When you talk about philosophy; surely this question takes the biscuit, doesn’t it? Well, our headline this week may be a little unrealistic, poking a bit of fun at the over-reactive tabloids or even the click-baiting social media sites we witness on a daily basis in modern life, but when altered a little, there is the potential to have a thought-provoking debate at hand, right across the football community. When studying the global footballing landscape in the 21st century, and proposing the query of ‘how important is football to the world today?’, or ‘what if football had never had its late-20th century boom?’, there is certainly the need for a discussion. Honestly, if these questions are left unanswered, football may continue down its clearly dangerous financial path, or even aimlessly stumble onto an even more treacherous one, risking the health of our already-battered and bruised game. So, just how vital is football to the world we live in today, considering the billions of pounds in televisual income and high-end sponsorship that rolls in to the coffers of club chairmen, and more importantly the taxmen, benefitting the economies of a number of highly developed nations the world over? How many people, as an industry, does it keep in a job, and where would these people be without the sport, at least in its professional, multi-billion pound industry, ranks? Finally, and I suppose most significantly – considering I bang on every week about football belonging to the fans – how would our lives be shaped without the sport, which I, amongst up to billions of others across the globe, adore so much, and base our lives around?
Well, in response to these hypothetical, some may argue pointless (who would dare, though?), questions, there are flippant responses, and there are measured, laterally-considered responses. Obviously, I’m here today to offer you the latter, rather than the juvenile and unforgivingly forthright ‘why talk about something that hasn’t even happened?’, for example, as I truly believe that, while I accept this is a theoretical debate, it is worth discussing in order to comprehend the inner workings of football in the past, present and future, and to more closely explore the role of football in our ever-changing and entirely unpredictable world. It is at times a challenging debate to fully get your head around, but it is an entirely useful and stimulating one which deserves a light being shone upon it in order to realise the world we live in, and the standing football has in the fabric of it. When peered upon, it does seem incredible that a sport should have such a massive impact upon the lives of everyone, as football does not only affect its fans, but also those who come under the umbrellas of society as an entirety, and that is what we are closing our targets upon this week, a blog for all, both the fans and the doubters.
Some people may rubbish the concept that football affects all lives in the world, but over the course of this article, I will attempt to clarify why, I believe, backed up with the vital facts and statistics, it does, despite its perceived irrelevance to outward society as a simple sport. Obviously, many have caught on to the fact that football is much more than this, especially in the 21st century, as commercialisation creeps further and further into our daily lives, corresponding with the increased investment in sports, most notably football, from a number of trans-national corporations with bucks to spare. As many national newspapers go into decline in terms of sales, their reliance on the power of sport, again most prominently football in this country, as across a number of other nations in Europe and South America, escalates, desperately looking to break the next big story – as we have seen with the Telegraph and Sam Allardyce this year – or join in on the latest scandal, offering often controversial opinions on even the most meaningless of topics. The juggernaut that is professionalised football also vitally must employ hundreds of millions across the globe, so despite its many faults, football may have a redeeming feature throughout its increasing globalisation and callous commercialism, in that it keeps physically talented players, mentally (sometimes) gifted managers, loyal club officials and traversing journalists in stable occupation, in a dream industry for many young-at-heart sports fanatics.
Would all of these people be left on the dole if football hadn’t had its post-1966 economic boom though? Well, I seriously doubt it, but if one thing was for sure, their personal levels of job satisfaction would deplete considerably. As will be the theme throughout this blog, in this ulterior world we are imagining, without the existence of professionalised football, there would obviously be one, or even a number, of other sports looking to take over the reign of the sporting world, and the enviable – or unenviable, depending on your cynicism to the subject – title of the most valuable, and most commonly partaken, sport on the globe. Question is; would any of these, from rugby, cricket, athletics, basketball, golf, tennis or cycling, be as ruthlessly effective in building an undeniably brilliant cash cow in the ilk of football? Well, as long as the possibility of money is distinct, I’m sure the same Russian oligarchs, Arabian royals and American business tycoons would still be capitalising, but would their already tepid interest be amplified or diminished? All things considered, it would be difficult to tell, as in our era, one defined by online scandal, untruth and corruption, there seems to be a fine line for these sugar daddies between actually caring for the future of the club they invest in, and only being in the game for the potential personal financial benefits. I could only imagine this type of mystery to the men and women behind the success of a number of clubs and leagues in the professional ranks of certain sports would continue on, no matter the sport which took football’s mantle, as the magnates involved wouldn’t change, so the way these sports would be run – behind closed doors at least – would shape up in an eerily similar manner to that of present-day professional football.
