I have to admit, my knowledge of Turkish football is severely limited; perhaps solely to the exploits of Galatasaray, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Trabzonspor, especially on the European stage, the perpetually underachieving national team and, by no means least, the notoriously hostile scenes amongst the transcontinental nation’s ferociously loyal supporters. So when I witnessed anchor Jacqui Oatley and pundit Ian Wright stumbling around the name, let alone the pedigree of Istanbul’s bright young things in a post-Atletico Madrid pre-season loss discussion of Liverpool’s potential Champions League Qualifying Play-Off Round opponents on ITV4 earlier this month – eventually plumping for a tentative ‘Istanbul’ –, I was compelled to unveil the truth of the club, for sponsorship reasons, referred to as Medipol Başakşehir, and expose UEFA’s potential latest large source of intrigue to a wider audience following a record 2016-17 Süper Lig performance in its (admittedly brief) history. How did they arrive on such a competitive inner-city footballing scene, what exactly have they achieved to date, how do they intend to persevere at such a competitive level following such a rapid rise to prominence, and are they run in a sustainable manner for comparative minnows amongst their closest rivals? Despite being portrayed through the naïve spectrum of an uninitiated Englishman, capturing the essence of an overwhelmingly ambitious organisation blossoming in the wake of a splinter from its traditional community-focused roots is a task we challenge ourselves with in order to reflect the sporting, political and cultural realities, rather than the parodies we may receive from the little exposure granted by a Western media so preoccupied in comparative menial domestic strife, in modern Turkey, and Istanbul as its historically dynamic heart.
Few high-profile records exist presently on Başakşehir – the football club representative of only Istanbul’s 20th largest district by population, and the 13th largest of districts on the European side of the Bosphorus – at least, that is, if you’re an aimless foreigner to the delights of the Turkish dialect. More famous, historically, under its previous moniker of Azatlık – at which time of reference it was respected as a leading gunpowder-producing district for the Ottoman Empire – and for its later ownership; flattened to create a farm bestowed upon Ahmed Niyazi Bey, a nationalist hero of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, Başakşehir is today a microcosm of Istanbul and Turkey as wider entities; part-modernist, well-manicured suburban housing solution, part-crumbling Eastern European concrete industrial estate and part-fertile Mediterranean olive refuge in its undulating Sazlıdere Dam-bordering hamlets. Football, however, is a cultural factor that has usurped the identity, ironically, of what, to those outside of the 311,000 or so inhabitants it boasts, is a relative non-entity of a district – a convenient, insignificant stop-gap between more tourist-inclined districts in Fatih, Beşiktaş and Eyüp and the rural city peripheries of Arnavutköy and industrial foci of Büyükçekmece. Traverse various search engine results for Başakşehir, and primarily, you will be struck by the Netherlands-esque orange Nike templates İstanbul Başakşehir Futbol Kulübü, to give them their full title, sport at matches hosted at the Fatih Terim Stadium; a two-tiered 17,800-capacity oval that, despite being opened only in 2014 after a 16-month construction effort to the tune of 178 million Turkish Lira, only hosted an average crowd of 3,208 at Süper Lig matches last term.
Opened in a ceremonial match in which authoritarian, oppressive President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a former footballer himself, for fellow Istanbul Süper Lig club Kasımpaşa – took part, the Fatih Terim (named, perplexingly, after the İmparator, or Emperor, a three-time Turkey and Galatasaray boss, without any involvement in the club it was purpose-built for) may yet to have welcomed maintained sell-out crowds, but it has acted as the catalyst for an astounding establishment-defying three seasons of Süper Lig football for Başakşehir. Having only evolved into its current guise – İstanbul Başakşehir – in June 2014, at which time Istanbul-born businessman Göksel Gümüşdağ was elected Club President and Abdullah Avcı, manager of the club under its previous İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor (İBB) moniker between 2006 and 2011, and an unsuccessful Turkey boss replaced, strangely, by Terim, was re-appointed to his club role, the side undertook such a radical rebranding in response to the season (2013-14) spent in Turkey’s second division – the TFF First League –, in spite of their immediate reinstatement by virtue of finishing league champions. Certainly a brave business decision to overhaul the entirety of the club from board officials to manager, stadium to badge and ownership to name, with Gümüşdağ joined by many business aides on the board of directors in a definitive severing of ties with the İBB (İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality Sports Club), but in order to change the direction of the club – unsustainably, some would argue given the financial suffocation of aforementioned attendance figures – and to compete with inner-city rivals, it has proven an undeniable triumph for those that bought into the project. Perhaps even beyond prior belief, considering after successive fourth-place finishes in 2014-15 and ‘15-16 – in which they only trailed firstly a star-studded Istanbul triumvirate in Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş, then the latter duo in reverse order and a defensively resolute inspired late-season run by Konyaspor – their run to second place last season, boasting the best defensive record (28 conceded in 34 matches) and unbeaten run (17 matches) in the division was only denied a title by four points in a fortunate Beşiktaş escape.
It is not solely the immediate investment of a vast conglomerate of Istanbul entrepreneurs – dubbed Istanbul Football Investments Inc. by chairman of the abandoned İBB and Başakşehir Mayor Mevlüt Uysal – that has facilitated such a rapid rise to national and continental relevance. In allowing the club to engineer its highest ever series of finishes and point hauls – not difficult, historically, when the İBB was only formed in 1990, and it took the footballing arm of the community organisation 27 years to improve from a formative year as an amateur club and successive years at first fluctuating between the TFF Second League and First League, before consolidating at the latter – bettering the sixth-placed 2009-10 result, and last season equalling the cup feats of 2010-11 in finishing runners-up, there has been installed a culture of mutual trust and clear vision. Visibly, the fact that Avcı is the only remnant, in managerial respects, of the 2014-15 season’s instigation – with 68 sackings, resignations, contract expirations and mutual agreements having been filed across the Super Lig in the three successive seasons at an average of 22.66 departures every season, 1.88 every month, or one every 18.63 days – is testament to the contingency the BOD have instilled, and with it belief in the ability of all footballing staff to achieve ludicrous ambitions on the pitch, amongst an otherwise volatile and distrust-spawning managerial merry-go-round.
Vitally, the approach rarely attributable to the likes of Gümüşdağ – millionaires, and the visibly inherent products of a social elite through their economic degrees, for whom personal ambitions take precedence over the concerns of local parishioners – has forged a veritable refuge for Western Europe’s aged remnants of momentarily trophy-laden sides. For Gaël Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gökhan İnler and Eljero Elia – each former Premier League players, to varying degrees of success, and former three-time English champions, Champions League runners-up, Swiss, English and Turkish league victors and World Cup silver medallists, respectively – to have all made the trip to the Fatih Terim in the past eight months, while departing clubs in the highly respected calibre of Manchester City, Crystal Palace, neighbours Beşiktaş and Feyenoord respectively on free transfers, is a significant statement of club intent. At this stage of their steadily declining careers, where they could be derided as becoming journeymen, to make the move to a Turkish side that effectively guarantees competitive domestic and continental football is one that could easily have the appearance of a desperate money-grab in the exploitation of fame carved out in England, Spain and Italy, for example. Demba Ba, Wesley Sneijder, Nani, Robin van Persie, Ricardo Quaresma, Samuel Eto'o and Mario Gómez are immediate past and present examples of this 30-something’s exodus; mostly successful in the national steamroller institutions of Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe. If advised to resort to a Turkish departure, however, by an agent, why would players in the ilk of the aforementioned quartet opt for Başakşehir, rather than the ingrained trifecta of Istanbul dominance?
There is, of course, the idle response that Clichy, İnler, Adebayor and Elia aren’t of the obvious quality of the national heroes stated above. That may be an appropriate excuse of the latter duo, whose reputations have declined rather drastically from bygone eras with pivotal roles in mid-2000’s Arsenal and 2010 Netherlands World Cup sides, but Clichy, as a 31-year-old who could’ve easily been replaced by the extensively-resourced Pep Guardiola last season, still made 16 Premier League appearances, and İnler – a rotation option at the club who eventually ousted Başakşehir for the title – surely remain respected assets in continental competition, with their pick of global destination in the event of a contract expiration. Certainly, there is a financial incentive tied to the deal Başakşehir, as a club entirely reliant on ownership financial injections, present, but whether that alone is sufficient to turn the heads, irretrievably, of such a high quality of player appears unlikely. In order to fully comprehend such a decision, then, we must first understand the psychology of Clichy and İnler. As a homely individual who has only represented three senior clubs – Cannes, Arsenal and Manchester City –, Clichy, presumably, wouldn’t be the type for a lifestyle overhaul this dramatic. Represented by Darren Dein, an agent shared with Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song – players with extensive histories in Spain and England –, and someone whose skills haven’t been tested in Turkish environs prior to this deal, we are led only to believe that his move is the product of a close friendship forged while at Arsenal and City with Adebayor, a notorious free spirit, apparently devoid of representatives, who had signed six months earlier. Contrastingly, for Inler it may have been the simple matter of pursuing more playing time at the immediate domestic competitors of Beşiktaş, without being forced to relocate from recently-purchased Istanbul settings.
