Wondering which subject to turn to this week, I didn’t have to look far for a noticeably dominant topic in sporting news this week, especially since Wednesday night. That’s right; I’m talking about violence in the beautiful game, highlighted in fine detail by the attacks by fans of both West Ham United and Chelsea in their EFL Cup Round of 16 match. But more importantly, this wasn’t the only case of violence marring a perfectly entertaining football match in the past week, month of year now, as the Manchester derby on the same night, Valencia vs Barcelona last Saturday and never-ending examples in notoriously feisty pressure-cookers such as Greece, Egypt and Argentina have proven that violence is still a very prevalent issue in the wider scene of worldwide football in the 21st century. But surely if cases such as these are still so glaring as unwanted blemishes on the footballing landscape, behaviour from fans such as ripping up stadium seats, encouraging homophobic chants targeted at opposition players, smuggling in knives into the ground or organising wide-scale skirmishes outside the ground before or after the respective matches, should’ve been targeted and stamped out of the game in an effective and unremitting way. The big question I suppose is; how haven’t the forces in charge of the game today, such as FIFA, UEFA, respective FA’s and clubs themselves, forced this kind of disruptive, needless and antisocial behaviour out of this section of sporting society? Honestly, I’d rather not be even discussing this rather tedious subject this week, but with the fallout from the West Ham vs Chelsea match, I felt it was the best thing to do in order to help discourage what is horrible behaviour from ruining what is supposed to be a beautiful, not a blood-stained, game ever again, if you’d excuse the optimism.
As I glanced through the football section on the BBC Sport app on Thursday evening, I noticed that nine of the 21 featured articles were based on either abuse, violence, bans and fines handed to managers, players and fans, or all of the above. What I considered from this was not just the repetitive nature of news in today’s media in order to capitalise on one topical subject, but the extent to which these articles summarised our times, whether they were a testament to the way society works these days. Were they wildly exaggerating the problem and painting a false picture to their audience in order to fit an image of responsibility in society, considering their future entirely depends on the amount of Government funding they get? Or were they in fact just reporting the real stories without any bias, as an organisation such as the BBC should? Has football become so monotonous that as soon as a (hopefully) abnormal occurrence such as fan violence comes along, everyone becomes obsessed by communicating their opinion on it, while also finding out what high-profile figures think? These aren’t just rhetorical questions; they are fundamental problems that require serious thinking from society as a whole, with differing opinions depending on how cynical or philosophical you are.
Overall though, conceiving whether hooliganism is a serious issue in British sport, worldwide sport and the system of football as a whole is the main issue we are analysing here, so I’ll continue with that avenue rather than any overly-philosophical route that could confuse the aspects we are talking about here. Is it the case that Arsene Wenger dissected in his press conference on Friday, that violence isn’t a epidemic in English football, or is the picture more accurately depicted by certain MP’s, who called for stadium closures if violence continued, and tabloids, whose less-than-careful choice of language when referring to the perpetrators of these violent acts just reflected the irony of their business? Well, the way it certainly should be seen, if we had a fair and composed media, is the way in which Wenger saw it, as in truth it was a matter of a few hundred heavily intoxicated and organised groups of false fans attacking each other in order to gain some sort of notorious advantage over other sections of underground violent fan groups, primarily football firms.
I’ve said it before, in less detailed terms, in blogs before, but if there’s one thing I would instinctively remove from the footballing landscape in the modern era, it would be firms. They do nothing to promote the morals of football, they encourage bare-faced violence between ‘supporters’ of clubs from up and down the nation and their basic principles seem to be to test the ‘masculinity’ of each area of the country by fighting it out or antagonising the others until the police get involved. What is the point of this? Seriously, all they do is tarnish the name of football supporters across the country after its recovery from dark periods in the much-maligned 1970’s, removing the accepted ethics and basic joys of following your chosen club around the country, win, lose or draw, and instead promoting punch-ups in honestly what is a waste of police time, while ruining lives by causing potential deaths and prison sentences. It only detracts from football and society, so I don’t understand why it is a growing underground trend. If you were a real football fan, surely you’d be coming home from a match with at most a piece of merchandise and a smile on your face as a result of watching some of the best players in the world grace your local pitch, not blood-splattered clothes and a prison sentence. If you prefer the latter, I suggest you get counselling, as it is called a football match for a reason, not a boxing bout or WWE horror show (at least in the acting). I know it is only a small minority of fans who think this way, but it needs to be stamped out of the game, along with the casual culture of fan violence witnessed at the Olympic, or London, Stadium, on Wednesday night.
There’s no doubt that the FA, but more importantly clubs, councils and police forces are working hard to discourage this behaviour as much as is possible for each of them, but there has to be an admittance that clearly not enough has been done so far, as was evident this week. Scrutinising the situation, it has to be said that the FA, then the clubs, have the considerable resources and main responsibility to sort this out, as the respective police forces and councils around the nation have their budgets stretched enough by the government-imposed austerity measures that they have other pressing issues that take precedence over utter idiocy, life-changing issues that need serious attention. If they put in some effort, it would be fairly easy for clubs to promote the correct form of supporter etiquette through their wide-spreading social media presences, and publicly disown these extremist ‘supporter’ groups, who in reality have nothing to do with the clubs they associate themselves with. Why aren’t they doing this then? Well, at the moment they want to distance themselves from these stains on their reputation, thinking that if they ignore them for long enough, the problem will go away. But they are clearly mistaken, as it seems every two months or so these days another serious example of this issue surfaces. From racial discrimination by Chelsea fans on the Paris Metro to clearly prearranged but overwhelming brawls between Russian and English thugs in Marseille, wild post-match riots between Aston Villa and Birmingham City fans and, as seen on the Sport Bible’s Instagram feed this week, Manchester City fans smashing sinks off the wall at Old Trafford after their side’s 1-0 loss in the EFL Cup, football has seen it all when it comes to violence and antisocial conduct. This was all in the past few years as well, so why hasn’t English football moved on from the issues of almost half a century ago?
Well, some fans must do this because of their disillusion with the game today, and if so, I can relate, but I would never go so far as to physically, or verbally in a majority of cases, attack another section of (in a lot of ways) like-minded fans, nor destroy physical property of rival clubs, as these disgraceful acts do nothing to change the shape of the game, other than to draw it into disarray as it attempts to stamp out these thoughts in fans. There will never be a need for football fans to turn to violence in order to solve anything, as by its nature, football is a sport, and unless I’m living in a parallel universe, ripping up stadium seats to throw them over the heads of security guards at opposition supporters is not a sport, it is a crime. You are damaging the property of the council in order to commit a violent act, which in the book of any sane citizen is a poorly though-out attempt at masculinity and threating the opposition, which should land you with, as West Ham United have agreed, a lifelong stadium ban and a spell of community service if required. All I can say as a fan, and therefore stakeholder, of the game, is that if you want to change something in the game for the better, it would be more productive over social media campaigning or just to write to the FA or your club to discover whether they can make your, and many others, match-day experiences any better, as that is what football should come down to at its business principals, keeping fans happy.