Would everyday life be the same though, or would it take on an entirely different guise, akin to that of a Back to the Future film, where the idea that a single alteration to the world we live in could change the face of the earth and how we see it, is explored? Obviously, without the use of a predictograph (not really a word, just a mockery of the predicting business, a foolish one if I ever saw it), or any expert opinions based on the global economic footballing trends, we are left to form our own views of how the world would form without its main leisure activity/sporting industry. Firstly, let’s say if one of the other four top five most popular sports – according to Total Sportek’s survey based on 13 separate and equally important factors such as their economies, number of viewers and average player salary – basketball, cricket, tennis or athletics, the first unlikely to be recognised as dominant at any point in the UK, hold off all other opposition and take the crown of the most popular worldwide sport. Naturally, this territory should come with its spoils, some of which helped them to the top, others garnered as they assume this position, such as unprecedented televisual broadcasting income or sponsorship deals.
If a practically year-round, world-class sport – clearly the most important factors to fans considering football’s continuing appeal -, out of these more likely to be basketball or cricket, is the one to take this handle, then these deals will fly in for most, if not all, clubs and leagues involved in the national and international disciplines of the game, with fixtures piling up in the process, as the viewer becomes more hungry for action. The providers of a majority of club and overall sport income, Sky and BT here in the UK, ESPN and Fox in the States, and so on, demand this from clubs, players and leagues, as they require continuous, ironically, talking points, to fill their otherwise dull and monotonous (as if they aren’t already), ludicrously priced subscription channels. In doing this, they degrade the sport with more and more wads of cold, hard cash, which always works, no matter who with or where in the world they are dealing, the system working far too easily for these corporations, as they rake in millions, if not billions, while sucking like leeches on the viewer’s insatiable appetite for world-class sporting action. They know their market; you can give them that at least.
So, I think we’ve established that the commercial side of the sporting world would appear incredibly similar to what we witness on a daily basis right now, with even the most obscure teams and leagues getting more coverage than ever as these corporations discover more about the viewer’s desires, tapping into the idea of human curiosity to make even more dough. The way I see it, the development of the forward-most sports in the world would also follow the path well-trodden by football. Objectively, the current story of the FIFA-headed sport expanding further into fresh, unbelievably promising markets such as the USA, India and China has a very similar tale to that of basketball and American football exploring the possibility of British involvement, cricket slowly treading the water in North America and mainland Europe, and tennis and athletics, which while already globally popular, are continually growing into previously untapped areas. Especially if these sports gained the expertise and know-how of sporting economist insiders, who would’ve otherwise been involved in football as the most prosperous sport, their increase in power and prosperity could prove to be absolutely transformative, taking these sports effectively through the glass ceiling which football has been reinforcing with glee, looking down at their competition and laughing in recent times. The roles would be completely reversed. Honestly, all this proves is how selfish yet tactically ingenious those in charge of the commercial side of football, notably including the heads of FIFA, UEFA and respective FA’s, as they are the responsible, lawful (which should come with the title as lawyers) representatives setting a precedent for their organisation, have been, now more than ever.
One thing I do see as changing with the slight switch of basketball, cricket, tennis or athletics for football, other than the obvious change in social norms – as youngsters would be brought up dreaming to be playing these sports, not the beautiful game, therefore sticking with these lifelong sporting preferences – is the shape-up of worldwide economies. Had football taken a dip post-1966, rather than gain millions of new fans after arguably the most progressive World Cup of all time, with possibly the best infrastructure and demand for the sport of any host country at each respective moment in time, and cricket, the most immediate challenger at the time, but still with nowhere near the capabilities, taken over, we could be living in a totally different world right now. In football, the sponsorship and exploitation of players, such as that of Bobby Moore’s endorsement of British pubs to Gareth Southgate’s self-mocking Pizza Hut advert and even Wayne Rooney’s shocking acting when promoting Casillero del Diablo, is one of the cringe-inducing commercial cornerstones of the game, but vital to encourage new sponsors, and therefore more money, into the sport in the eyes of those in charge. This trend would only be continued into sports that took over from where football left off in this ulterior society, but vitally, not on anywhere near the same scale, not without further investment first at least. With football continually expanding at breakneck speeds in our world today, with stakes in terms of professionalised leagues in almost every nation on the globe, the industry can draw on any number of potential sponsors, broadcasters and least importantly (apparently) fans, to provide with a real platform to garner world-changing amounts of cash in player, agent and transfer fees. Can you imagine how much of that spending respective governments garner in tax from these fees as well? (Well, I’ll tell you, it’s thought the Premier League alone is worth £1.3 billion, yes billion, to the UK Government every year!)