Signed by any other rapidly-expanding, heartless husk of an entrepreneurial-backed club, however, these players would typically fail to last more than two seasons, or in extreme cases, a single season. Having delved into the committed operation Gümüşdağ and Avcı endorse and embrace, it is extremely challenging to fathom these prestigious names experience this pre-empted exercise of exasperation – venting the frustrations of a career nose-dive at teammates, managers and chairmen alike –, egotism – weighing personal objectives above the ambition of the team – and general disillusionment – losing faith in the model they bought into as a profitable career twilight destination – that has been witnessed in countless past examples.
For fans in nations heralded for their trailblazing footballing division standards, it has become an unfortunate and undermining fallacy of Turkish football, in addition to leagues representative of the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Greece and China – less so Russia than when Zenit St Petersburg and Anzhi Makhachkala invested irresponsibly five years ago – that the Süper Lig acts solely as a production line for starlets destined for London, Manchester, Barcelona, Madrid, Turin, Munich and Milan and a retirement home, both for the talent that first fled and the decelerating foreign steeds of yesteryear. To an extent, this representation captures the attractive drama of the league; transfer fees, wages and names we should all be familiar with after a five minute YouTube highlights reel, although, conversely, it ignores the menial reality of enduring action, ensuring in the event of the accomplishment of a club like Başakşehir, or the goalscoring exploits of a national team representative who doesn’t ply their trade beyond their homeland’s borders, we as an audience are left uneducated and alienated from the tale’s romanticism, regardless of our intrigue in the truth of either example.
This is where Başakşehir, as a club currently lacking titles but having excelled beyond their preordained capabilities to achieve current status, are shackled in the uncertain region between national pre-eminence and continental recognition. Improving every season with exposure to UEFA competition, in 2015-16 they were ousted in the Third Qualifying Round of the Europa League by AZ Alkmaar, before going a step further in 2016-17 in defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk at the Play-Off stage. This term, having earned a place in the elite environs of Champions League football and impressively eliminated Club Brugge 5-3 on aggregate, they prepare for a Play-Off second-leg at Sevilla’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium at a 2-1 disadvantage from their home tie. It is wholly unlikely that, with the nigh-on seven hour flight the Istanbul side will endure solely to reach their opponents, not to mention the gulf in squad depth and quality or the disparity between the capabilities of La Liga and the Süper Lig, a Başakşehir upset is on the cards, but to reach an unprecedented platform on the verge of group stage Champions League football against the highest calibre of global clubs, and to be able to compete against five-time Europa League victors despite operating on probably a quarter, or even less, of the budget, is an achievement defying of all superlatives. At the very least, transforming Emmanuel Adebayor into a competent Champions League-level marksman after a dismal Crystal Palace spell should be lauded as a minor miracle.
It should, however, come as no surprise to those whose opinion of Turkish football has been altered by Başakşehir’s emergence that, with such personnel at the helm, the unmistakable ambition woven into the club’s identity has been brought to fruition. Gümüşdağ, aside from building a profile as a lucrative electronics capitalist, is, quite vitally to this entire tale, a member of the Justice and Development Party’s Municipal Assembly – that is, a regional representative of President Erdoğan’s party – and a former Vice Chairman of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF), where he was embroiled in the 2011 corruption exposé; detained and questioned by a state prosecutor after 31 agents, former managers and players were indicted for match-fixing at the very highest level. This is without referring to his further history as Head of the Turkish Union of Clubs, and his marriage to Müge Gülbaran, a former secretary of Erdoğan’s and the niece of the President’s own wife and Turkish First Lady – Emine Erdoğan. Not short of priceless connections, then, in the event of seizing a rather aspirational club from the original sustainable model of the İBB, a municipal organisation it has callously brushed aside, considering all the financial overheads and paperwork a club of that stature is duty-bound of fulfilling.
Far more integral, arguably, to the success of Başakşehir is, rather than the business aides, the political influence or the PR of having the President open your stadium in an effective entire public unveiling of the İstanbul Başakşehir identity, the experience afforded to Gümüşdağ within the confines of TFF offices; where, as Vice Chairman, he acted as an active delegate to the national prerogative, working in far closer proximity to national team managers Guus Hiddink, Abdullah Avcı and Fatih Terim than he would if Chairman. Despite resigning after 21 months as the least successful of this managerial trio, Avcı clearly made a lasting impression on his future Club President, and after nine years involved in national and local Başakşehir football – as Turkish under-17, İBB and senior national team helmsman – forging a rapport with Gümüşdağ, the two embarked on their club enterprise firmly in tandem, with equal responsibilities in the realisation of one another’s ambition. This trust and weight of determination to prove their efforts worthwhile has been the driving force, and in rapidly developing to encapsulate a Süper Lig establishment-upsetting side of continentally-recognised talent, a range of strategies have proven fundamental.
Firstly, building a tactically competent side worthy of premier division football in the event of starting completely afresh from their 2013-14 TTF First League victory has relied upon the ability of Avcı to establish extremely high standards and capitalise on market inequalities. Notably, signing then-Turkey under-19 international Cengiz Ünder from First League side Altınordu for €4.7 million, developing the diminutive forward during the 2016-17 season and capitalising on the interest of Roma this summer – selling the now-full international for €13.4 million – has allowed for funds to be reinvested elsewhere, in former Fulham, Cardiff and Birmingham winger Kerim Frei and Brazilian full-back Júnior Caiçara from Schalke for a combined €4.5 million, for example. Complementing this outlay, a savvy approach to exploit player unrest elsewhere – employing Volkan Babacan, an Avcı-trained remnant of the 2005 U-17 World Championship third-place Turkish squad, upon release by Manisaspor, who has since become national number one, in addition to centre-backs Aurélien Chedjou and Manuel da Costa on free transfers from Galatasaray and Olympiacos – has exemplified a sustainable transfer ethos. Meanwhile, a focus on developing existing assets to their full potential has borne tangible fruit in the elevation of Turkish trio Mevlüt Erdinç, Mehmet Batdal and Mahmut Tekdemir, belying their maturity at 30, 31 and 29 years of age, to the national squad alongside Babacan, laying testament to the labours of those involved at the forefront of Başakşehir motivations.
At other clubs, in other cities, and certainly in other nations, such an exclusive, institutionalised form of club stewardship – in both financial and footballing respects – simply wouldn’t function positively, as in the competitive realms of largely de-politicised football in Western Europe, there is so little scope for the contingency of a distant ambition that those who fail to adapt to turning tides, and cut their losses with a trusted but unproductive manager, will, brutally, be swallowed up. In nations where economic prosperity may be lacking, but political rhetoric, social inequality and frothing public furore is in bountiful reserve, an individual club represents far more than the district or city it hails from, the historic achievement of its senior team or its supporters’ social status – a factor that in Western Europe that has practically been forgotten today, with the working-class priced out of premier division sport. Political allegiances, an undermined factor in the apathetic climate especially of English sport, are at the forefront of Eastern European football’s notoriety for fan violence, abundant corruption and perpetual club liquidation, with the Partizan Belgrade vs Red Star Belgrade typifying this most notably in the instantaneously tempestuous Yugoslav partition era, but still with an unfathomable degree of angst today, and Turkey is no different in this regard. Liable to the flare-wielding, projectile-exchanging, stadium-pillaging behaviour that only accedes the expletive-laden barbs hurled mutually by both clusters of thick-set thugs long before kick-off, in the eyes of UEFA, you would argue Turkish football has an image problem. To rid it, as an institution, of its socio-economic debate, far more often practiced around the football pitch than on social media and in broadsheet columns, would be a travesty worthy only of an autocratic government considerate solely of personal ideology, as opposed to embracing of the romanticism of its diverse operational scope.