But things are worse elsewhere. England, as Monsieur Wenger noted, is not a hub of violence between fans, and is for good reason not seen as such by fans across the rest of the world. In fact, the issue is much more pressing in the Meccas of modern day hooliganism; Turkey, Egypt and above all Argentina, which is represented on the Wikipedia page for football hooliganism with separate sections from each passing decade, not just their history as a whole. Quick question; are you actually surprised that these nations have much more widespread problems with fan violence? No, I’m guessing not, partly because I mentioned them at the start and partly also because of their notorious connections as nations with terrorism, drug trades, horrifying dictatorships, racism, and overall just appalling crime as an umbrella body over their individual cultures. Maybe, because of this notoriety, we just accept flare throwing, punch-ups, fascist hand signals and banners from their balaclava-adorned fans at infamous rivals such as Galatasaray and Fernabache, Al-Ahly and Al-Masry and River Plate and Boca Juniors as inevitable occurrences, but they shouldn’t be at all.
I think this is the stance FIFA has been taking to them for sure, that they can be ignored, but it is time they took a stand and actually threw their resources at winding down these shameful acts from supporters. I realise these nations have gained a reputation for great atmospheres and support because of violence, but this simply isn’t true as for me, as it should be for everyone with basic human morals, violence and entertainment shouldn’t be interchangeable, unless you are a medieval peasant with a very small brain capacity. If you argue otherwise, let me just point out where the ever-enticing factors of sports such as boxing and wrestling lie; it’s not in the getting hurt, it’s the tactics and physical skills which lead to a win.
Getting back to FIFA, then, it is them who should be policing programmes of inclusivity and peace between fans and ensuring that everyone feels safe when they are attending a football match, as they are entering a football stadium, not a warzone. In all respect, FIFA should’ve been increasing ties with struggling FA’s a long time ago, so these issues could’ve been kicked out prior to generations such as mine having to experience an era in which millions across the world are still practising forms of violence against each other by means of football. You see, this is where the English game differs with that of the Argentinian, for example. We have hundreds of acceptance and inclusivity programmes, with practically all public figures condemning discrimination whenever it concerns them in any way. We have moved on from a terrible past, with a vast majority of the population outweighing a small percentage of disgraceful fans who blemish our footballing landscape. But it is the opposite in somewhere like Argentina, as the majority of what are important to recognise as adult male fans take precedence over the section of society who condemn or care about them, and that is why their crimes are almost endless, whether they be fairly minor or comparatively more serious. In fact, the Argentinian FA have had to ban away fans from attending top-level club or international matches in response to the unremitting issues, demonstrating how real the issue was, and probably still would be if they allowed away fans to continue their actions.
Back in Blighty though, there is still more to be done if the FA want to achieve a blemish-free and clean game, which I’m sure we all want, but many believe is unrealistic. Well, I’ll admit that it is unrealistic, unless the FA are forced into action by events such as the ones which we have seen this week. If they do decide to get on with what they are paid to do, I can see the sport in this country being run in a much more efficient way, with more focus on ridding the motivation to commit offences such as these rather than just throwing money at a hollow programme. Respect, what was launched as the FA’s flagship scheme to free the game of these crimes and everyday bad habits, is almost inaccessible on the FA’s website, as even though the logo, as well as the good intentions, can be spotted at practically any ground in the country, the FA has appeared to drop it, presumably because they believe their work is done, and that it has achieved what they set out to do. But we know that hasn’t happened. It is honestly baffling sometimes, the actions of those in power, as they seem to care more about politics and putting smiles on the faces of investors rather than truly fulfilling vital objectives which would hopefully clear the game of violence and hatred, which should be expected in 2016.
I had another thought this week. No, not any of the twisted thoughts you lot have (I’m joking, really), a serious thought on whether what we saw this week was triggered by earlier mismanagement. You see, FA Chairman Greg Clarke, almost two weeks ago now, admitted he was “cautious of encouraging people to come out” when referring to gay players in the English game, which seemed surprising from the head of a normally optimistic organisation such as the FA. In my mind, this certainly had an effect on the behaviour of fans at the EFL Cup match at the Olympic Stadium, where a section of West Ham fans were handing out sheets of paper outside the stadium, encouraging fans to join in a homophobic chant about Chelsea captain John Terry prior to kick-off. I believe that had Clarke been more positive in his Commons Select Committee speech, he could’ve changed things massively in the short-term, as he would’ve sent a message out into the media that the FA was totally encouraging and supportive of players who wanted to reveal that they were gay, thereby discouraging backwards sections of fans who were planning homophobic assaults or chants. Of course, he couldn’t have seen the events of that night in East London unfolding, but it was his responsibility to stand up and be positive about the game today in this country, and the health of it for gay players to come out, and he didn’t do that, sending ripple effects across the media and wider sections of society that homophobia still existed in the game. Now, clearly it does, as shown by some West Ham fans, but if he downplayed the nature of the beast, he could’ve stamped out homophobia, rather than just having to rely on an outside organisation such as Kick It Out to do that for him and the FA.
That brings things full circle for me really in this blog, so let’s just wrap all this up, and then you can go on with your day, alright? So, we’ve discovered the extent of the issue in England, compared it to much more troubled nations, found out why it seems little is being done and we’ve also set the FA and FIFA targets as to what they have to do now. Now, after all of that, I do have to admit one thing; one of the biggest reasons that this topic has been everywhere this week is honestly just because there were two passionate and long-standing rivalries hosted on the same night in West Ham vs Chelsea and United vs City on Wednesday that created numerous problems for police. Couple that with the well-publicised issues of Valencia fans throwing plastic bottles at Barcelona players after they celebrated their last-minute winner in front of the home support, which also turned out to be the support of one of Barcelona’s most historic rivals, with Luis Suarez and Neymar wildly overreacting by falling to the floor in agony as soon as one hit them, and you have a storm in a teacup. It wasn’t an issue anyone was talking about the week previous, and I doubt, unless there is heated tension at any Premier League matches this weekend, there will anyone still featuring it as an article subject next week (unless you’re reading this from Monday to Friday, in case thank you for your loyal support).
Everything got out of hand this week, and because of that a number of media outlets jumped on the bandwagon as soon as it arrived at the station so to speak, with a number of varying conclusions out of the debate. Well, in actual fact it wasn’t much of a debate, as basically nobody supports such violence, but you know what I mean. The thing is though, even though journalists won’t be talking about these events until the next example rolls around, the lingering issues will still be there, and that is the main thing organisations such as the FA have to deal with. Until they do, the whole cycle of news will keep running, and that isn’t a good thing for anyone, rather like downing ten pints in one sitting, ironically one thing that can cause the aforementioned fan violence. All I’m saying for now though is; you wouldn’t see anything like this in non-league. Well, that’s unless you’re unfortunate enough to be a guest down at Peacehaven & Telscombe on a Saturday afternoon anyway…
A fairly prickly subject to tackle right now, or indeed ever, in football, gender equality is without a doubt a pressing issue for the game not just in this country, but across the entire sporting globe in the 21st Century. With this in mind, I tread the whole topic with a sense of cautious trepidation, but with also a palpable interest in finding an answer to this probing and tricky question on a personal level. You see, the main reason I approach this subject this week is because my local club, Lewes FC, are holding their annual AGM next week, 27th October, holding a directors election alongside it. Two of the seven candidates – up for five roles alongside five other current board members – are running on the promise that, if elected, they would strive to deliver parity between the budgets of both the men’s and women’s sides. Now, this might not seem like too controversial a proposal in principal, but when inspected as an idea and theoretically put into practise, considering the factors that come into play at a relatively small club like the Rooks, it could well turn out to be a misguided business risk which could majorly compromise the future financial prosperity of the club.