The thing is though; sports like basketball, cricket, tennis and athletics cannot call upon this platform of financial support in their quest to succeed, at least to the levels of football, as there isn’t enough raw emotion focused upon each of these sports that would topple those that the beautiful game draw out of fans. Maybe it’s because of the pick-and-mix attitude to global football these days, with any kind of delectable dish freshly prepared for you, the viewer, as soon as you want it, or maybe it’s because of the sheer accessibility of the sport around the entire globe, but particularly here in the UK, where you can hardly move from village to village without finding a club with fascinating history, playing the game to a reasonably high standard. Whatever it is, no other sport has been able to quite find that same striking balance, therefore leaving football as the distant leader in the market, despite the brilliant work of many other sports, almost all of which could claim a moral high ground over football.
What counts for respective global economies, though, isn’t morals, it’s cold, hard cash, something that those involved in football have realised and exploited to its full potential – well, maybe not full yet, but it seems ridiculous and unimaginable how far they’ve gone already. Had football not had the individuals or resources to do this, with other sports blessed – or cursed, again, it depends on your view – with them instead, it’s honestly difficult to say if they had taken advantage and expanded quite to the ranks football has in our reality, but if I’m giving my opinion, I would doubt it. I can’t quite see basketball, despite its popularity steadfast in some cases – North America – and growing in others – Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia -, tennis or athletics, even through their packed worldwide schedules and financial prosperity for competitors, or even cricket, with its completely devoted fans across the Commonwealth, but most notably in the sleeping giant of a market, India, going to same extremes that football has and succeeding. I can’t, even in a totally separate universe created for this experiment, honestly see these sports employing the arrays of lawyers and businessmen to boards, nor the extreme levels of sponsorship, televisual deals, ludicrous player wages and extortionate agent fees that football does - even though I do recognise that each of the sports I have mentioned do partake in each of these evils to a certain degree.
Finally, too, what about social impact? Maybe, had football – as it was a game-wide decision rather than one on the part of any individual - not chosen the path towards world domination that it did all those years ago, we wouldn’t have heard the names of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, with the performances of Steph Curry, Virat Kohli, Angelique Kerber and Dafne Schippers placed under a much more detailed lens by national broadcasters and newspapers instead. Certainly, we all would’ve grown up into different worlds had football not taken its universal decision to live, like Ebenezer Scrooge or Arthur Birling, a life of cold-blooded business, as we would’ve looked up to different individuals in the public eye, had different aspirations, memories, opinions and quite likely friends and colleagues, and overall experienced a different life, for better or for worse. All this because of football.
So, it’s true, my suspicions when I started this blogging adventure have turned out to be true, that football does shape each and every one of our lives, some obviously more than others, but because of its effect on global economics, the media, daily life and the career paths of hundreds of millions, whose families might rely on this income, we all hold an important stake in its financial success, whether we like it or not. Given another sport in its place, would our experience be any better, either in terms of morality or financial prosperity, but more importantly stability? It’s hard to say really, but I know many wouldn’t want to even imagine it, and if that is the ultimate testament to a sport that has taken so much ethically but returned so much in terms of finance and sheer joy for billions of people around the world, I don’t think we should begrudge the sport its position head and shoulders (is that you, Joe Hart?) above the rest. I don’t think any other sport would either, as they would detest that micro-inspection being carried out upon their inner workings on a daily basis, as they all have very clear faults too, just not in the echelons that the most reputable, corrupt and disgraced, yet unrelentingly thick-skinned and popular, sport in the world does. It’s a sorry state of affairs that took us to this point, but for those in power, it has made sense, and we have been dragged along, like a handbag-imprisoned Chihuahua, enjoying the ride through our simple perception of the world around us. Even sadder, I can honestly see this trend continuing on past any of our lifetimes, so I suppose we should make ourselves comfortable and enjoy the ride, right? Wrong.