While there may be considerably less motive for violent disarray at the Fatih Terim, with its average attendance over the past three Süper Lig seasons of 2,868, than at the three-piece Istanbul furniture set it aims to displace with a modernist architectural slant – Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe welcoming respective averages of 30,448, 21,351 and 16,485 in 2016-17 – what Başakşehir represent is undeniable; suspiciously close links to the TFF elite, and AK Parti ties so active that, behind fellow Constantinople’s Kasımpaşa S.K., whose stadium is named after the President, they act as the effective second club of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Perhaps they reflect the new dawn of 2014 Erdoğan wished possible for Turkish society, having been established as a club little more than a month prior to the AK Parti candidate’s victory in the Turkish Presidential Election, and having, in 2015, attracted the wide-ranging sponsorship of the Medipol Education and Health Group, Turkey’s largest private health investment entity, to the extent that the club name was merged with their investors’, alongside the achievement of just three seasons to date, there is little argument against the triumph of their ambition. As Erdoğan has failed to unite an easily fragmented Turkish society, however, with his authoritarian approach having an adverse effect in sparking the ongoing 2016-17 purges on army officials, civil servants, journalists, private businesses, Kurdish teachers, mayors and politicians and other groups suspected to be involved in the attempted 15 July 2016 coup d’état, the achievements of a football club effectively founded in his honour are rendered irrelevant in comparison.
Imagine such a situation; effectively superfluous, both domestically and continentally, despite the accession to a national and inner-city elite within just three seasons of canny political, commercial and footballing manoeuvre. It may not be the most romantically-tinted of sporting tales, but the bittersweet nature of its present circumstance is difficult not to empathise with, even if the morals of those involved could be called into question on many an occasion. Young pretenders they may be, but rooted in the historically-forged cultural reality of Turkish and Eastern European society is their fable, to the extent that they can be registered as a firm fixture of the volatile nation’s footballing establishment, even if they are devoid of a defining incident that could, potentially, elevate them to the deserved exposure that befalls such sporting revelations. Though it may not arrive in Seville this Tuesday, such a watershed moment isn’t, I dare say, far around the corner for İstanbul Başakşehir. Remember the name…
To regurgitate opinions rendered so bland from unrelenting high-profile exposure is an idle and redundant use of our time in this reciprocal process. As such, the article that I had been planning for this week – a 2017-18 Premier League season table prediction – has been accordingly shelved, with fallacies of Manchester City’s title success and the relegation, in no particular order, of Brighton and Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town and Swansea City, of no interest to you or I when innumerable other sources have already covered the same subject, whilst spouted the same views with little to no substance. In truth, it’s an all-too-easy exploitation of the global fervour the Premier League demands, and perhaps wouldn’t have tested the extents of what is possible in a reporting sense on the weekend of the division’s 2017-18 commencement. But then again, that’s just the frustration of my uninspired period on Thursday evening – when usually I would have contributed the first half of this piece – speaking, as I despaired at the devoid pool of meaningless information facing me in ascertaining a single idea to spark my passions. Eventually, as you can imagine in reading at this very moment, Friday afternoon’s revelations ignited the composition of this article.
Not long ago – at least in my lifetime – a prominent member of the established ‘big four’ of English football, regular Champions League qualifiers and title challengers alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, Merseyside’s scarlet-attired outfit, and still England’s second most successful club, has encountered depths, perhaps never imagined possible, in the post-Rafa Benitez period, a League Cup title and the eternal eventual anti-climax of the 2013-14 title challenge aside. Throughout the tenure of bespectacled genius Jurgen Klopp, the industrious, yet eye-catching exponents of often-frustratingly profligate football have flattered, perhaps, to deceive – with unrest, in small pockets, at home in fans disillusioned with as-yet unfulfilled promises of title contests – and while a fourth-placed 2016-17 finish reflected their best returns (bar 2013-14) since 2008-09, they still remain closer to inner-city rivals Everton than to the ilk of title-winners Chelsea, finishing 15 points ahead of the Toffees, but trailing the Blues by a significant 17. Now faced with the threat of unrelenting, and evidently effective, pressure from the veritable Mount Olympus of modern football in the political engine rooms of the Catalonian coastline, centred around the diminutive 5' 7" frame of a perpetually jovial Brazilian playmaker who is respected as perhaps the jewel in Jurgen Klopp’s crown of attacking talents, how do Liverpool manage their steadily recovering stature in global football, with or without Philippe Coutinho?
I have to admit – prior to any commencement over an answer to such a significant inquiry – that part of the inspiration is attributable, also, to my Fantasy Premier League addiction this summer. One of the leading Twitter accounts for the concerns of an FPL-obsessed fan, FPL Fly, is home to possibly the most self-aware, yet perceivably, through the ruefully unemotional medium of digital communication, arrogant, inconsiderate and candid fantasy league commentweeters, regularly supporting this common perception of his character in the lambasting of Liverpool’s reputation, and their assets in FPL. He refuses to regard the Anfield-based outfit as a big club, refers to Roberto Firmino as ‘Failmino’ – though that is attributable more to his failings as a fantasy resource than any spite against the club itself – and is notorious now within the Twitter FPL community as a Liverpool cynic. Personally, what I find so intriguing is that Twitter – as a fascinating societal microcosm, encapsulating the vitriol that others may fear to express in wider media – reflects the presumed ponderings also of a vast community who don’t use the platform, and creates an immediate showcase for reaction that is more accessible, and therefore far superior, even to face-to-face interaction.
Exploiting this rhetoric, then, we are able to comprehend the extent of supporters who truthfully believe Liverpool have fallen from their once-gilded status as a giant, not only of the English game, but also of European and global football. Evidence for this stagnation is plentiful, if you’re asking those who share the aforementioned opinion, in the much-touted fact that for 27 years now, no league title has graced the trophy cabinets of Merseyside, and that in that same period, only 14 pieces of silverware have been brought back to Anfield. Of the three FA Cups, four League Cups, three Community Shields, individual Champions League and Europa League titles, and two UEFA Super Cups, only nine have been claimed in the 21st century, and, more alarmingly, only the 2011-12 League Cup is to show as the spoils of the previous decade. The much-maligned braggadocio and self-absorbed behaviour of the Spice Boys of the mid-1990’s, argued to be the ruinous factor of that select generation of commercially-lauded talent that Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley-protégé Roy Evans had at his disposal in Steve McManaman, David James, Jamie Redknapp, Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler and Jason McAteer, coupled with the subsequent import-reliant modernity and continental achievement that Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benítez brought forth in the 21st century, represents the tumultuous recent history of Liverpool in all of its inglorious what-could-have-been reality. What Steven Gerrard, the constant stanchion of the 2000’s – a period when overwhelming egos ruled the dressing room and heightened transfer outlays increased squad pressure – could have achieved is a prophecy mired in the resounding deviance in the reality of the man, and the age in which he led the club as a figure, at times, far more distinguishable, perhaps culpable, than the managers he served under.
From the outside in, with the benefit of hindsight, it could be deemed that the culture of Liverpool Football Club is its true undermining feature. An untenable reliance on the Boot Room model, where, for 30 years, Shankly, Paisley, Reuben Bennett, Tom Saunders, Joe Fagan, Sean Whelan and Ronnie Moran, later joined by Evans, dictated the progression of the club in assuming the role of manager almost one after the other – Bennett and Saunders the outliers – yet trusting the team behind them as if it were a shared role, in addition to a homely production line that boasts Gerrard, Fowler, McManaman, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen as some of its finest specimens, has created a fable for the failure to adapt adequately to a changing Premier League landscape. While the objectives of the locally-focused youth programme, and the incestuous managerial succession ideology, had the best intentions in their principles – acting similarly to Barcelona’s now-tiring La Masia establishment and the Pep Guardiola-Tito Vilanova-Jordi Roura managerial axis that delivered such success to Catalonia – there were obvious, and rather poignant, moments when Gerrard and Carragher, as career-long servants, appeared to be holding the club, as an entity, together.
When they came so close to the 2013-14 Premier League title, the infamous slip that gifted Demba Ba Chelsea’s priceless scoring opportunity to halt the Reds’ 16-match unbeaten run, and reduce their title lead to two points with two games left, nobody embraced the blame; not Mamadou Sakho, the source of the inconsiderate pass that allowed Ba to pounce, nor Simon Mignolet, who was tentative to divert the rampant Senegalese striker. Many argued Gerrard had his best year in a Liverpool shirt under Brendan Rodgers in that title push, and although nostalgia, in his final season at the club, may have induced a misjudged opinion in that example, the foil he provided for the rampant strike force of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez cannot be understated in its magnitude to a fine culmination of achievements in the division for Gerrard; representing his second-best season, after 2008-09’s similar runners-up finish. Alternatively, the triumphs of the 21st century are widely regarded, immediately, as Gerrard’s, often more than the club’s. In 2004-05, it was his Champions League title in Istanbul. In 2005-06, it was his FA Cup final victory at the Millennium Stadium.
