have levelled off in the past couple of years, the numbers of paying customers for football matches in England rose steadily from its low point in the mid-1980s.

It's true that attendances after the last war were vastly high - we've all seen those images of packed crowds stood shoulder to shoulder. And, of course, we also know that the spread of leisure choices means that those days aren't returning. What is remarkable is that, given the range of leisure choices (and what seems like wall-to-wall TV coverage) well over a million people pay to watch football every week of the season. And this includes some 150,000 or so who stand on a cold terrace with a pie watching non-league games. The idea that a leisure industry can sustain this level of business in a very competitive market tells us that, far from English football be in some sort of trouble, it is thriving.

But - and here Beloff makes another sweeping statement - what about the players?

Like many other sports, football was invented in England; yet the balance of power has shifted elsewhere. The true superstars play in Spain, Italy or Germany.

Wow! Hard to know quite where to start with this observation - perhaps the clubs of the world cup finalists? Again Beloff couldn't be more wrong - there were eleven clubs with ten or more players at the 2014 World Cup Finals, five of them in the English premier league. And the English leagues provided 119 of the players - fully 38 more than the next highest, Italy's Serie A. Finally 22 England players play in England compared to just one of the Uruguay team. The idea that all the superstars play somewhere else really is arrant nonsense.

Thirdly Beloff suggests that the Premier League is 'uncompetitive' suggesting that the prospect of the big prizes - league champions, qualifying for the Champions League and the FA Cup - only exists for 'half-a-dozen' clubs. Here's the current top of the table - I think this proves Beloff wrong (and not just because I'm a West Ham fan):

Underlying all this argument is a common political point - that the greed of players has somehow stolen 'the people's game' away from the people. There's a sort of nostalgia in this political point, a harking back to a mythical golden age when star players lived in terraced houses and went to training on the bus. We ignore the huge profits made by wealthy club owners - made possible because of wage caps and a transfer system that was tantamount to slavery. It was a time when clubs were full of 'local lads' wearing chunky brown boots to trundle across pitches that, half the time, would be better suited to planting wheat than playing football.

In the end football - and the desire to watch exciting players gracing the hallowed turf of 'our' club - reflects the world as it is not some sort of rose-tinted, patronising image of sturdy working-class yeoman playing and watching. And the liberalising of the game - opening up the transfer system, more overseas players, better management (everywhere but Leeds United) and ending wage limits- results in the Premier League producing a spectacle that is a vast improvement on the sluggish, muddy and foul-ridden game of the 1970s and 1980s.

There's plenty to worry us about football but it really isn't the clubs, the players or the management of leagues. Nor is it support for junior and lower level football - the grassroots is thriving (although it could use more of that FA cash). And neither is it the fans (Beloff has a little bien pensant pop at racism and homophobia - presumably to tick the London metro-liberal bingo card).

No, the problem with football lies with FIFA, UEFA and the FA, with the administration of the game. Rather than pretend there was some golden age of football writers like Michael Beloff would be better served directing their criticism to the corruption and fixing, the tinkering with rules, the refusal to embrace technology and the training of referees.


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