Shocks. A complete reversal of the status quo. Absolute upsets based on strong anti-establishment sentiment amongst the wider population. This is how the year 2016 will go down in history as a momentous and ground-breaking period in a comparatively docile and politically correct 21st century, with Leicester City winning the biggest league competition in world football just two years after rising from the notoriously competitive Championship and British voters fooling the polls by banking on Brexit. Just to top it all off, this week, as I’m sure you’ve heard unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars with ear defenders and blacked-out goggles on, the USA sent shockwaves around the world by voting in the disloyal, two-faced, anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic, sexist political virgin and business mogul Donald Trump in arguably the biggest upset in American political history. Were these events, especially the latter two, any coincidence considering the wishy-washy, increasingly weak politics of Western nations, where parties will try everything in their power to bend over backwards for everyone in a desperate attempt to keep hold of power? Well, in my opinion, as I’m sure many experts will agree, it’s impossible to argue otherwise, as many sections of society have fallen victim to indecision, red tape and the increased influence of globalisation, and have voted for serious change. All through this, football has seemed to travel about 20 years behind the political world, inviting the system of political correctness more widely than ever in reaction to the dangerous, and as it turned out, corrupt leadership of Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini at FIFA and UEFA respectively.
But, I hope I hear you cry, why would football be involved in politics, or vice versa? Well, this is exactly my point this week, that the two should not be interchangeable or reliant on each other by any means, as one actually changes people’s lives, and the other, well, in all honesty, is just a sport that provides an income from some fairly physically talented individuals who would be wasted elsewhere in society. With the growing trend of businessmen and women being recruited to the boards of clubs across the country and to top positions at governing bodies such as the FA and FIFA, you naturally have to ponder whether these wide scale changes are for the benefit of the game, and I stress game, or purely for business purposes, with more and more ground-breaking sponsorship deals being forged. Does world football actually need to be a politically correct section of society, or should it embrace its past image of ungovernable chaos, focused around the working man, distanced from the everyday guff of politics and instead offering an escape on a Saturday afternoon from the horrors and trivialities of the changing global landscape?
As I’m sure you could say for almost any single subject on the lips of the wider public in daily life, political correctness has its obvious flaws and significant benefits, as well as a few hidden anomalies, which could be twisted to fit whichever opinion the writer or speaker follows. As ever, I will attempt to remain as clear, perceptive and thought-provoking as possible throughout my discussion, painting the most accurate picture of the spectrum of the argument, which I’m not sure actually has ever existed in much detail, as it takes some comprehending and analysing.
Fundamentally, I suppose what we are saying here is that football has invited politics into its neat circle in society by allowing the drips of political correctness to seep into the fabric of the sport, with a few certain officials and organisations getting drunk on the very product of this potentially fatal concoction. In my view, sport and politics should never mix, as proven by many examples in the past; it has not always ended well when one has made a short-lived attempt to reach out to the other. Political correctness, as a concept, I suppose has been around for as long as man has been governing one another, but came to prominence as a commonly used term in 1980’s and 1990’s America, deployed apparently by right-wing (Republican-leaning) insiders and party activists to undermine the optimistic, accepting liberal politics of the opposition. The issue with liberal politics, which has been found on numerous occasions to not have the conviction or popularity to ever seriously implement the change it wants, is that it typically doesn’t find the charismatic, unopposable leaders that the more risky, but recently successful, conservative politics does. Conservativism is widely seen to fade into shades of liberalism in the developed world, however, because while it might have the policies and leaders that attracted voters in the first place, it often can’t quite garner the support to turn these dreams into reality, as they would negatively affect vast sums of the population, hugely restricting their chances of getting re-elected. So, in the end, nobody really wins, but that’s enough with the politics lesson/rant, I suppose.
Let’s get down to business. Let’s compare football from the 1980’s to today, shall we, in order to demonstrate the effects of political correctness’ popularity with many clubs, leagues and governing bodies? Well, from today’s muddy perspective, we always look back at the past and describe it as a simpler time (which can be argued and counter-argued in a number of different ways, but that’s not a debate for today), when politics was easier to predict and understand, people were more honest, and modern-day issues such as corruption, global warming, cyber-crime and further human rights (gay marriage, transsexuality, equal pay, etc.) simply weren’t big issues, or at least weren’t reported in the significance they are today. The 1980’s for football were fashionable, featuring some of the greatest kits, players and haircuts of all time, transformative, with a big side in England finally dominating in Liverpool due to great managerial nous and substantial funding, as well as the most attractive footballing sides in Italy and Argentina winning the ’82 and ’86 World Cups, and more than anything expressive, with fans having massive impacts on the game, chairmen preferring to be hands-on with their clubs, and the game as a whole feeling a lot more connected to its fans. It wasn’t without its fault though; that’s for sure, especially through the presidency of Joao Havelange, who brought in a number of sponsorship deals with his assertive and unforgiving leadership style, guiding FIFA on the path it continues to follow to this day.