In the repercussion of Gerrard’s departure, however, and in the midst of the appointment of a German so prized in the managerial occupation for his catalytic role in the reestablishment of Borussia Dortmund as rivals-in-chief to Bayern Munich’s pre-eminence, the club have been able to shed the malaise allowed to fester for so long by encouraging every squad member accept the burden that Gerrard and Carragher shouldered year after year. Yet what effect has it had? An eighth-place 2015-16 season finish, admittedly after a horrendous early run of form that saw Rodgers sacked, and surrendering a position to capitalise on Manchester City’s stuttering returns in ending fourth last term hardly define significant improvement under Klopp. Keeping pace with their lofty competitors certainly represents a challenge, with the financial resources that Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United boast willingly exposed by each in respective transfer exploits, but Klopp proved himself a canny and seasoned campaigner when it came to managing resources at Dortmund – as previously covered, blooding Mario Götze and Marcel Schmelzer in the most high-profile examples of his reign – and surely, if supported with a justifiable period of time and the genuine backing of the board, can repeat the same exploits at Anfield.
There has been a resonating sense of belief in that model by Klopp to date; using the FA Cup as a platform to expose teenagers Ovie Ejaria, Sheyi Ojo, Ben Woodburn, Harry Wilson, Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold to the unrelenting reality of senior football, in preparation for their promotion to the first-team squad, in some cases, only a few months later. Astute recruitment in dependable first-team regulars Sadio Mané (13 goals, five assists), Georginio Wijnaldum (six goals, nine assists) and Joël Matip (one goal, nine clean sheets), in addition to low-cost, low-risk investments in Loris Karius (£4.7 million, 10 appearances, three clean sheets) and Ragnar Klavan (£4.2 million, 19 appearances, three clean sheets) went some way to improving first-team fortunes, especially when compared with the departures; raising £27 million from Christian Benteke, £15 million from Jordan Ibe and £11 million from Joe Allen, allowing lower-half Premier League clubs to bolster their ranks and take points from the Reds’ rivals. Another £50 million’s worth of outlay on Mohammed Salah, Andrew Robertson and Dominic Solanke this summer creates further certainty over the direction of the club; aiming to be upwardly mobile, while covering their own costs, though it has been a revelation to many that, Robertson aside as a seemingly second-choice left-back, little attention has been paid to the widely lambasted leaky defence of yesteryear, with Sakho yet to decide on his future, and no improvement made on the perennially inconsistent Dejan Lovren. As has been said about Arsenal over the past few forgettable years, they may be a centre-back or a dependable leader shy of making an honest title bid.
It is the role of Philippe Coutinho in this modest resurgence that reflects of what significance his possible transfer could play in the wider cultural revolution that Klopp has instigated at the club. Far from a subscriber to the renowned transfer-savvy managerial ilk, the German is, first and foremost, a master tactician evocative of the current era, and secondly a universally respected coach, able to develop and hone the skills of players into fitting the mould he establishes upon arrival, and this is perfectly portrayed in the history of Coutinho – signed for just £8.5 million in January 2013 as a fresh-faced 20-year-old in one of Rodgers’ smarter signings – producing the two best minutes per league goal ratios of his four-and-a-half-year stay (250.6 and 172.7) in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively, as well as the second greatest minutes per assist ratio last term (320.7, behind 2012-13’s 186.6) and, more importantly, the foremost minutes per goal involvement (goals and assists) last season at 112.25 minutes. Having only produced or scored a goal every three matches or so in 2014-15 (280.1 minutes per involvement), to now be the focal point of the attacking riches Klopp has at his disposal – with a MPI rate superior to Mané (124.8), Divock Origi (146), Adam Lallana (156.7), Roberto Firmino (170.5) and Daniel Sturridge (192.3) – represents a considerable willingness to adapt and to exploit a system perhaps better suited to his rapid, skilful approach. While you would imagine that statistic would fall in significance with his presumed reversion to more of a central-midfield role, to accommodate Salah, this season, the benefit of the Egyptian’s arrival is that, as we explored the importance of with Gerrard, the burden is eased on one individual.
As the Brazilian sulks in the wake of the rejection of a £90 million bid from suitors Barça, then, where does that leave Liverpool in their struggle to reclaim an identity severely tainted by an almost three decade-long league title drought, that stretches beyond the instigation even of the Premier League? In an immediate respect, it leaves them a midfielder light in today’s trip to Watford; an issue easily addressed by the involvement of Wijnaldum and the debut of Salah, but over the course of a season, and factoring in the two to three months Lallana will spend recuperating from his thigh injury, there gapes a huge, arguably irreplaceable chasm in the Reds’ midfield; one that if not addressed correctly, could set the Liverpudlians back another five years on their competitors. Realising that this is a cost they cannot afford to pay, especially with the disparities becoming increasingly vaster between sides who qualifying for the Champions League and those that fail to, perhaps by a single point in any given season, on Friday the Liverpool board issued a statement comparable in impermeable candour to recent US-North Korea relations; “the club’s definitive stance is that no offers for Philippe will be considered and he will remain a member of Liverpool Football Club when the summer window closes.” Cynicism, rather than the desired assurance, is the main reaction, referencing the previous exploits of Gerard Piqué in the Neymar saga, Rodgers in Luis Suarez’s eventual move to Barça and Daniel Levy with Gareth Bale in the attempted prevention of the Welshman’s record-breaking Real Madrid signature, and it is understandable that, having had their trust undermined in these examples, such large clusters of fans expect little less than the draw of Barcelona and Madrid as a magnetic inevitability for the Premier League’s best players.
Such a reality speaks volumes about the fallacy that has persisted since Suarez’s 2014 switch, with the Premier League apparently strong enough to rebuff the approaches of La Liga’s elite. If this transfer is eventually signed, sealed and delivered, it weakens not only Liverpool Football Club, but the Premier League as a wider entity heavily reliant on broadcasting revenue also, with another lucrative name added to their Spanish counterparts’ contingent of commercially cherished identities, softening the blow of Neymar’s departure certainly for Barça and La Liga, as the understandably profitable Brazilian market is reopened. Liverpool may be able to sign the perennial object of their affection, Naby Keïta, to complete an industrious midfield trio in his position, while relying on Salah for requisite goals and assists his cavity leaves, but truthfully Klopp and the board comprehend the gravity of Coutinho’s symbolism at Anfield and across the Premier League, and cannot afford to let him flee to Catalonia. If they are to complete a reconstruction of the club once proudly branded with the label of the most successful in English football, then titles are required; something that many, with good reason, believe isn’t possible without the Rio-born dynamo. An ultimatum posed by one mutually-coveted player, with far-reaching implications in Merseyside, Catalonia, England, Spain and throughout Europe depending on whether a deal can be struck. At the heart lies Barça, in desperate need of a remedy to the internal splinter, with the potential to manifest into a fatal virus, revealed by Neymar’s departure, Liverpool – on the verge of a long-overdue reinstatement to English football’s gilded hierarchy, providing, unlike their predecessors, they fail to realise unbounded potential – and an individual central to both sides in their respective power struggles. Never, perhaps, has the player as a footballing entity held such resonance in the game than at present, with the ability to spell the demise of a generation’s ambitions whichever direction a saga takes. Make of it what you will, but it is the harsh reality of elitist politics that will pervade the sport for an inconceivable period of time far beyond us.
Apathy is the disease of a generation mired in the preoccupation of an endless barrage of seemingly non-consequential news. As Charles de Montesquieu, French 18th century political philosopher, proclaimed, “the tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizens in a democracy.” Perhaps more prominent than his nationality in the context of such a ubiquitous comment was his more defined geographical position throughout the majority of his devoted working life; Paris. Though Montesquieu may have targeted the discredit of self-absorbed, chauvinistic French monarchs Louis XIV, regent Philippe II, Duke of Orléans and Louis XV with his revolutionary libertarian political philosophy, such stinging commentary resonates, in no uncertain terms, to this day, not quite in the corruption-infested social halls of Versailles, but only 13km down the Avenue de Paris and across the Seine to the Qatari-controlled Parc des Princes, where quite possibly the most political football transfer of all time was sealed on a balmy Thursday evening – exactly at time of writing – in Neymar’s €222 million, or £196 million, switch from Barcelona. It was unimaginable seven days ago, let alone the 12 months, ten years or 50 years that may be touted, that these demonstrably unethical and unfathomably ludicrous events would unfold. Yet it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone involved in not just football, but all sport, that the commercialisation and increasing fundamental role of politically-minded businessmen, or vice-versa, in the transformation of clubs, leagues and the global presentation of the sport would have eventually led to this; the reprehensible destruction of previous world records, far greater than any we may witness at the forthcoming World Athletics Championships in London this fortnight, for the sake of an Arab state’s pride.