This is something I will explain in further detail later, but for now I’ll just wrap up with a tidy segue between this introduction and the article itself. So, considering the vital issues of pay, attendance and broadcasting gaps between men’s and women’s football, which have all admittedly come on leaps and bounds in the past 10 years or so, are still so prevalent in the game today, how does football plan to reduce the disparities? In fact, I suppose the more important question is; do the higher powers in charge of the game actually care about this issue, and if not, why? Finally, is football going to be a game with equal opportunity for all, or is this just a misguided, unrealistic ideal in a corrupt world? All of this and more to come in this week’s edition of Talking Points…
Kicking off, it should at least be celebrated that football, as well as society as a majority, has moved on from the dark days, not so long ago in fact, when Sepp Blatter’s response to a question about how to enthuse more support in women’s football was that “they could have tighter shorts”. Back in 2004, in the same interview, he creepily commented "female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men - such as playing with a lighter ball”, which seems even more deplorable when you consider he was elected a further three times after these comments, with his sexist actions seemingly bearing no impact on the decision of the heads of worldwide FA’s. Luckily, after the intervention of the FBI and Swiss Police, Blatter was thrown out of the chair before he could die in the role like a Holy Pontiff – and this would’ve been his finest compliment had he made it that far – and football was allowed room to breath after being constricted by a corrupt, misguided, self-interested dictator, bringing in a new, more inclusive era. Quietly during Blatter’s latter years, as he handed over more control to others after being encouraged to work a little less considering his old age, women’s football drew the crowds in higher and higher numbers with each game, more by the unrelenting hard work of volunteers, club directors and more than anything the players than FIFA/FA officials. Since Blatter has been ushered into his retirement home in the recluse of the Alps (if only), another Swiss – I can only assume for their powerful reputation of diplomacy and neutrality - , Gianni Infantino, has taken his first baby steps into the grimy organisation, and has so far allowed a cleaner, more open-minded FIFA, which is better for smaller sections of the game (compared to men’s football) such as women’s football.
Now, this should’ve been expected a basic level of progression in a football long ago, but with the difficult attitudes of many a FIFA President in the past 50 years, in which the women’s game has grown significantly, it has only reached this point in 2016, and we have to make up for lost time in terms of equality. Considering women were finally allowed the vote almost a century ago now in the UK, women’s rights to play sport in just as equal terms as men should have been expected a long time ago, seeing as their rights to play vital roles in politics – with the current British, German, South Korean and (hopefully soon) American main political roles all being held by women – and rights to take up any profession they like, in the developed world, have been delivered.
So why has football struggled with this pressing issue, other than for the fact the disgraces in charge of world football have been blatantly sexist in their roles in the recent past? Well, the way I see it, football has never, in truth, been equal for everyone in its entire history, as in its early form it was designed for violent, in truth unskilled brutes of men, and during its rise into professionalism it only ever took the needs of the male practitioners of the sport into account. Ever since its move to professionalism, there has been a massive disparity between men rich and poor too, not just women, as it has been proven as a staple fact of the game that only those with golden-lined pockets will be able to force out success in the game, and that’s when competing against similarly well-off counterparts. The beautiful game hasn’t been one for the less fortunate in society, at the top level at least, certainly in this century and at the end of the last, as ticket prices has soared sky-high compared to their reasonable beginnings, and fan-owned, democratic clubs have honestly failed to live up to their promise in terms of results, Portsmouth and Lewes big examples of this.
So if football, especially in the 21st Century, isn’t inherently a game for the working classes, why should it also be a game for women, I suppose is the testament from club owners and league officials the world over. In their view, it wouldn’t be financially prosperous, at least in the short run considering the amount of money they would have to inject, to invest in the women’s game to draw it up to equal terms with the men’s. Besides, even if the women’s game did have equal pay, I, as I assume many disheartened men and women across the world, would like to see the men’s wages slashed, rather than the women’s hiked all the way up to a £250,000 (yes a quarter of a million in case you didn’t appreciate the gravity of it) a week. If that happened, I’m sure you’d see many original benefactors turn their backs on that form of the game, as it would completely abandon its morally-strong roots, and nobody wants to see that, as that aspect is surely the most desirable about the women’s game for so many.
Facing this issue then, there seems to be a desire for drastic, controversial change at Lewes FC, at least from two directors running for re-election, Charlie Dobres, who has been a fairly successful director in the full six years since the club became community-owned in introducing a new 3G pitch and helping with the quirky, certainly left-leaning ideals of the club and, in some views, himself, and Ed Ramsden. I will let Ramsden introduce himself in terms of his passion and effort for the club; “of all of the board I give by far the least time to the club, and attend almost none of the games of any of our teams”. I know this to be true, in fact, as during my time supporting the club, since 2011, I doubt I have ever seen him around the club, mainly because he prefers to keep himself behind closed doors, if even behind the doors at all, causing a disconnect between himself and the fans. I would be perplexed if Ramsden gets elected back in, considering his own admission of what surely are unacceptable standards, and his well-written but altogether fluffy manifesto, where he uses enough baffling and obscure analogies to shake a stick at in order to communicate his desire for equal pay terms for the women’s (Level 3 or Premier League Southern Division) side and the men’s (Level 8 or Ryman South Division). It seemed a fair proposal in principals, certainly, but when argued very fairly on the club’s (unofficial) forum, a number of great points came out exposing it as an extremely risky and unexplained process even if it was to go ahead (where have we heard that before *cough* Brexit *cough*).
Firstly, the whole motivation behind Ramsden’s argument, as well as Dobres’, who seems to be a little more light-hearted in his suggestion of the idea but supportive nonetheless, seems to be to equal out the men’s game with the women’s, starting at little old Lewes, which surely goes along with what I am arguing for in this blog. The thing is, if the club was to achieve budget equality (which would be performed by raising the women’s budget to £2,000 alongside the men’s every week, or clumping together a whopping £104,000 annually twice over, once for the men, and once for the women) they would have to raise the money from outside of the club. Yes, and that’s because right now, the women’s side only raise around £350 every two weeks, considering every home match they host around 100 people who each pay a £3 entry fee, including a programme, some of whom also contribute funds by spending in the bar. As Barry Collins, another director at Lewes, points out in his great article here, that £350 is only enough to pay for the services of the officials who come down to the matches, so the women’s team can’t currently afford to be funded in terms of a regular budget at all. As a result then, there is no existing budget there for the women’s team to expand at all, as for that to happen there would have to be a drastic increase in attendances or sponsorship. The latter is what Ramsden proposes will fund the expansion of the women’s budget, as the draw of investing in the first club in the world (he believes, don’t quote me on this) to introduce budget equality would apparently be enough for some big bosses to come sniffing around the club to create a partnership. This is despite the fact nothing could happen in terms of introducing this budget without bankrupting the club before the sponsors knew their money would be going specifically to this new women’s budget, which would be totally unsustainable if they ever left. So the risk of these sponsors leaving because their investment isn’t backed up, because, for example, the side doesn’t reach the WSL in the next 5-10 years, doesn’t matter to Ramsden it seems. Isn’t that too big of a risk to take with such a small club?