Contrast that to today, where money swamps the game in its professional form, fans are more distant from the game than ever, businessmen run our governing bodies and chairmen can come from the other corner of the globe, not give a sh** about the club they are investing in, and rob it of all the prosperity it has, it could be argued that the events of the ‘80’s caused all of our problems today. In fact, the 1980’s as a whole, through all the events, cultural progressions, wars, peace treaties, technological breakthroughs and political decisions, could be pinpointed as a diet version of the world we live in today, as they faced serious, world-changing issues that required years of implemented change and charismatic, forthright but often unpopular conservative leaders, such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to set them ‘right’.
When watching a (highly recommended) Adam Curtis documentary titled Bitter Lake recently, I became fascinated in the main theory of the film, which was that during the ‘80’s, a period of increased terrorist attacks, especially in Arab nations, Western leaders implemented a different tactic to garner false support for their wars in these nations, by depicting their military actions as ‘good’ vs ‘evil’. It was at this point that the status quo we all know and love/hate was formed in earnest, with geopolitical wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, formed by a number of complex issues, condensed into a story of British and American soldiers fighting against callous, menacing terrorists for the safety of our nation. This system exists still to this day, a testament to its efficiency in winning over voters, especially when coupled with the political correctness exemplified by many recent governments across the Western world.
For football though, FIFA, UEFA and respective FA’s seem to be finally latching onto the trend of politically safe, optimistic and all-pleasing governors, which has taken a battering in the past six months with the passing of unspectacular but progressive leaders in David Cameron and Barack Obama. In reaction to Blatter’s and Platini’s tenures, which started with such good intentions but ended in disgrace for the pair, the footballing governing bodies of the world and of Europe have appointed politically neutral, footballing outsiders with qualifications so detailed they could be working for the U.N, in Swiss Gianni Infantino and Slovenian Aleksander Ceferin respectively. With both being qualified lawyers, sticking to the right side of the rules shouldn’t be a problem for them, and more than anything, that is sadly what the two organisations require right now; safe bets who wouldn’t hurt a fly and who keep very low public profiles. There’s no doubt that the lack of communication from FIFA to the outside footballing world over the past 12 months has been a reaction to the tarnished reputation that Blatter and Platini handed them, and to a degree it has worked, but it has put football in the position where any controversy is handled in a very menial manner, and politics has taken over, with progress taking years to arrive, if at all, and the establishment only garnering more power behind the backs of the people it serves; which in the end are fans of the game, as the buck stops with us if they make fatal faults.
Is this seriously where FIFA, amongst other organisations has gone, though? Does politics take precedence over football these days? Well, objectively, yes, as the sport’s governing body does seem to spend more time grovelling to please sponsors and filing through legal proceedings, rather than tackling persistent issues such as the lack of competitiveness on the international stage, the clear corruption of a number of FA’s and national set-ups across the world or the influx of truly dangerous owners into desperate clubs looking for a quick hit at success. They have the power to change the game in many great ways, but like their political counterparts, so often waste their chance by worrying about how they can bend a decision that might affect some people negatively in the short-term into a positive thing for all, which is by definition strictly impossible. For as long as free speech is a part of a society, there will obviously be a whole range of opinions on any given subject, just as much as any decision or policy will have obvious repercussions, some positive, others negative. You can spend your life trying to please everybody, as while you’re preoccupying yourself with this, you do actually have to make tough decisions to progress, especially as a leader, so you have to make controversial moves to achieve your goals. Infantino, though, along with Ceferin, Martin Glenn – Chief Executive of the FA -, and I’m sure many others, don’t seem to want to make these decisions, and expect their goals to be handed to them on a plate, but they will soon discover that it isn’t that easy.
If you ask me, these leaders are unqualified in the first place, don’t particularly care for the game on a personal level and cop out of any serious change as soon as they have achieved power. Honestly, the case must be that either they are only puppets for the real FA/UEFA/FIFA bigwigs, or that nobody really holds the power as nobody is able to deal with the burden, instead handing the keys over to presentable, lawful nobodies who don’t really understand the game outside of their boardrooms. They can’t, otherwise they would be changing it with the suggestions million have put forward in the past, be them predecessors or bloggers. They are so negligent and docile that you’d be forgiven for thinking they weren’t half of the time, which is true by some accounts.