It has become second nature; the status quo, that billionaire oligarchs, oil tycoons and government officials wield almost the entirety of power in the elite forms of the game today. Desensitisation, perhaps unprecedented in global society, to the reality of poverty, disease and inopportunity in the society outside of football’s clique, has been undertaken throughout the contemporary history of ‘the beautiful game’, ever since professionalisation first sank its venomous fangs into the psyche of players, managers and officials alike, but the overriding impact was that of its perceived benefits for supporters. Because the backbone of the game has been infiltrated to such an extent, these events have become the accepted norm.
Unfortunately, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior has been the one to suffer the ignominy of this cursed negotiation. Exemplifying all of the characteristics so desirable to modern marketers, the boy who honed his trade in São Paulo’s streets, with skyscrapers of Brazil’s most populated city on the direct horizon, earned his family a life away from cramped urban crawls with the demonstration of prodigious, sponsorship-inciting Samba skill, and eventually invoked the attention of mes que un club, with the opportunity of a lifetime to shadow, then assume the role of, Lionel Messi; Qatar’s new global ambassador/political pawn had appeared immovable in the notorious triumvirate of MSN. Every player, in fact, appears to have reached a stage of absolute zenith, where the sole alternative to a plateau at such heights of brilliance is to bely their gilded reputation and succumb to the degrading factors, either of age, the misfortune of injury or an undermining psychological alteration, once they are recruited by FC Barcelona. Gary Lineker, Twitter’s corner of sardonic sanity, expressed, from personal experience, this fact perfectly on Wednesday; “there is only one direction to go from @FCBarcelona, and that’s backwards.”
Not that it concerns the optimists who engineered the move – for whom money is, blatantly, no object – as each party benefits unfathomably from his signature, regardless of the sporting performances of the 25-year-old in his supposed five years, for now, as a Parisian. Reportedly, for the mere financial outlay of €300 million, the ruling Al Thani family, for whom the Paris Saint Germain-owning Oryx Qatar Sports Investments group was a 2005-established venture between the Finance Ministry and the national Olympic Committee, secured the intellectual property of Neymar as an ambassador of the 2022 World Cup, as well as trading the responsibility of the actual release clause activation to Neymar himself, allowing the club to register his signature on a free transfer. A personal cut of €78 million for Neymar, father Neymar Snr. and agent Wagner Ribeiro – whose actual cut of the deal is shrouded in confidentiality –, in addition to the world-obliterating annual salary of €40 million – equating to a post-tax £515,000 weekly wage – does the client the apparent justice he deserves as a form of comfort in the event of a realisation of the moral imprudence and degradation his signature represents.
The only footballer for whom commercial pandering was more financially lucrative than his actual playing contract, Neymar had no explicit requirement to remain at Barça, despite the obvious inherent psychological benefits of performing, on a weekly basis, to an unprecedented attacking, and possibly footballing, standard alongside South American accomplices Messi and Luis Suarez, generation-defining midfield masterminds Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, and fellow silverware-magnets Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Marc-André ter Stegen and Ivan Rakitic, in the 99,350-strong cauldron housing of the globe’s finest fans, who represent only a sliver of the vast audience the club commands. Heritage, honour and excellence are the principles both Barcelona, and the Camp Nou as the sole public face of the club that will surpass history, epitomise without precedence in the footballing universe, and for an individual, seemingly in his prime and with no demand the club could not fulfil, to abandon the club, and with it these ideals, in a quest to improve personal standards, it appears a total rejection of the sport’s ideals. There is a reason Barça are held in such high regard by all in the community, and that the players to have rejected this and actually reach new heights are few in number; Luis Figo and Michael Laudrup, in the ultimate betrayal, to Real Madrid, Ronaldo, eventually also to Madrid, and arguably Zlatan Ibrahimović and Thiago Alcantara the only candidates for this category.
It is not just a middle finger to the footballing romance instilled in us all, but to the superiority possibly of what a majority in the region wish to be an independent Catalan state – especially prominent a few months prior to the referendum the devolved regional government wish to hold on the thorny matter –, the generally accepted dominance of La Liga in ascertaining and retaining superstars and to the entire history of football; a sport never prized so heavily for its role in the changing tides of region-specific geopolitics. Just reflect on the previous transfer records; Paul Pogba, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Hernan Crespo and Christian Vieri. None has quite, or any of, the political undertones of this deal, overshadowed by the unashamed exploitation of oil fortunes from the Qatari state at a period where the oil price is significantly lower than is desirable, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Mauritania, amongst other Arabian and African states, have severed diplomatic ties, accusing the Qataris of condoning terrorism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and an anti-Israeli Syrian arm, interfering with internal affairs and of maintaining relations with Iran – a subject of some trepidation after a January 2016 attack on Saudi diplomats in Tehran and Mashhad. With a World Cup on the horizon, dozens of effective slave workers from India and Nepal reportedly dying either in the deplorable conditions or by taking their own lives on a monthly basis, and the aforementioned crises to handle, for the Al Thani dynasty, attention focused on events in Paris constitutes invaluable relief. Even at €222 million then, with €78 million more as a bargaining chip and £40 million in annual wages, Neymar’s signature reflects something of a geopolitical coup for a nation for whom the accretion of finances represents more perilous a reality than the unscrupulous expenditure of endless, unimaginable assets.
Saint-Germain, as a sporting entity, and political pawn for the Qatari state, desperately require a return to French, let alone continental, superiority themselves following a 2016-17 season that defined their stagnation after laying faith heavily in the ageing Edison Cavani, Ángel Di Maria and Thiago Silva, only to be overpowered by Leonardo Jardim’s curiously scrupulous, yet rewardingly youth-lenient, revolutionary AS Monaco side. Where heralded former Sevilla manager Unai Emery invested £122.91 million in 2016 European Championship stars Julian Draxler, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Thomas Meunier, respective Benfica, Real Madrid and CA Rosario products Gonçalo Guedes, Jesé and Giovani Lo Celso, and effective wildcard Hatem Ben Arfa, Jardim purchased, in opposition to the notoriously lewd previous exploits of billionaire oligarch chairman Dmitry Rybolovlev, £42.93 million’s worth of defensive assurance in Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibé, Kamil Glik and Jorge, in addition to AS Nancy midfield gem Youssef Aït Bennasser and richly-experienced backup goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis. While PSG salvaged only two points from domestic matches against title rivals Monaco and Nice, losing five times over the 38-game Ligue 1 season, the autonomous billionaire-populated micro-nation’s side fell only thrice to defeat, ultimately boasting eight more points and a goal difference superior by 20 strikes to the capital’s finest. In order to avoid a truly costly repeat – ignoring the fact Les Parisians routed Monaco in the semi-final and final respectively, on the road to winning both the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue – including a ground-breaking event where they could capitulate 6-1 in Barcelona to sacrifice a Champions League semi-final appearance, chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and the Qatari government he represents, opted, in a majestic political manoeuvre worthy of the Oval Office, to flex muscle in the face of the Catalan establishment. Considering the summer began with Marco Verratti linked earnestly with Barça, the series of events that has led to Saint-Germain prizing first Dani Alves, close Brazilian compatriot and confidant of the record-breaker, from Juventus on a free transfer, and successively the 25-year-old himself from the La Liga titans will mark perhaps the finest, certainly the most dramatic, of summer transfer windows across Europe’s elite footballing tier.
To comment on the transfer in the respect I just have – in a particularly extensive paragraph, it must be noted – and in a manner that I’m sure you’ve noticed across the majority of the world’s media, from the clickbait to the forcibly impartial, renders the role of a journalist null and void. If, in the profession, you don’t exist to criticise the blatantly immoral as you would praise the fantastical, you become little more than a utilitarian, socially redundant filter between the reality rational citizens want broadcasted, no matter how harsh, and the inconsequential mirage the proprietors of this move would have us trust. As I mentioned upon introduction, apathy is a universal pandemic that pervades present society at all levels, from government to pauper, though for reasons entirely distinguishable from one another. Disparities have never been so wide between the two, with both unable to fathom how the other functions; the result, unbearably, is a culture of fatigued tolerance, as opposed to determined belligerence, overwhelming the masses.