As a fan-owned club, shouldn’t Lewes also be looking away from outside investment and be focusing its resources on encouraging more owners into joining the revolution? Well, yes, except the dream hasn’t quite materialised in terms of the success of fan ownership for the club. Apparently, the club is running on losses this year, and could well be for a few years until the 3G pitch starts breaking even and the men’s first team, who as the main priority financially and football-wise for the club, start to win a few trophies or put together a cup run, which would provide vital income. Right now, and for the past few years, the club has relied on two or three certain directors who have propped the club up with their own resources in the thousands, presumed to include Dobres and Ramsden. That doesn’t quite fit the expectation of a fully fan-owned club, but it is the painful reality for a struggling business which has no problem keeping a loyal fan base and agreeing deals with new sponsors, but fails to do either in as significant terms as they would like in order to deliver a league-leading budget for their men’s team in order to secure promotion.
So, in short, an increase to the women’s side’s budget as significant as £2,000 a week isn’t financially viable for such a small club on the national scale as Lewes, despite the success of the women’s side, who have outgrown their background to compete with the likes of Spurs, West Ham, Milwall, Cardiff and Charlton as a result of primarily the hard work of long-term club servant Jacquie Agnew. And the Ramsden philosophy of ‘build it and they will come’ economics doesn’t quite fit with me, nor many other fans, who want to see financial stability mixed with success on the pitch for the number one priority, the men’s first team, over anything else at the club. That is currently, and is likely to be for a long, long time in the future, the reality at practically every club in the world, so why are the footballing hipsters at Lewes looking to shake it up? Well, for exactly the reason as my description of them suggests I suppose; to be different, edgy, risky, ambitious, niche and so much more, rather than any reasons for the fans I fear.
I suppose financial equality is the next step for the women’s game though in England in the near future, but I don’t believe it will come anytime quite yet. I still think the women’s game needs to make the leaps in growth we have seen in the past, especially after the London 2012 Olympics, where the GB side really captured the imagination of a nation, especially after beating Brazil at Wembley. Considering average attendances in the WSL 1, containing Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea as the most competitive clubs, in 2016 were 1,443, and total attendances across 64 matches added up to 50,528, I think there is a significant gap to be made up between the women’s form of the game and even League 2 men’s football in England. There are a range in wages even at the top level of the women’s game in this nation, apparently the world’s third best if the Lionesses’ performance at the last World Cup is anything to go by, with professional players earning anything between £5,000 to £10,000 at the bottom level and £35,000 at the top. As well as that, these top players could earn another potential £30,000 on top if they are an international with a central contract (like the ones I suggested for the England’s men’s team a few weeks ago, notice the women’s game gets a lot of things right). So, someone like Steph Houghton, captain at both national champions – and moneybags – Manchester City and England, could earn up to £65,000 in a year, which is admittedly measly compared to Manchester United and England captain counterpart Wayne Rooney’s total of £15,600,000 a year (minus a lot of it for tax) which you can discover more about here if you want to be truly disgusted.
Still, at £65,000 a year, Houghton earns roughly double the national average for the normal citizen of the UK, which surely keeps wages to a realistic cap, as nobody wants to see footballers earn cripplingly high annual wages to the level of a recent failure in terms of performance such as Wayne Rooney. This is a man who could pay off the debts of dozens of clubs in non-league football, donate to a range of well-deserving charities and help fund the introduction of a women’s budget equal to that of the men’s team at Lewes FC (maybe that was what Ramsden was holding out for all along) and still have the money to spare for the upkeep of his Cheshire mansion, the private schooling of his children and his collection of Range Rovers and guitars. Chuck in a couple of holidays to Dubai and California, an investment in a racehorse and numerous nights out with his mates, and I’m sure Rooney will be a happy, as well as a spent up man. Anyway, I think I’m moving away from the point. What I was going to say was surely the salaries of leading men’s players should be brought down, rather than women’s wages being forced up on the basis of equality. Personally, I don’t think the product of gender equality should be unthinkably extortionate and totally unrealistic wage hikes for one side, who have apparently suffered in not earning the same level of wages as some of the most corrupt, spoilt and altogether worthless men on the planet, professional male footballers. This point may not apply at Lewes FC, but if pay equality is required to right one of the many wrongs of football, it should be strived after in order to be delivered in my view, but only in a way that satisfies all.
The thing is, the way I would rather have it, with men’s wages brought down in accordance to the level of women’s, who could do with earning a few bob more than they currently do in a lot of cases, will never, ever happen because there are so many heartless, sexist, corrupt businessmen in charge of the game who will simply shoot down the idea as soon as anyone chimes up. It is pointless in suggesting anything that would apparently detract from the men’s game, because it is the philosophy of bigger and better that have got corporations like the Premier League to where they are today, and that isn’t likely to stop at least in the near future.
If one thing is for sure though; it is that women’s football continues to grow with the support of more fans every single time a game is played, and the opportunities for female players have certainly improved massively over recent history. The facilities are there for young players to rise through the ranks, as many regional sides have a range of girls and women’s teams for the next generation to progress through, and the misconceptions of the women’s game are fading game by game. It’s not a tomboy’s game, it’s not a game in which the competitors are wearing ‘tighter shorts’ like Sepp Blatter suggested, it’s an inclusive and forward-thinking branch of the sport which should be celebrated for all it has achieved and will continue to go on to achieve, breaking barriers down. It hasn’t always received the support it deserved from the footballing governments of FIFA and respective FA’s, but it has found a place in the world for itself like Frankenstein’s monster, and is finally now shedding its misconceived image to flourish, rather unlike the monster, more like the ugly duckling. And in many ways, other branches of women’s sport have gone through, and are still going through, these dramatic changes, including tennis, where male and female players now earn exactly the same for their performances in Grand Slams (after some controversy in the introduction of this system), cricket and rugby, where in both cases English players on the women’s side first turned professional just a few years ago, and their pay is just making ground on the men’s at an admittedly slow pace.
But progress is being made, and it should be encouraged in any form it takes these days, just as long as that momentum can be carried forward into the future with ground-breaking changes. One day, just one day, we might see men and women being paid at the exact same level in the beautiful game, but sadly I think that ‘we’ might represent people 25 or 50 years down the line from us, and will only be delivered once FIFA, or whoever wants to encourage it, has a charismatic and sensible leader with the drive enough to implement this change, which can only be backed up if the men’s and women’s games are equal; if attendances, income, opportunities and relevance are the same, then pay should be too. For me, it is as simple as that if football wants to be ground-breaking and brave enough to take that step at the right time. In the case of Lewes FC though, this time should not be confused as now, and ‘football’ should not be confused as just Lewes. I know they are ambitious and believe passionately in this ideal, but the substance just isn’t there right now, so they will have to wait. But they, amongst us all, can make massive progress during that time, and I’m sure we’d all appreciate that at the very least.
