I remember at my secondary school we weren’t allowed to play football. The headmaster had illusions of grandeur and he followed slavishly the examples of the big public schools: one played rugby and cricket - football was a working class sport not suitable for young gentlemen! Yes, in those days football was primarily a working class sport, played and watched by working people. The teams – even at the top of the league – were made up largely of men from the locality and their wages were little better than a well-paid manual worker. The game was followed avidly but not with the fanaticism and obsessional fervour of today.
The pundits invariably resort to the terminology of world war and national destiny, whipping up xenophobia and confirming national stereotypes. The Sun writes about ‘Krauts’ and features Nazi helmets when discussing German teams – beloved targets. Even Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s manager, responded to United’s elimination from the Champions League by branding Bayern Munich’s players as "typical Germans" for what he saw as deliberate attempts to injure Wayne Rooney.
Football today has nothing in common with the game of those days apart from it being a game where eleven men kick a ball around. It has been hijacked by big business and turned into a money-spinner as well as a convenient soporific for the masses. It is today what ‘bread and circuses’ were for the Romans: a refuge from life’s problems, from serious discussion and real politics. It substitutes for clan, community and national spirit. Even presidents and prime ministers are obliged to acknowledge its hold on the masses and worship at its shrine. Football has become Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World ‘happiness drug’. It rules many men’s lives (yes, it is invariably men), can give them their orgasms, their highs and lows and transport them out of their mundane lives onto the fairy-tale world of the soccer pitch.
The excessively rewarded top stars have nothing to do with the teams they play for or the places in which they are based. They too are in it for the money and will go where they are highest paid. Clubs once firmly rooted in their localities and supported by small businesses and individual fans are now the play-things of the super wealthy. Two of our top teams are now owned by US businessmen who have been deprived of such opportunities in soccer-starved USA. The Glazer brothers own Manchester United and Gillet and Hicks own Liverpool.
Most of the cash used by Glazers to purchase Manchester United came in the form of loans, secured against the club's assets, incurring interest payments of over £60 million per annum. The remainder came in the form of loans, which were later sold to hedge funds. The club has a gross debt of £520 million with £45 million in annual interest payments. It is argued that they are milking the club and will leave it heavily indebted and in a parlous state.
Gillet and Hicks acquired Liverpool in 2007. The deal valued the club and its outstanding debts at £218.9 million. There have been rumours since that a Dubai company was also interested in buying it. Kenneth Huang, a former Wall Street broker, is at the head of a group who also want to buy the club for around £500m. In May, accounts were released showing the club to be £350 million in debt with losses of £55m and its auditor warning 'This fact indicates the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt upon the club’s ability to continue as a going concern.' Belatedly, greedy individuals and companies are now vying with each other to tap into this incredibly lucrative global money-maker.
In April 2008, Forbes business magazine ranked Liverpool as the fourth most valuable football team in the world, after Manchester United, Real Madrid and Arsenal. The club was valued at £605m, excluding debt.
The concentration of wealth among the few top teams in the world is distorting and in fact ruining the game as a truly national sport. Money is being siphoned off in dividends and inflated pay for players, leaving the smaller and less renowned clubs struggling to survive. Money for the training of new generations of players and for essential sports facilities where young people can train and enjoy playing as amateurs is almost impossible to come by. In South Africa we can see magnificent new stadiums and a country celebrating its selection as World Cup venue, but afterwards the kids from the townships will still be barefoot, kicking around a ragged ball on a dry strip of township land. The wealth generated by the spectacle will not filter down to them.
This year’s World Cup again underlines the psychosis gripping the nation. It was calculated that, at its peak, over 20 million people watched England’s first game on ITV – an unprecedented audience for any programme. On big game nights the cities and streets throughout the country become dead as if the population had been wiped out. Pennants fly from every second car and flags hang from windows, as if we really were at war, as if the destiny of our country depended on the outcome of the world cup. When England’s goalkeeper fumbles the ball it is front page news in almost every paper and football pitches of newsprint and hours of television time are devoted to the game – the real world ceases to exist. Everyone is sucked into this hyped-up hysteria. Conversations revolve around little else.
Football is a great game, but it is only a game for god’s sake! Its links to the working class are, today, as close as those of Tesco to a community corner shop. How aficionados can maintain interest and loyalty to teams divorced from their communities and in the face of the game’s clear manipulation by a wealthy capitalist elite is beyond me.