The duty-tempered outcry by José Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Gary Lineker and others involved in the footballing industry only serves to prove this; especially when Mourinho, notorious for his exploitation of football’s bloated financial demands throughout his career, proclaims “when we paid that amount for Paul [Pogba], I said that he was not expensive. Expensive are the ones that get into a certain level without a certain quality. I don't think he’s expensive for £200 million. I think he’s expensive for the fact that you are going to have more players of £100 million and more players of £80 million and more players of £60 million. I think that's the problem because Neymar is one of the best players in the world. Commercially he’s very strong and for sure Paris Saint-Germain thought about it. So I don't think the problem is Neymar, it's the consequences after Neymar.” Wenger, in a punchier declaration honouring his markedly more resourceful ideology, stated “for me, it is the consequence of the ownerships that have completely changed the whole landscape of football in the last 15 years. Once a country owns a club, everything is possible.” Critically, the Frenchman remarked “the number involves a lot of passion, pride and public interest, and you cannot rationalise that anymore. You cannot justify the investment, it looks unusual for the game. That’s why I always [support] football living with its own resources. Apart from that, we are not in a period anymore where you think ‘If I invest that, I will get that back’. We are beyond that.”
We cannot ignore the words of these statesmen. Especially on the part of Wenger, the knowledge of all forms of the sport and subsequent sage advice the two can impart commands universal internal respect, not least from fans, but also by FIFA, UEFA and numerous other associations. Critically, from a manager who has made a career out of respecting the apparent guidelines of the game and its responsibility within wider society, an utterance that he believes “it becomes very difficult to respect financial fair play,” now this deal has set a precedent, “because there are different ways for a country to have such a big player to represent a country” defines the monumental ramifications of the transfer. Al-Khelaifi appears to vindicate this view when making such arrogantly blasé statements as “I’m not really worried at all about the Financial Fair Play because we have complied with the regulation since the start. We’ve been very transparent with UEFA, we will be always.” It’s as if the continuous threats from UEFA, and the 2013-14 season sanctions, amounting to a €60 million fine, squad restrictions of 21 players, transfer spending caps and a two-year squad salary restraint never existed.
Whether the authority of UEFA’s FFP judicial system will actually impart the requisite justice such an unprecedented, inescapably indescribable case deserves, or be so paralyzed by their service to European football’s progress that they will prevent themselves from acting upon such a revelation and have their credence resultantly besmirched, for some, beyond repair, is as yet unforeseen, and for such uncertainty to pervade the reality of the modern transfer market for fans, clubs, players and officials alike is truly unacceptable. It appears UEFA are so gripped by the aforementioned culture of inaction, uncertainty and dependence on societal constructs that even they, as a government of the sport, cannot imagine ruling one way or the other on this case, particularly now the movement of the player is irretrievable, and once your government is stuck in limbo – à la Theresa May’s Conservatives on Brexit, the political hot potato few imagined possible – there is little hope for all others they serve.
People may reflect, in years and decades unfathomable from now, on this deal as the new Bosman for football, with Neymar the unfortunate individual around whom the controversy will endure to taint, rather than arguably elevate as it did with Jean-Marc Bosman. For me, this will have a far greater ripple effect, as although the demographic personally impacted by astronomical outlays will be less represented in number than those for whom to free movement come the expiration of a contract is relevant, as Mourinho hinted, the transfer value of players will be blown out of any sense of rationality; though many may argue that time has long since passed. Once a record, especially one of such great magnitude as this, has been broken, the inevitable reaction, in testament to the eternal ambition of the human psyche, is the close pursuit of a significant peloton of challengers. As such, we should expect for the floodgates to have been blown open, for transfers between elite clubs to be dictated, rather than on the superiority of an incredibly select few, only on the basis of whatever cavalier figure the approached club can fathom to charge. Release clauses may rise far beyond the GDP’s of some of the globe’s smallest nations – as demonstrated in this transfer, where, according to the BBC, the fee outstripped the GDP’s, per 2015 United Nations figures, of the world’s six smallest economic nations; Tuvalu, Montserrat, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau – weekly wages will rise beyond, currently, record figures that, reportedly, 70% of the world’s population will fail to earn in a lifetime, managers will grow powerless to resist the will of players and governments will rely on football increasingly as a lucrative industry constructed as the plaything of global politicians attempting to distract from domestic strife. These are the inevitabilities condemned not solely by the Neymar deal, but certainly accelerated in their relevance to our generations.
One can but wonder where it will end, or who will be responsible for attempting to prevent it. Currently, the exercise of sanity is a baton voluntarily assumed by Wenger, Daniel Levy, those at Brighton and Hove Albion, Southampton, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, for example, in a staunch refusal to kowtow to the exploitative methods of rival chief executives – proven businessmen, recruited solely for their stature in respective economic fields – both at home and abroad. That these sides, and the conscientious philosophies they employ, are being totally belittled by the critical precedent this transfer sets matters not to those involved in this saga; devoid of empathy, comprehension of personal responsibility or compassion for those that actually allow society to function while on minimum wage, the failure of their character to prove stronger than time immemorial’s bartering construct will be their ultimate legacy.
As the Brazilian, then, assumes a throne constructed on the exploitation of global demand for oil, the shamefully unpunished corruption of the game’s most powerful officials, the torture and eventual murder of slave workers for the sake of hopefully desolate stadia and geopolitical manoeuvre that has ultimately encouraged the genocide arguably of millions in the Arab world over history, one comes to ponder what further role football truly has remaining. This move cannot be viewed as one to realise apparent ambitions to take on a ‘new challenge’ and romp to victory in Ligue 1, all French domestic trophies, quite possibly the Champions League and to accede the honour of the Ballon d’Or; it will be marked as the manufacturing of a politically astute kingdom that has consumed the entire identity of Paris Saint-Germain in a bid possibly to assure the nation of the responsibility of hosting a World Cup, possibly in an elaborate effort to undermine regional political opponents, possibly to siphon off the profits of an endlessly successful sports team, like any other despicable chancer. That his career, Neymar, that is, may go one of two ways is an unfounded argument, as surely, being such a mercurial sporting triumph, he won’t befall the reputation he has been recruited on, with a trophy-laden definition of talent his only undertaking. With the sole alternative scenario that might defer comrades to follow in his wake being a prophecy of the failure of football and politics’ ambition in conjunction as his geopolitical role consumes him – impossible, as any for whom Saint-Germain is a reality that doesn’t sicken them is clear of conscience – the entire framework of football will be gradually altered by this incorrigible week.
Depending on whether you’re a regular purveyor of my weekly musings, you may have wondered why there was no blog, as scheduled, last Saturday. I can’t truthfully offer you a viable excuse, other than that I had imagined, on a ‘staycation’ in Somerset, the opportunity to continue the normal timetable of composition and upload would have proven realistic; by the time of my usual Thursday and Friday-evening scribing, my thoughts were otherwise occupied as the exertion of daytime activities dissuaded me from fulfilling such requirements. The result, however, is that, if all goes to plan, this week should unfold to reveal a blogging double-header, with this piece uploaded either on Tuesday evening or Wednesday afternoon, and a follow-up within the usual constraints on time on Saturday afternoon. I just thought you’d appreciate the notice while I’m here, as we attempt to shake things up for at least one short period of the year.
Transfixed in my imagination, for a few weeks now, is that in the event of a week’s holiday in England’s agriculturally-centred South West, I could compose my blogging effort about the plight of a number of this geographically, culturally and ethnically diverse nation’s devolved regions in their disadvantaged footballing circumstances with superior rationale and expertise on the subject. To an extent, this may have proved true, as with one eye continually on the untapped sporting culture of such notoriously rural areas, typified by the region surrounding Taunton where my stay was based, I feel there is a degree of local knowledge to be exploited and generalised. Such a broad simplification, in my opinion, is unpractical to smear the reputation of the entirety of England’s non-urban community with, however, and when observing the reality of the modern guise and role of, for example, Cornwall’s, Northumberland’s, Norfolk’s and Shropshire’s county FA’s, an argument has to be formed on both cultural circumstance and pure, unemotive, statistical matter.
A converse argument, nevertheless, could be established on the basis of Sussex FA’s perceived inopportunity – both financial and social, in the lack of funding for such a region and the lack of corresponding impact on local communities. This, however, is not the case, as my personal account on the diversity and popularity of football’s reputation in, what is, in respect of official governmental records, a bi-county region, supported by easily available statistics on the number of clubs per km2, extent of devolved national FA funding or success of representative clubs in national competitions – the FA Cup, FA Vase and FA Trophy –, would prove. Strictly judgmental on the non-league representative club exploits, realistic boardroom and communal circumstance and fulfilment of promise, or lack thereof, of England’s regional FA’s, I hope to unveil an institutionalised bipartisan circumstance of affluence-rewarding footballing favouritism on the part of the obtrusively inactive, uncouth and exceedingly oblivious governmental officials that rule the poisonous realms of the English game.