With the passing of another international window last week in which England still failed to clear the air on their ineffective playing style, nor come any closer to definitively getting an idea of who the next manager should be, life in the consistently inconsistent world of football seems to be going as per usual. Inevitably, the talk turned to if Gareth Southgate showed enough to be handed the responsibility of the job of senior team manager on a permanent basis, to which my resounding answer would be ‘no, I don’t honestly think so’, and if Southgate isn’t appointed after a qualifier against Scotland and a friendly against Spain in November, who would it be? In fact, it wasn’t just who, but specifically which nation should they be from, and if the England manager should be imperatively English over any other factor, contrasting arguably old-fashioned patriotism with modern-thinking diversity of nationalities and ideas. Well, considering I’m here to challenge certain views from certain topical subjects in the past week, I felt obliged to you, my loyal and long-suffering audience, to pick up on this story this week and offer my unique analysis. Seems fair enough, doesn’t it? Anyway, more to the point, the specific question I chose to base this blog around, as I’m sure you’ve already seen, pits the importance of the nationality of certain managers against the facts, as I attempt to find a definitive response to the query of if, when all is said and done, managers from foreign nations (outside of the UK) do actually live up to their hype in beating British managers at their own game. Let’s go ahead and find out then, shall we?
Starting off on this treacherous and sometimes misleading path to answers then, it’s important to establish the basics before we go any further. I should explain, when I define foreign managers in the UK, I’m open to including their performances at respective clubs across the English Premier League and Football League (or EFL, if you prefer), as these two will be the most useful in discovering the facts for the case of the England team and the FA, who ultimately hold the biggest stakes and responsibility in these top four leagues. Without wanting to sound like a bigoted UKIP councillor then, what I’m aiming to uncover with this investigation is if foreign managers are actually any better than our own home-grown offerings and if the influx of them from leagues such as La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A is justified, amongst various other questions that may pop up along the way. Ultimately though, in a week in which the spotlight has been creaked towards the FA, the question honestly should be if they need to turn to a foreign candidate if they want to succeed, as long as it has been proven they are more effective and successful on average than the usual English options.
Explaining where the trend of importing talented bosses from overseas came into the English game then is a slightly more cloudy subject than it should appear on face value, as in fact the first to take this step in the Premier League was Spurs with former player Ossie Ardiles, the Argentine maverick of whom the famed Chas & Dave song about the FA Cup final of 1981 is dedicated. This wasn’t his only job in English football following his effective retirement from the playing side of the game in 1989 though, as prior to joining his favoured club in 1994, he was boss at Swindon, Newcastle and West Brom, where he found both his feet in the managerial game and success with his South American-influenced early tiki-taka style. It took a fairly long time for another foreign-born coach to grace the Premier League though, and this time it was another club legend in Ruud Gullit (as player-manager) at Chelsea in 1996, who won the 1997 FA Cup while rapidly reinventing the West London club for the better, before being sacked in controversial circumstances in falling out with the board.
Looking at the series of events leading to how we view the game today, this was probably the defining point at which most clubs realised foreign managers could fit the bill at the top of the game, with Gullit providing the cool, confident leadership nowadays synonymous with overseas managers such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte. With Gullit’s success being followed up by the appointments of a fresh Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Christian Gross at Spurs, Gullit’s successor Gianluca Vialli at Chelsea and the era-defining Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, this was also a period in which overseas players were being drafted into the EPL at an alarming rate, with the increasing pulling power of richer English clubs ushering in a new era of English football.
Increasing in relevance ever since then, the success of foreign managers has been quite an outspoken subject in the wider picture of English football, with some completely supporting the gloriously gluttonous pick-and-mix attitude of Premier League clubs in accordance with their increase in income from television deals and global sponsorship, while others yearning for a return to the days of honest, home-grown football. Either way, no side can be truthfully content with the current situation when looking at it theoretically; although I’m sure you can guess which of the sides has had their way more than the other when considering the fact that 13 of the 20 currently active EPL bosses are non-British/Irish. Taking this into consideration, my question would be; is this an unavoidable bi-product of the raging competitiveness and commercialism of the modern game, or is it a conscious decision on the part of the clubs involved, who have found that British managers just don’t succeed at the top ranks of the game? I should just say, that is considering none of the seven active British managers in the EPL finished above ninth place last season (Mark Hughes with Stoke), and from the remaining six, three (Tony Pulis, Alan Pardew and Eddie Howe) finished 14th, 15th and 16th respectively, one was promoted from the Championship (Sean Dyche at Burnley), while the others (David Moyes and Mike Phelan) weren’t managing at the time.
Well, there’s no doubt that with more money flooding in to each club in the EPL, there has been a higher likelihood for them each to appoint foreign bosses (although I don’t have a useful graph to show you), as the trajectories of each event have come together in accordance over the past 20 years. This isn’t to say the top clubs are going to exclusively be on the lookout for foreign bosses every time they require a new head of footballing affairs, it’s just that with more money, the opportunities to appoint the very best in the world open for themselves. For example, clubs are more likely to match the wage demands or release clauses of bosses such as Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola if they are making £515.3 million in revenue, like Manchester United did in the past year. When you have so much money to use in your decision making, and with so much depending on the return of that investment (for shareholders and owners, who will be eyeing up profits in order to strip as much for themselves as possible), it’s vital that you pick the right man for the job, and more often than not the most impressive candidate in this decision will be a foreigner.
As a matter of fact, board members will bank on the likes of Mourinho, Guardiola, Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Slaven Bilic, Ronald Koeman and Antonio Conte to deliver the positive results in the most financially powerful competitions in the world far more often than they would with Steve Bruce, Alan Pardew or Sam Allardyce (who’s he?). Objectively, there is a definite division between the styles and demeanours of these managers compared to those from overseas. Be honest, what do you picture when you think of a typical English manager, say Harry Redknapp? Outdated, no-nonsense, unfashionable and maybe even mediocre? Yeah, that’s what I though, without even mentioning the reputation they have for slips of the tongue, which become far more apparent than they do with overseas bosses in account of the results they are providing for both fans and board members, which overseas managers have a reputation for beating the locals at.
It’s worth noting though; English managers can beat those coming into a foreign environment at one thing; loyalty and longevity. When taking a look through the vital statistics in Premier League history, of the eleven managers to take charge of more than 300 EPL matches, only one has come from outside the British (and Irish) Isles, and that is Arsene Wenger, an anomaly of massive proportions. In fact, Wenger is second in the list, around 50 matches behind the great Sir Alex Ferguson, a record that could be broken providing Wenger turns down the England (or any other) job offer and signs a new contract with the North London club, while only two other current bosses feature in David Moyes, in fourth, and Mark Hughes, who will soon overtake Steve Bruce into sixth. Looking at win percentages though (of managers who have survived over 100 EPL matches), it isn’t such a pretty picture for British hopefuls, as only four of the top ten managers in Premier League history are native to these isles, with Fergie (no, not the one from the Black Eyed Peas) in second, Kenny Dalglish seventh, Roy Evans, also of Liverpool, eighth and the late great Sir Bobby Robson tenth. With every match Jose Mourinho, currently top of the table, slips up in with Manchester United though, the gap between him and the retired Ferguson is narrowing, with the current win percentages standing at roughly 66% to 65%, just going to show how difficult it is to sustain the kind of winning run the legendary Scot produced time after time, if nothing else.