But isn’t that what governing bodies such as FIFA, UEFA and the FA are supposed to do, act as a government that is? Well, I suppose so, as in many cases they are the spokesperson for certain individuals, clubs or other organisations, which is fine as they have a duty to act on the behalf of all the people they govern, but there is certainly a fine line between taking responsibility and being a politician, and I personally feel that in many cases this is being overstepped by the fearful diplomats in charge. I think what has to be accepted with football is controversy, and these leaders need to stop believing they can drown this out of the game just because they choose their words carefully, as far too many of us just believe they should start putting words into action, instead of just yapping on and pathetically attempting to look busy, acting like immature children. Do what you are paid to; I suppose is the imperative message here, not what you advised to by your predecessors or officials, as they were the failures that led to your premiership.
If you want some cold, hard evidence that certain organisations such as FIFA have truly entered a phase of almost Presidential-like political correctness, then look no further than the recent spat between Secretary General Fatma Samoura (who actually was a high-ranking U.N official prior to her appointment at FIFA, you couldn’t make this stuff up) and the English, Scottish and Welsh FA’s over wearing poppies to commemorate Armistice day this week. If that isn’t going further than the line of duty in fear of the possible outcomes of what is a harmless and tenderly traditional act, then I don’t know what is, and FIFA’s U-turn on the day of the game to effectively reply ‘we never said that’ when asked if they would deduct either side – England or Scotland - points for their decisions to continue with the plan was honestly laughable, as they clearly knew they couldn’t fight it anymore. They had already stretched one section of their electorate enough in an attempt to appease others that they knew the situation would escalate into disaster if they continued, so took the wise decision and dropped their threats in the end.
The thing is though, none of the these mindless decisions would be carried out by people who actually understand the game (even if some of those can be notoriously slow, shall we put it), as the move to threaten the FA and SFA was one made by a diplomat by trade, not an ex-footballer, not an ex-manager, not even an ex-coach or pundit, and that is where the fault lies. They are trying to handle the situation in the way that someone at the U.N might handle a civil war, and that is totally wrong. Sure, I understand FIFA, as the governing body of football, needs to have a certain number of politically-minded officials as representatives of its power, but it must involve actual footballers and managers if it is to progress the sport, as otherwise they would have to guess their way around the issues facing the game, and that isn’t acceptable as an organisation that is supposed to be unified with the game itself. You can’t run any sort of event, but chiefly the biggest participation sport in the world which generates the most income, without actually understanding the issues for the people involved, as that doesn’t reflect very well on you as a leader, and doesn’t quite make you a man/woman of the people, but rather a diplomat who sucks up to sponsors, corrupt FA chairmen and politicians in the hope you might improve brand image. This isn’t a business, this isn’t a government, this is the fate of the most socially important sport in the world we are talking about here, and a number of its leaders don’t actually seem to care for it. If they in fact do, I would urge them to prove it with strong actions, not just hollow words. But that’s the trouble when you appoint a load of businessmen, lawyers and diplomats to your sporting boards then, isn’t it?
The saddest thing about this all is that these very issues are starting to become apparent at a number of clubs, where boards are increasingly being made up of a majority of businessmen, as they are the ones who can afford to pump money into the club, so therefore get the loudest say on the future of it as well. This is so immoral and inefficient, but the poor clubs can’t see it, as there isn’t much at all in terms of backlash against the effects of this, which in the long term don’t do the game any good at all. They promote higher prices for players, higher prices for tickets, higher prices for merchandise and higher prices to actually be a part of your club, which is absolutely disgraceful and blasphemous, but they don’t care as they are still hoovering up the cash into their greedy pockets.
It’s not just because these men (there are a few women, but they are in much smaller numbers) are rich either, it’s also because they present the best face of the club to potential investors. You see, if it was just because they were rich, there might be a real backlash because there aren’t any fans, ex-players or ex-managers (football experts) on the board, but when coupled with the fact that these guys have had decades of training in sticking to the PC – Politically Correct – rules, then there can hardly be an argument against them. CEO’s love them, as they can increase the profits of the club tenfold just through exhausting their list of business contacts in sponsorship deals, while also keeping a low profile all throughout. This might be good in a business sense, but it is torture for fans, as they no longer feel a part of the game, let alone their, and it is their, club, and that is simply awful, ridding the game of all of its basic charm.
Overall then, we should never let these people rip the game from our grasp. But it is happening, and it is happening right in front of our eyes. For those at the top, it is like taking candy from a baby, and that is because very few fans are actually protesting, or doing anything, about it. As soon as we let this become a trend, and it is certainly getting that way, that is when we truly lose our game, and I’m not prepared for that to happen.