The FA, it must be underwritten prior to any investigation, is a troublesome beast to fully comprehend. Its funding records are besmirched by the lack of coherent, reliable communication with its parishioners – the general public –, the comprehensive technological platform it opts with regularly crashes for its users, and its internal function appears distant and disruptive, at the best of times, to those who are so unfortunate as to frequently interact with it. All this makes for a complete breakdown in public relations, where the level of distrust and frustration is, at this point, unprecedented in its continued escalation. At every stage of the model – national dictation, to regional associations, local league systems, participating clubs and ultimately to the supporters who, if uninitiated in the trials of the regulation of an outdated system extortionate in its application of paper records, can be entirely severed from the coordination of the sport – disparities gape, with the ambitions of such culturally separate parties entirely conflicted.
While it may be the case that the national FA, in a farcically belated attempt to appease accusations of gender, racial and disability inequalities in its boardrooms, is appointing those in the ilk of Iffy Onuora, BAME Football Communities representative and Scottish former Huddersfield striker, David Clarke, disability representative and former England Blind team striker, and Sonia Kulkarni, Katrina Law, Sarah Nickless and Lauren O’Sullivan as female representatives of everything from supporters to colleges, to its council, the case is not being reflected at county level, nor in the boardrooms of clubs at such levels. From courses the FA sets its charter standard club chair people, secretaries, welfare officers and managers – as witnessed, personally, in the event of my father’s completion of such online tours, in his position as secretary at Ringmer – there is encouragement at the expansion of the roles of the previously underrepresented demographics at regional club levels, without tangible cause to heed such advice that one may imagine from an effective government. Culturally, it is always more challenging to create the imprint of change a regime may desire from the passing of law or setting of example, but I have to say the FA could do far more than in their present public face to challenge the stigma created by the whitewash of wrinkled men pervading the management of the sport.
While this example has established the ineffective cause of action the FA appears to continually resort to in any event of public shame, it isn’t the main issue of what we are discussing here. Instead, addressing the regional disparities of what boasts to be one of the leading global football associations is our aim, and with the aid of some rather revealing statistics, we should be able to shed light on the visual reality of the sport’s stature in particular local regions, while posing pressing queries on the facts they won’t reveal to the public on this matter.
Accessing, firstly, the extent of the records the national system has, we can easily reveal that, according to Chief Financial Officer Mark Burrows’ piece in the 2016 national financial report, ‘during the 2016 season the group invested £125 million into the game, surpassing the previous record of £117 million invested in 2015.’ Burrows, rewarded with an FA job after his seven year role alongside CEO Martin Glenn at Iglo, the European sister brand of Birds Eye, goes on to add ‘the investments into the game are critical in supporting the FA’s strategic priorities.’ The actual statistics of the report, however, prove that, had it not been for the newly-imagined ‘Parklife’ scheme – which, to date, has only opened, from reports, two ‘hubs’ of new 3G facilities in Sheffield, with similar sites in Liverpool, Northolt, Manchester, Southampton and Eastleigh in the pipeline – at the apparent cost of £10 million just to get off the ground, FA expenses on grassroots football would have fallen from 2015’s figures. £1,000,000 was stripped from distribution to county FA’s (down from £18 million to £17 million) twice as much was removed from FA Competition prize funds (£38 million to £36 million) and ‘other developments’ – a term worryingly ambiguous at its repercussive cost to the association’s alternative causes – fell from £11 million to £8 million, and while facilities, coaching and participation and female football development benefitted, gaining £2 million in the former case, and £1 million in each of the latter, it appears perverse that county organisers and clubs who perform especially impressively in national competitions should be the ones to suffer for a programme that is yet to deliver anything other than good PR for the association and ‘several’ 3G pitches, changing rooms and training facilities, at sites in Graves and Thornhill, for the people of Sheffield. Both came at the cost, reportedly, of £6.8 million.
Quite what the expenses of construction at these sites could have been attributable to, one can but wonder. I’m no accountant, nor football coordinator, but I can strictly refute claims that it truthfully costs quite that much to plug an apparent hole in urban footballing facilities just at two sites, where apparently five grassroots sides have since taken residence and youth teams continue to train. In Liverpool, the next site to experience such refurbishment by February 2018, there will be four hubs complete, each with a trio of both 3G and grass pitches, training facilities and ‘extensive car parking’, while the third location is Northolt, North West London, where £3 million is set to be splashed on two 3G pitches, ‘changing facilities, two community rooms and a pavilion’, representing the absolute antithesis of what those outside of the inherently privileged urban regions will want to hear from the FA. Primarily, this is where the association is totally subservient and ignorant to its wider nation.
The issue of their current existence doesn’t lie in the supposedly inadequate facilities of England’s largest urban centres. Regional FA’s in these areas, at least we are left to presume from the lack of national clarification on this matter, receive the greatest level of funding for their comparative geographical stature. Of the 51 regional footballing associations, London has 174 clubs within the top 11 steps of the pyramid, Birmingham – which represents the West Midlands and Warwickshire, of the actual English counties – has 83, Manchester 63 and Liverpool 28, creating a monopoly of facilities and funding, with 348 clubs in the top 11 steps of the sport, roughly equivalent to 20.25% of the 1,718 clubs within the generally accepted brackets of competitive Saturday league football. London, alone, holds 8,778,500 English citizens according to a mid-2016 estimate, and when compiled with the populations of England’s next three largest aforementioned cities, they represent 19.94% of the devolved nation’s total population. If factoring in the area that their county FA’s serve, however, these regions actually house 29.91% of England’s total population, roughly five million more people than had we taken the names of their county FA’s on face value.
If anything, rather than funding the further expansion of inner-city footballing exploits, only to add to the dominance of these leading urban areas, for example, in the Premier League, where 10 of the current 20 clubs are from these four cities, and all but two eventual league champions have hailed from – Blackburn and Leicester defying the rule in 1994/95 and 2015/16 respectively – the FA should be looking elsewhere, and to other regions in which to enthuse future national team representatives. In a totally non-scientific statistical gathering, the heritage of the previous 78 players called up to an England senior squad – men’s or women’s – reveals that only five can claim to have been the product of a rural area; Fraser Forster, Gary Cahill, Lucy Bronze, Millie Bright and Sophie Baggaley from Hexham (Northumberland), Dronfield (Derbyshire), Berwick-Upon-Tweed (Northumberland), Killamash and Newton (both Derbyshire) respectively, although the status here of Cahill and Bright, from villages in North Derbyshire that border Sheffield, can be argued. 20 of the same 78 were born and raised in London, with Liverpool (six), Manchester (five) and Birmingham (four) trailing, and a number of county towns or metro towns, particularly in the North East, filling the remainder of the diverse list.
It is obvious, then, that the cream of England’s national teams finds its roots, overwhelmingly, in established regions that combine three vital factors for footballing prowess; a respected and extensive history, an ingrained sporting culture and a vast population. My concern with the Parklife Programme, Greg Dyke’s lasting legacy as a brainchild left behind in the event of his term as FA Chairman culminating, is that it attempts to cover the cracks of a moribund pathway outside of the metro centres by banking on the platform existing for what Worldometers estimates as 81.9% of the British population (I couldn’t find figures solely for England) living in urban areas. As long as this vast majority of the population experience the benefits of FA living, the remaining 18.1% will be rendered irrelevant, with talented products who inherit the sufficient coaching and self-taught determination to succeed simply the fortunate balance to their city-trained counterparts; not a prerequisite to Gareth Southgate’s successors’ demands, but gladly welcomed if they do so happen to appear.
Such a reckless strategy fails to recognise the unwritten law of not just the footballing community, but society and government’s role within such a construct of the modern world. In alienating those who have acted as the backbone of the grassroots game for decades now, all the FA are achieving is to weaken their colleagues in the offices of Truro, Carlisle and Hereford, even Douglas, St Helier and St Peter Port, and to cap the opportunities for rural leagues and clubs dotted across the National Parks, along the B Roads and in the deepest, darkest arse ends of nowhere in all of England’s unspoiled rural regions. Bunker Roy, an Indian social activist, once said “strengthen the rural areas and you will find less people migrating to urban areas. You give them opportunity, self-respect and self-confidence, they will never go to an urban slum”, and while the case of English football isn’t as extreme as the polarising circumstance of India’s dated agricultural plains to their congested, poverty-stricken cities, you can draw parallels that help us understand the inequalities that such a scheme from the FA suggests to those that it blatantly ignores. Tom Vilsack, former United States Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2017, observed similarly on the subject of rural lives in the world’s richest nation; “People don’t understand rural America. Sixteen percent of our population is rural, but 40 percent of our military is rural. I don’t believe that’s because of a lack of opportunity in rural America. I believe that’s because if you grow up in rural America, you know you can’t just keep taking from the land. You’ve got to give something back.”
