So another transfer window closes and another clutch of players and agents head merrily to their fund managers, with whom they lodge in low-tax “schemes” the seemingly infinite funds you donate from your very own pocket. Yes, that’s right: money taken from your wage packet via tickets and shirts, by your submission to global advertising, and through the wedge you shell out month after month on Sky or ESPN.
In return you get eleven heroes – or is that disdainful teen millionaires who have as much loyalty to LFC, WHFC, MCFC or WhateverFC as you have to your local funeral directors?
Football is supposed to be the beautiful game, but the picture it paints is far from pretty. As the late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano wrote at the start of his stirring homage, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, “The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots.”
His point, which he makes with Latin American verve and expresses in unashamedly Marxist terms, is that the business of football ultimately transplants competition from the field to the stock market. “Professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable,” he writes.
The lament of a sorrowful supporter or the statement of a man who has a factual case to make? Alan Bairner, professor of Sport and Social Theory at Loughborough University, suggests it could be more the latter than the former.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence that it’s become less competitive,” says Bairner. “But arguably it is more uniform due to modern training methods, less differentiated stadia and playing surfaces, and a more scientific approach to tactics.
“As a result of this, it has almost certainly become less entertaining, not least because fewer mistakes are made. A similar thing happened years ago with American football, which turned many fans towards college games in which more mistakes occurred than in the NFL and which were consequently more entertaining.”
The problem we encounter here is that it is difficult to judge one era of football next to another. It is routinely claimed that you can’t compare modern football to decades past because it is faster, more skillful, more competitive. But speed is useless without power and flair (and, as any schoolboy winger knows, without the ball). Skill, too, is a relative term; one (Portuguese) man’s virtuosity is another’s annoying showiness. A “solid” performance is often shorthand for a stultifying one.
“All of the greats from the past would find modern defensive strategies more difficult to circumvent even if they had the fitness levels of modern players,” says Bairner. “The most talented of them – di Stefano, Pele, Best, Cruyff, Maradona – would still be good but I’m not sure if all or any of them could achieve the same heights as Messi.”
Mmm. Defensive strategies. The same defensive strategies that have made Arsenal so entertaining the past twenty years. And given us those memorable World Cup finals…
We should, anyhow, be thinking of entertainment in more holistic terms. From a commercial perspective, the loss of local support is almost irrelevant, especially in large metropolises. It’s fairly easy to fill spare seats with neutrals, corporate clients, tourists, rich partners and posh kids.
But even that is of secondary importance to streaming the show to a global audience. While older, stalwart British fans, in the main, still cling to the idea of localism, foreign “fans” are far more blasé, or sophisticated, or thoughtless (you decide). And so Hondurans are happy to drive their tuk-tuks with Real Madrid pendants flapping in the tropical breeze and Cambodian shanties use Chelsea posters on their windows to keep out the monsoon.
Teams like these, and Man City, Barcelona, Arsenal, Man Utd, Liverpool, and Juventus, look a lot to me like BT: a sort of ugly monopoly borne of capitalism. Apologists of the latter always bleat that it generates competition – but arguably it also creates cartels, hegemonies, and cronies.
What would an alternative footballing world look like? A world that has kicked its addiction to money into the ditch? What would happen if we paid players a maximum of, say, £6,000 per week (a vast sum in any other job)? Surely then all four top divisions in the UK would be a lot more equitable and teams like Leeds United and Plymouth Argyll might rise again?
“Wage caps have worked to a certain degree in American sport as has the draft system to create greater equality,” says Bairner.
“However, major franchises can get round these and, in any case, because there’s no promotion or relegation from the major leagues, the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB are able to operate as monopolistic cartels for which competition needs to be ensured, albeit in a very systematic way.
“A team like Leeds United can certainly rise again – but more easily with a massive investment of Russian or Middle Easter cash than as a result of a seriously policed wage cap – which is unlikely to come about in English football. The cap in rugby league has not prevented clubs such as Leeds, Wigan and St Helens from continuing to rule the roost.”
It would still feel better, though, wouldn’t it, if players were paid almost human salaries rather than weekly lottery wins?
Could wage and other financial controls lead to cleaner sports? Many have fared worse than football in recent months. Drugs have tarnished the names of cycling and athletics. Matchfixing and betting scandals in tennis and cricket are staining whites. In November last year it was claimed steroid abuse was “off-the-scale” in Welsh grassroots and semi-professional rugby, the pressure to join the big league leading young players to risk their health and careers and experiment with illegal substances.
Bairner is philosophical: “I suspect that corruption and abuse were features of sport long before the emergence of modern sport. Perhaps all forms of competition inevitably lead to corrupt practices – for example, in banking and in retail just as much as in sport.”
In which case we’re doomed. The curious thing is, we continue to love football – in spite of the excessive riches of its practitioners, the Shakespearian duplicity of its governing bodies and the brazenness of its sponsors, owners and advertisers. Perhaps what we have here is a convoluted love-hate relationship, akin to what literary theorists call a “reverse discourse”: the modern game marginalises and alienates true believers and allows them, in their angst and confusion and resentment, to fully be the fan they yearn to be.
It’s the kind of goldfish faith that allows us, every year, to think that a minnow will beat one of the Premiership killer whales every time the FA Cup goes around – and to forget it, as we did last Saturday, as soon as the fourth round is over.
Modern football is lots of things but it is not better than what has gone before, on almost any count. It is more professional and more international, more available and more cynical. It is more expensive, more exclusive, more glamorous. But it is less likeable, less local and less honest.
Transfers, we were told, topped £1bn for the first time ever this January window. That means more money has been spent to get players – who yesterday loved one club – to leave it and love another. Even Pep Guardiola, the last romantic for many, has gone for the sky-blue dirhams. It is, really, quite extraordinary that all this is reported not negatively, not neutrally, but as if it were meant to thrill us all – to thrill us, indeed, like a handsome Irish lad, or a shaggy haired Argentine boy, or a skinny Brazilian, taking the ball and skipping, slipping, shimmying, tricking and showing off, just a bit, because he’s nothing to lose, all the way to goal.
By Chris Moss