There needs to be an end to the tepid, vain and foolishly pointless politics of football, as it doesn’t benefit the real stakeholders of the game, and they should come before any kind of sponsor, no matter the kind of product these fat cats are flogging or how much they are offering, especially if they are a betting brand (I can’t stand them). Football is allowing itself to be used as a tool to promote a capitalist agenda today in the same way that it was hijacked, along with a number of other sports, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics to support Adolf Hitler’s declaration of Aryan physical dominance, or as each Olympics really is utilised by respective governments to promote national pride. There’s no doubt that political correctness has killed off many aspects of the beautiful game just because they didn’t suit its agenda, and therefore had to go.
The point here is that political correctness has gone too far, to a point that FIFA may never be able to backtrack from, as they attempt to assert their dominance over anyone or anything with even the slightest ounce of character or controversy in order to present a false picture of the game to investors and associates. If we want an honest game, with no-frills morals, clear ethics and an approachable nature, we have to change the way FIFA operates, as otherwise we will be forced to continue in a broken system. I’m not saying let’s start over again with a Trump or Farage-like leader, but I am saying that our broken system requires an overhaul, and I don’t think the change between one neutral lawyer and another realistically does that, no matter how crazy they are behind closed doors. It’s a paradoxical situation to be in, saying all of that, but something does have to be done; and I believe that starts with clear communication with FIFA, UEFA and the FA. Who stands up for us? Nobody knows. But there is still time in 2016 left for another upset, why couldn’t it be that FIFA finally gets something right?
With the First Round of the FA Cup rolling around again this weekend, pitting the best of the non-league scene against the nervy sides towards the latter region of the EFL in one of the highlights of the British footballing calendar, the unwelcome subject of how fair the game is in this country across all levels naturally has to be brought up, if not by anyone else, then by me here at least. The simple reason I had to pick up on the controversy of how many sides are run, in both the EFL and non-league levels of the pyramid, this week is that there were far too many blatant examples dotted across the 40 matches this weekend for it to not be a focus point, summarising just how immoral and cash-fuelled the modern game is. Most plainly, the infamous Eastleigh (if you read one of my earliest blogs on them and many others back in January), who not only played at home against another high-profile league side in Swindon – as they did against Bolton in the Third Round last year – but who also played host to the BBC cameras last night (Friday 4th), showcasing the apparent charms of non-league clubs to primetime viewing on the biggest channel on British television.
Eastleigh isn’t where those charms are best demonstrated though. Their millionaire owner Stewart Donald has gone far and beyond what a vast majority of sane non-league level chairman would be able to do for their club in the five years of his tenure, pumping in £3 million to help the day-to-day running of the club, as well as the playing budget no doubt, in order to elevate them up the pyramid in seamless fashion, creating an upwardly mobile footballing dream world. The thing is, this world is built on unreliable outside investment rather than home-grown funding, creating an unsustainable club culture that could turn out to be fatal. But Eastleigh are nowhere near the worst example we’re set to witness this weekend, and have committed nowhere near the crimes of certain clubs who have already fallen casualty in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. So, having seen FFP – also referred to as Financial Fair Play – make inroads into the desired effects of ridding the game of cheaters, in the past few years on the continental and national stage, with UEFA and the FA being forced into action over penalisation of the rules, is it time the system was brought into the lower leagues to clean up the football in the wider landscape? Or is it too impractical and troublesome a venture for the FA to work with their regional counterparts and leagues to make an effective reality?
But what is FFP, and how does it work? Well, yes, I think a run through of this relatively low-key modern phenomenon of worldwide football is required just to ease us all into proceeding, don’t you? Well, if you trusted Google – and who does, considering their tax records in this country – you wouldn’t immediately discover the answer if you followed the first result when typing in FFP, as what we are looking at here definitely isn’t the medical process of Fresh Frozen Plasma. Instead, this was the UEFA brainchild, agreed back in 2009 in response to the growing trend of Russian oligarchs, Arabian royalty and American billionaires sweeping in to European clubs and running them into the ground through their pursuit of glory. These rules, introduced in the major leagues across the continent, were designed to protect clubs from falling into deeper and deeper spirals of debt, which was a pressing concern at the time, with the total debt of Premier League clubs in the 2008-09 season estimated at £3.1 billion. In addition, household names in Spain such as Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo fell into administration at a time at which total debt in La Liga rose to £2.5 billion, with at least £500 million owed to the Spanish tax authorities, and massive Italian clubs racked up debts into the tens of millions, such as Inter Milan, who brought losses of €1.3 billion upon themselves over the course of almost two decades. Obviously, the gaping holes in clubs across the continent were opening up in many more cases at that time than are currently prevalent, and that is thanks to the saving grace Michel Platini and his right hand men offered these clubs from absolute collapse as a result of the total mismanagement of irresponsible and acquisitive owners who swept in on the crest of a promising wave, but in the end delivered asset stripping and a negligence for the health of the club.