Why else would rural football have been continuing, often for longer than the sport in cities – Shropshire (1877), Norfolk, Lincolnshire and North Riding (all 1881) FA’s having each been established prior to London (1882), Liverpool (1882) and Manchester’s (1884) –, if the unrecognised status of their teams and footballers bothered them? For their entire existence, these predominantly rural associations have gone without outstanding reward or praise, only for those in charge, overwhelmingly, those hailing from inner-city communities to continue to leave such outposts isolated, not just geographically, but socially. There has never been a profit in investing in the rural game; blatantly, there lies the crux of the matter, and as long as we have undeveloped regions, few major investors are going to be attracted to regions of perceived ill-attended, unattractive and unfulfilling football. The FA, in annual reports, can state that they have been ‘supporting football since 1863’, that they are ‘the not-for-profit, governing body of football in England which re-invests over £100 million back into the game each year’ and that they ‘grow participation, promote diversity and regulate the sport for everyone to enjoy’, but what really hurts is that they claim to ‘keep the grassroots game going’. How sickeningly patronising and unbelievably uninformed that statement is. To take credit for the volunteers, loyal supporters and even regional referees, who sacrifice extensive time and money to the sport they love, is the greatest abuse of reputation you are ever likely to witness, especially on the scale of an organisation so far-reaching as the FA. They do nothing but create stumbling blocks for those participating, alienate those of us who aren’t so fortunate as to be so apparently blessed by unlimited funds from above, and siphon off the extortionate profits of not only running a globally-recognised and broadcasted cup competition, but exploiting a world-class sporting/music venue, into self-extolling paycheques that presumably stretch either into high six-figure or seven-figure annual salaries (based on records, courtesy of Glassdoor, of FA Regulatory Managers alone earning £106k-£115K annually).
Upon the planning of this blog, I was going to focus on the reasons some county FA’s may not be so profitable in their production of Football League sides, FA Vase or FA Trophy winners. I had imagined elaborating on the select counties that aren’t represented in the current 92 professional English (and Welsh) teams – where 35 county FA’s are represented, though 14 only by one side, and 11 by only two clubs, while the likes of Worcestershire, Cornwall, Herefordshire, Northumberland and Surrey remain voiceless –, in addition to the 72 teams that compete at steps five and six, and making the case for further representation. Even launching a scathing attack on the failure of the FA to reclassify the falsely named member regional FA’s that bare monikers referring to veritably Victorian existence, from their creation in the 1880’s. Upon reflection, it would have, in truth, been a weakly-supported argument with little impact on the case of these regional FA’s. But the FA, ever a laughably incompetent and impeccably-timed organisation, rolled out their Parklife Programme to remind us all how blind they are to their own crimes, and to hand me the ammunition I desperately required to forge a case for the continually undermined, undervalued and isolated. £17 million doesn’t go very far when it comes to 51 regional or representative FA’s – the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Army, English Schools and Amateur Football Alliance each having their own set-up – £333,333.33 if you’re sharing on an equal basis. But when, undoubtedly, four key cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, or rather Greater London, the West Midlands/Warwickshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside – are swallowing extortionate funds that likely equate to, say, £1 million each, on top of the apparent piles of cash the FA has to burn when it comes to building new ‘hubs’, only £13 million is left to split between 47 FA’s.
Granted, the Services, Schools and Amateurs I mentioned before, in addition to Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man wouldn’t take precedence, but that again leaves 39 ceremonial or ancient counties, with around £300,000 to spend every year. Still, I greatly doubt each of these FA’s would receive equal funding, as, for example, Hampshire boast 78 clubs from steps one to eleven, Nottinghamshire 52, Surrey 51 and Sussex, the organisation I have come to know, 68, compared to the 19 of Cornwall, Dorset’s 18, Northumberland’s and Worcestershire’s 13, Herefordshire’s 10 and the East Riding’s similar 10. Besides, even £300,000, let alone less, is barely going to cover costs of printing, investment in technology for offices, domain name contingency, the purchase of teabags and biscuits for meetings, Wi-Fi, gas, electricity and water bills at HQ, the printing of programmes and engraving of trophies for county cup finals, the leasing of a venue for such an event (e.g. the Amex for the Sussex County Cup Final) and the investment in refurbishment of county FA-owned 3G pitches (e.g. Culver Road, Sussex FA’s base in Lancing). If a county FA had intentions to overhaul their HQ facilities from a grass facility to a floodlit, all-weather 3G pitch, where would the funding be found? Would another regional FA have to go without funding for a year, or would all other counties have to make cuts just for their counterparts to make advances?
Unless I’m very much mistaken, also, a large financial hole in Mark Burrows’ 2016 report appears; remember when I said the amount of prize money available had been decreased from £38 million to £36 million? Neither the FA Cup, nor the FA Trophy, decreased prize money at any stage of the tournament from 2014/15 to 2015/16, nor from 2015/16 to 2016/17. The FA Vase, on the other hand, did, but only at two stages of the competition, and from the 2014/15 edition to 2015/16; making cuts of £200 per club at both the Second Round Proper and Third Round Proper, from £1,200 to £1,000 and £1,500 to £1,300 respectively. Still, only 128 and 64 sides, respectively, would make appearances at these stages, meaning a mere £38,400 is saved in the season. Mr Burrows, £38,400 is not equivalent to £2 million, and unless radical figures unavailable to the public have been stripped from the women’s or youth games, which are similarly on the rise, your financial records are wildly misguided. Exemplifying the lack of clarification they offer their general public, let alone the incompetence of their elitist boardroom hierarchy when it comes to comprehending, with any degree of empathy, the reality of football increasingly distant from the Premier League, this fact demonstrates the entire torrid situation that currently exists in English football. The thing is, I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t such critical funding to all grassroots clubs so fortunate as to compete for success and funding that may sustain their continued existence for another season.
The very least of their problems is that they insist on referring to, or keeping in existence, certain regional FA’s including Huntingdonshire, Westmorland, Cumberland, North Riding, Middlesex and Sheffield and Hallamshire. The very least. Why Huntingdonshire cannot be incorporated into Cambridgeshire, Westmorland and Cumberland into Cumbria – which currently exists with the south of the county under the Lancashire FA’s prerogative – and Northumberland as separate entities, North Riding renamed North Yorkshire, Middlesex merged with London and Sheffield and Hallamshire, though romantically stylised so from their original name as the first global regionalised FA in 1867, renamed to South Yorkshire to more accurately portray their existence, not to mention London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool to Greater London, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Warwickshire and Merseyside respectively, I do not know. Utter lunacy, and a complete inability to keep pace with the changing tides of English devolved culture – despite having 43 years to make changes. More pressing, however, is their utter abandon, or at least what is only reflected as such by their action in funding their mates in five or six regional FA’s for the sake of placing their entire faith, unsustainably, in the talent pools that could otherwise go untapped, while forgetting the true foremost role of a football administration, not solely to serve its national teams, but to serve everyone involved in the sport across the nation. It’s not such a critical cause in Sussex, where appropriate regional funding appears existent, and close proximity of about five miles, for even the most rural of citizens, to a football pitch is the reality, but for those who have been forgotten and isolated by the organisation with a completely oblivious form of malice for effectively their entire modern existence, and especially at present, it is an unacceptable circumstance.
Do they not even care to think pitches and facilities may also be dilapidated in rural areas, more so even than urban environments? Do they not imagine there are wasted talents resorting to or opting with preference for rugby league in Yorkshire and Lancashire, rugby union in Devon, for example, cricket in any of the 18 counties, particularly Somerset, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Gloucestershire, nor tennis, cycling, swimming and athletics in any other rural area, let alone physiological skills left unacquainted by, or impatient with, the sport due to a lack of coaching or facilities locally? Football does not exist in a vacuum for the cityscapes. It is far more than that, and currently it does not appear that the FA realise anything close to the reality of the sport on the ground in its most obscure of garrisons. Ultimately, if this does prove to be the period in which they lost the sport in the rural regions on the desperate decision of Greg’s Dyke and Clarke, Martin Glenn and innumerable other backroom corporate-minded buffoons, in opting to defer addressing rural issues in favour of lavishing urban territories with a love-in of utopian facilities, they won’t be the ones to pay, will they? Arrogance unbeknownst to us mere mortals pervades the cesspit of a system they operate, yet they will fail to heed the small voices until they fall on their sword. Perhaps they stumbled a long time ago, and had the prong plunged deep in their hearts, and are voluntarily impaling themselves deeper by the fault only of their character. If only they were liable to a wider entity. If only, but that’s our job; their public, their audience. We must make it so that they are held accountable.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!