As I began to analyse the wider record of all Premier League managers over its history though, the polarisation between those of different nationalities began to draw wider, demonstrating the diversity of performance throughout the ages, significantly depending on hundreds of outside factors. Using the most recent stats available to me (or at least I could find on Google), at the end of the 2013/14 EPL season, I discovered that from every single manager in EPL history – including caretakers - , British and Irish bosses came out with an overall win percentage of 25.57%, while overseas coaches surged ahead with a 42.42% win rate. When taking into account purely managers who took charge of more than 50 matches though, both sides’ percentages rose, with the home-grown rate rising to 31.78%, and the success of foreign bosses taking a hike to 44.39%.
While these results may seem conclusive though, there are a lot of facts to take into account, such as the overall amount for British bosses being wildly affected by a number of caretaker managers who maybe only took charge of two or three matches, and failed to win any, and the standard of clubs managed by either home-grown or overseas coaches. For example, of the 14 clubs managed by the 18 managers who have taken charge of 50 or more EPL matches, seven managers have been at Chelsea, three have been at Spurs, two have been at Liverpool, and with one each at Portsmouth (who were a top club at the time), Arsenal, Everton and Man City, you begin to see why their win percentage is so comparatively high. This of course is with the exceptions of Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, Michael Laudrup at Swansea, Gianfranco Zola at West Ham and Roberto Martinez at Wigan, who all did very well for the restricted budgets and statuses of each of their clubs, so really you have to be left to make your own conclusions from these stats.
It should be mentioned though, on another table I found (here if you want to have a look) the rest of the top 30 managers in terms of matches managed is, in all but the one case of Roberto Martinez, populated by English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish managers. From the 43% win rate of Kevin Keegan to the 28% served up by Steve Bruce, this yet again demonstrates the longevity of British managers, while also giving a little more insight into actually how successful these guys have been, surprisingly impressive in many cases, throughout their long careers in management. Whilst mentioning long careers, it’s got to be pointed out that in this table, the youngest British manager is Mark Hughes, 52 years old now, representing a lack of young home-grown talent coming through after being stunted by the aforementioned financial success of the Premier League model, which not only restricts opportunities for home-grown players, but evidently managers now too.
But these statistics can easily be misinterpreted to fit the opinions of many journalists and fans, so I must clarify that these percentages shouldn’t be taken exactly at face value, as then a whole load of false facts could be formed. Let’s be clear; the win percentage of a certain manager entirely depends on the budgets they have available, standard of existing players at the club, facilities which the club has to offer, the level of competition around them and many other outside factors, so we cannot rank Mourinho as the best manager in Premier League history simply because he has won the most games in the shortest period of time. No, the quality of a manager depends on much more than that; developing players, working with difficult budget constraints, motivating the players and forging the perfect tactic to work into different match situations, with players able to fulfil their roles to an x, which would see the manager’s job look easy when it all comes together.
It’s easy to see why Sam Allardyce came to the conclusion in a press conference prior to his West Ham side’s match against Man City (then managed by Roberto Mancini) in 2012 that if his surname was Allardici (or rather if he was Italian, as he was implying) he would be in charge of a top four club. This came a few years after his assertions that if he was given the job at Real Madrid (can you imagine?!) he would win the title every season, taking a dig at the bias of football chairmen and board directors, who he fairly stereotyped to favour a foreign hand to take the helm. I’ve got to say, I would back this opinion, as the successors of Fergie at Manchester United have each proven the position isn’t as easy as the Scot made it look. Even with the multi-million signings of Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata from David Moyes, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Anthony Martial from Louis van Gaal(‘S RED ARMY!) and Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović from Jose (although it is a bit too early to judge for the poor Portuguese), the throne has become no more comfortable for each incumbent. So, there is a lot to prove if Mourinho, or anyone else wants to prove they can do any better with what, in reality, is a much bigger budget than Ferguson ever used, with arguably the best squad in the circumstances (other than maybe 1999 or 2007) in the Premier League era of history of the club. Of course this is only one example, but it is a painful one for me (sob, sob), and one of the most glaring in the modern era of the game, demonstrating that the nationality of a manager doesn’t necessarily dictate how well they will perform in a certain role.
So, taking this into account, is this just the FA’s problem, in forming (or, rather, failing to form) a system which produces cutting-edge, varied and intelligent managers who have the ability and confidence to manage in the true upper echelons of the game’s hierarchy, Champions League clubs fighting for titles? Surely that’s got to be the reason we as a nation fail to keep up with others in relative golden periods right now, such as Spain, Germany, France, Italy and Argentina? Well, as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog (six weeks ago now, I believe), this is something the FA has pinpointed as a major fault in previous generations, and something they are apparently working hard to fix, but we must be patient for the results. You’d have to assume that is the case at least, without being on the inside, as the best specifically English candidates for the England job we have at the moment are Gareth Southgate, who has only had been employed at Middlesbrough and the FA in his career, Eddie Howe, a career-long devotee to Bournemouth so far, and Alan Pardew I guess, who has never reached the heights of the Premier League. Edit: When first writing this, I cast Pardew off as a poor option, but when realising what he has actually achieved in the game with lowly clubs is crazy, as he has admittedly reached two FA Cup finals (coming both times with West Ham in 2006 and Crystal Palace just this year) and finishing 5th with an extremely average Newcastle side in 2011/12, winning the Premier League Manager of the Year in the process. So there you go, he might just be the perfect choice for the job, as long as you ignore his head-butt on David Meyler and abuse of Manuel Pellegrini, calling him a rather harsh ‘f***ing old c**t’ (#LAD) after a few touchline disagreements in a match back in 2014.
All we can do for now though I guess is focus our, and when I say our I mean the FA’s, resources on improving these coaching qualifications for future bosses as much as possible, allowing them both the freedom to create their own era-defining styles, à la Guardiola or Klopp, and the education to test their credentials in as rigorous a test as possible. What England needs is progressive, rather than submissive, managers, people willing to take (educated) risks in order to get to the top, with something different from each candidate in order to discover what really works, depending on the game situation. What the FA needs, more than anything, is to look at the rest of the world, see what is effective, and beat them at their own game of rapid improvement. Right now though, we are the ones being beaten, getting pushed back behind the other runners in a marathon of football, but certainly with enough stamina to retake a strong foothold in the proceedings as long as we knuckle down, believe in ourselves and run our own race, because we cannot afford to be ignored and languish in failure; the England team needs to succeed. And part of where that starts is with enough talented, top-level English managers to challenge for positions at the very top of the game, no matter whether the FA is going to appoint an English manager or not.
Yes, that’s right, after that impassioned speech about the importance of English managers; I’m saying it doesn’t actually matter whether the England team appoints a foreigner or an Englishman for the position. Why should it? As far as I’m aware, from my findings there is no distinct difference between the nationalities in terms of performance, other than in totally different circumstances, such as Jose Mourinho at Chelsea vs Sam Allardyce at Sunderland, where no real conclusion can be made other than foreigners are favoured for the top jobs because they have been successful in other nations. So, in response to my question and title for this very blog, yes I think we do celebrate foreign managers a little too much, we are a little too easy to lay plaudits at their feet as soon as they go on a winning run of over three matches compared to our attitude towards English managers, who always seem to be on a little more scrutiny than their overseas counterparts, as the threat of getting the England job is always hanging over their heads as Englishmen, and as soon as that happens all the tabloids will be on your case, revealing your darkest secrets. In future, I think we should be a little more considerate for both sides really, and hope that we should not view them as two distinct and totally opposite groups, rather just managers of the beautiful game who happen to come from nations, some (all) of which are more successful at football than England, and others, who are from England and the rest of the UK. Let’s celebrate football for all it is worth, because the game belongs to us all, and that makes it only fair enough to have as many managers of different nationalities in the Premier League, providing the opportunities for home-grown coaches are still there.
‘I’m too good to you, I’m way too good to you, you take my love for granted, I just don’t understand it’. Yes, these are the immortal words of the Canadian-Barbadian philosophers Drake and Rihanna in one of the most undoubtedly catchy pop songs of recent times. But for me, these words don’t just play the static roles of bringing the song to an emotionally-stimulating climax summing up the difficult relationship between two trying lovers, but instead summarise the similarly strained ties between football fans and international football at this point in time. It seems strange to me how much abuse and blame can be targeted at a form of the beautiful game which at best is played about every two months, and features representation from each and every corner of the globe, when the real issues in football from my perspective seem to be in the upper echelons of the club game, which Twitter users and Instagram ‘football fan’ pages seem to covet without exception. Maybe it’s the fact that this unique form of football has failed to capture the imagination of a new generation of fans, obsessed and self-entitled to constant, high-tempo, engrossing football broadcasted to their living rooms thanks to the magical monopoly of Sky Sports and BT Sport over global club football competitions from the Premier League to the FA Cup, La Liga and Champions League. Question is; are these Instagram pages just pandering to popular belief for followers or expressing their own views which others then pick up? There must be some explanation for the quiet, muttering backlash against international football, or the much-hated ‘international break’ as they like to tarnish it, as if clubs should be entitled to playing all the time and it is so kind of them to allow their national FA’s to organise a national side to compete with others.
I don’t think that allowing their national team to meet and play is too much to ask from clubs and fans across each country really, as in fact it should only be a positive thing for them. It should be seen as an honour for clubs to have their players rewarded with a place in the best squad a country has available, and fans should see it as an interesting and different experience of the game. In fact, I’m most perplexed because I personally care passionately about the state of international football, as some of my earliest and best memories of football come from the 2010 South Africa World Cup. I can vividly remember when I ran out of the house onto gravel with just my socks on (big mistake, and yes I was wearing other things on my body other than socks, don’t be so childish) celebrating Steven Gerrard’s goal against the USA, when I was sat in the kitchen on my own watching Spain against Paraguay with free rein of all food and drink and when I stayed up late just to witness Andres Iniesta’s tournament-deciding goal in extra time against the Netherlands. I was inspired by the backdrop of Table Mountain from BBC’s coverage and caught up in the seemingly endless drama of the tournament itself, just as I was with my first Euros in 2012 and in every major international tournament (from an England perspective) since.
But I sense it isn’t the aspect of international tournaments that is the target of impatience with the purely FIFA-regulated form of the game from fans, rather the stop-start style which has become synonymous with international football or the arguably slow, predictable and dreary qualifying period for the eventual tournaments themselves. Let’s be clear; international football has an image problem, especially in qualifiers and friendlies, and that for a lot of people is far too easy to latch onto and give as their reason for backing away from that specific form of the game. For fans who want to see the top players in the world facing off against each other on a daily, or weekly, basis, international football isn’t as desirable, as for every one match between, let’s say, Spain and Germany, there’s going to be about 10 matches between, for example, San Marino and Estonia. That’s no insult to the latter pairing, in fact I think matches such as those are part of what makes international football so great, but it is a simple fact that impatient modern day fans aren’t going to want to tune into that specific match if it were to be televised on any channel, let alone with the insight of expert pundits (paid hundreds of thousands) on Sky or BT.
I guess the main reason for this indifferent feeling towards international football is the typically leisurely way in which most teams go about their in-game approach, with laboured play almost unrecognisable from the rapid style of most Premier League teams (admittedly in the league which is widely recognised as the most physically demanding in the world). This laboured passing style, synonymous with the England team in particular, is pretty off-putting for potential and long-serving fans, especially when coupled with the defensive approach of more defensive or smaller footballing nations such as Slovakia and most probably Malta today (Saturday 8th). These teams are infuriating for many, as they will happily throw entertainment value out of the window in order to pursue three points on the counter or one lucky point parking the bus. The thing is though, when as a country you only have ten qualifying matches to do the best you can and hopefully qualify for the World Cup or Euros for example, which would be an absolutely massive progression for a smaller country such as Iceland (don’t remind us), you can’t afford any slip-ups or many defeats, so you have to find an effective tactic for you. So for many managers of smaller nations, the way forward is, ironically, to go back to basics and dig in for results, no matter how ugly it may be. So try and appreciate how much it matters to these nations the next time you’re lamenting their ‘boring’ style of play, as nobody wants to see total walkovers in international football, do they?
But let me take you back for a while; to the days before true professionalism among the best players, and when international football was more realistically the most respected and revered level of the game, no matter whether it was a friendly, qualifier or tournament finals game. Playing for England made legends of local players, and success in international competitions could be totally transformative, a godsend in fact, for the countries which were so fortunate to taste it, so the form of the game was held in a very high regard by managers, players and fans the world around. In fact, club managers, unselfish and very sporting in their actions, would happily let their star players go away for international duty if it meant the nation would have a better chance at success, in stark contrast to the way Arsene Wenger, Brendan Rodgers and Jose Mourinho have barred players from being called up in the past with examples including Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge and Diego Costa. Fans had a great love of their national team, putting all their hopes behind them rather than the half-hearted efforts we see from England fans, worn down by years of self-inflicted misery, these days, and the national media arguably weren’t as quick to react to slight failure, and were more praising of positive performances. Well, at least the evidence that the team would’ve been lambasted would be small, as there wasn’t social media to tear the players and management down as soon as they made one simple mistake. I’ve got to say, there was more desire on the part of the players back then, as they didn’t injure easily like these soft players today who perplexingly pull something in training or warming up for the match itself, so those on the pitch were handed far more respect, at least for their physical capabilities rather than the wage they ‘earned’ and the playboy lifestyles they lived, which seem to be the only reasons we envy professional footballers these days.
These were the days in which international football meant everything to players. You could have a terrible club season and totally redeem your reputation with one outstanding performance for your nation, particularly if it was at the World Cup finals, believe you me. It was the pinnacle of the game, but that is just something you can’t say about international football today without sounding deluded, and for me that is a regrettable sign of the advances money has made in wildly improving wages of honestly fairly average players into the distasteful spectacle we see today. The thing is, once cash-loaded chairmen came in to fund shots at success at clubs across the country in England, professionalism made huge advances in eventually bringing footballer’s wages above the national average for a worker, leading on to today where certain players can earn ten times the national average yearly wage in just a week. That is absolutely ridiculous, and shows how club football overtaking international football – in which players can typically earn a few thousand pounds for each appearance, which is ironically in most cases donated to charity - has edited the landscape of football with its unbelievable rise in stature. Maybe, after all I’ve mentioned, this is just an Anglo-centric issue, which no other nation faces on quite the same scale, but there are other nations which have wildly unachieved on the international stage considering their history and love of the game, such as Spain until 2008 and, actually, no other example I can think of (that’s a bit sad for England, isn’t it really?).
So how can internationals repair their broken reputation and bring back fans to what seems a pretty lifeless and dejected party right now? First of all, I guess we have to decide who can be held responsible to fix it in the best and most realistic way they see possible. Is it FIFA, is it the continental organisations such as UEFA, is it us as the fans, or is it the national FA’s who each have a team representing their national pride against the best of the best around them? Well, I see it as each of our responsibilities in all honesty. Obviously, there are some major things FIFA could do to advance the game in terms of excitement and accessibility, as it needs a shake-up to deal with the complaints it has been given, meaning FIFA should be focusing on what the fans want as much as is possible and realistic. Personally, I was fairly unmoved at first by president Gianni Infantino’s suggestion that the World Cup might include a whopping 48 teams sooner rather than later, more than the original 40 he promised in his election manifesto and way more than the current 32. But I think it could honestly be a good idea for the development of the game is growing nations, with more involvement from wider regions of the globe - for example Oceania, where more often than not no side gets to the finals, and Asia, which despite being the most populous continent on earth is only guaranteed four places, with another on offer in the inter-continental play-off phase.
But I’d argue myself that the World Cup isn’t the problem in terms of international football, as it is the most viewed sporting event in the world, and the most lucratively prestigious, so it certainly isn’t failing. Where Infantino and FIFA should be focusing their efforts and funds is to the preliminary stages, qualifying and friendlies, where interest is flailing and so much more could be made of the promise these matches have, considering the vast array of nations and cultures involved. By delegating this responsibility to the continental associations though, I think FIFA are being irresponsible and lazy, as they aren’t standing up for what is, in reality, their problem, and I don’t think that is good enough. For example, UEFA have had to stand up over the past few years to form their own Nations League, an exciting proposition scheduled to start in late 2018 in which all 55 UEFA nations will be able to play regular competitive games, replacing friendlies, in four separate leagues of four groups, featuring promotion and relegation as rewards and punishments for either prospering or failing to perform. Now this is great for the future of European football, but it’s not going to be the case for those outside the continent, so what are these other nations going to do? See their football turn to meaningless mush while more prosperous European nations are off making money and new fans? For me, and I’m sure for people outside the continent, this isn’t good enough, and they need FIFA to step up to the plate and get things done to hopefully recreate this system on their continent, or maybe even on a global scale, with the best sides in the world all facing off regularly. Let’s be clear; this is what fans these days want, world-class players from each nation facing off to decide who can be the best, and showcase their skills to the world for entertainment, because at the end of the day that is what football is supposed to be about for the fans.
More investment could also be pumped by the federation into lesser nations for better facilities and footballing systems, as if this could happen, it would make these nations more competitive on the international stage, and who wouldn’t want that? It would become a truly World Cup at that point; when the best of the best from all over the globe are competing to the top of their abilities. Being good hosts to these countries by gifting them these new facilities would also cement trust and garner further interest in the game, which is absolutely vital for the future of international football, and is totally doable for FIFA, as if they had to spend any of their billions on anything, surely this would be worth it?
More than anything, FIFA needs to fix the broken trust and the holes in the system dissipating interest rapidly, patching up the relationship between the matches it presides over and the fans that hold stakes in them. For these fans, cheering for their nation to do well is one of the most powerful emotions in sport of any sort, particularly football, and if fans can do that without complaint, I think that is a success for FIFA, as it means they are doing their job. It’s not too much to ask from the most powerful organisation in the sport, is it?
You’ve got to say though, a portion of the blame for some of the non-events witnessed on the international stage over the past few years must fall to the players themselves, who can’t be seriously ‘giving their all’ if they are strolling around for fair portions of the match, and especially if they can’t beat Iceland (can you still sense the bitterness?). Admittedly, with statements like the ones released this week from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that being back in the squad made him realise how much it meant was encouraging to hear, but you have to take everything footballers say these days with a pinch of salt as they go through hours of media training in order to know what the right thing to say is, and in this case it was. I do think players take being in their national side for granted, as us fans take the form of football for granted as I explained at the start (well done if you’re still with me by the way), and this does need to be addressed.
If it was my decision, and I know it never will be, I would change footballer’s contracts to the system used in English cricket, where central and incremental contracts are used by the ECB (English Cricket Board) to reward the best players with different types of contract. The former, central, means the ECB, or FA in this case, pays the entirety of the player’s wage and can therefore effectively own them for use in competition, but players can still be played for their club and transferred as fees are paid between teams. The latter, incremental, is a lesser version which results in the national association paying an additional wage to the player on top of the club’s wage, so the player can be used on and off for the national side. Seems pretty simple, right? It is, and it has led to plenty of success for England’s respective Test, ODI and Twenty20 teams over the past few years as the national side can pick and choose who it wants to represent them on the international stage depending on how they perform, and take away their contract if they don’t. While there are distinct differences between the two sports, with internationals undoubtedly being the pinnacle of the game in cricket and less money swamping the game in the bat-and-ball sport – future England captain and star batsman across all three formats Joe Root receiving around £1 million a year in his latest contract – I feel this system could work in football. That is providing football was ever likely to want to change, but it’s widely renowned as the most fickle and stubborn sport around, and I don’t see any reason for that changing with the amount of billionaire investors and corrupt officials there are in the game right now. This change wouldn’t suit them, even if it would incentivise international players to work much harder for their nations and in a way cap players wages (which can only be a good thing) as the FA couldn’t afford to pay Wayne Rooney £250,000 a week. Oh well, it’s worth suggesting at least, don’t you think?
In a modern footballing world of fakery, money and corruption then, international football is the big loser of the game. With this form of the game; nothing is forced, there is very little that goes on behind closed doors, very little money is involved (other than in a national manager’s hefty contract) and it is basically impossible to use as a Trojan horse for dodgy dealings (other than if you’re FIFA, and you award Qatar the 2022 World Cup in totally legal circumstances). I’ve got to say, I feel sorry for international football as it is being pushed to the back of most fans’ minds, all because these short-minded viewers are being brainwashed by the entertainment provided by a disgustingly cash-fuelled, star-studded machine at the club level and being deceived over what real football is. Sure, they’ll be all over the Euros and World Cup, but they are only too happy to jump on the bandwagon criticising the qualification system. I understand your sentiments, but you cannot be that hypocritical and self-compromising, otherwise you just look like a fool. But the main point here is that international football used to make heroes of certain players and used to be the absolute highlight of the game, but it now stands as an apology for competitive football, forgotten and thrown away by many and unable to capture imaginations. Something has to be done now to salvage a vital component of the footballing scenery for fans everywhere, as it desperately needs a revival to return it to its former glory.
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!