One – to imitate Donald Trump – huge point to recognise from this pattern of events is that FIFA were never involved in the creation of the FFP, nor have they taken any major steps to get involved either over the successful course of the project, as they remain eerily distanced from its running, whether that be for better or for worse. On the one hand, you could look at the plain and clear productivity of the scheme and credit FIFA for leaving it to UEFA to sort of the clubs’ problems, while on the other you could lambast them for their careless and standoffish approach, which almost resulted in the destruction of some of the finest clubs in Europe at the hands of irresponsible investors. Whatever your thoughts, surely we can all agree FIFA should spend less time worrying about whether the English, Scottish and Welsh players run out onto the pitches of Wembley and the Cardiff City Stadium with poppies on their armbands (not even on their shirts, I can’t see what the fuss is about, but it is regrettable that tabloids such as The Sun latched onto the story to promote nationalism) and more time clearing up the big problems facing the game, which include promoting the clearly effective project of FFP. If FIFA used their power to spread this idea of living within your means, there would be a much cleaner and better regulated brand of football off the pitch, hopefully resulting on more equality and fairness on it, as undeserving smaller clubs can’t just buy their way into competing with the historically and commercially successful clubs.
So what else has FFP achieved in Europe, other than rescuing a number of high-profile brands from the threat of extinction? Well, it was brought into play by the FA pretty quickly on the grand scheme of things, as the Football League agreed to implement the project back in 2011, notable in the Championship especially as with the gulfs in quality fairly blurred between Leagues 1 and 2, as well as League 1 and the Championship, clubs can afford financially to get relegated if things came to worst, but with the gap between the EPL and the second tier widening, promotion to the Premier League has for recent years been absolutely priceless. The benefits even one season in the EPL can have because of its worldwide appeal can be massive, as sponsorship deals cue up at the door of the training ground and television income starts flooding in. With such an exclusive and potentially era-defining prize on offer, it’s perhaps understandable that the high quality clubs in competition in the Championship wanted to gain a competitive advantage, so looked to wealthy foreign owners to bankroll them. With FFP though, this has been partially stamped out, with Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers all handed transfer embargos as a result of their unsustainable financial actions in 2014, and Queens Park Rangers still currently continuing to battle an accusation of spending vastly more than they earned back in the same year, with potential fines of up to £50 million their possible punishment.
As well as these examples, the more big-name victims of their own success, so to speak, included the infamously oil-wealthy Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and Anzhi Makhachkala (who I always pronounced as Makhalalalala when I was younger) who each were served a cap of 21 players in their squad for the Champions League, with the first two also handed two-year squad salary caps and transfer spending restrictions, as well as fines of €60 million. The latter was handed a mere fine of €2 million and one-year squad salary caps, but each club was taught a fine lesson about keeping their feet in line with their competitors, promoting the sort of fairness UEFA dreamt of all along in their continental competitions. If one thing is for sure, these hard, unrelenting actions have made sides more wary of their actions and as a result much more careful at how they approach any season or transfer window, which can only be a good thing for the game as Chairman and Chief Executives now have to answer to someone, or something, in terms of the FFP model.
But if it has worked on this level, what’s to stop it being enforced and similarly successful on the English non-league stage, probably the finest and most organised semi-professional and potentially amateur sector of football on the planet? Well, this is the entire conundrum facing the FA and indirectly UEFA as well, who have to work with respective FA’s and clubs to agree this rules for such leagues, at the moment, as neither seems too fussed over the wider introduction of FFP, especially in the non-league region. Why is this? Well, I’m sure they feel they have bigger problems to face right now, with UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin only just settling into the job – with very little fanfare it must be said – and Greg Clarke facing a similar bedding-in process as FA Chairman, albeit with a little more controversy to deal with. Perhaps their blank on the subject, which notably is discussed by very few, is understandable then, but I would want them to vastly improve their productivity in the coming months, as I would argue they’ve already had sufficient time to get their feet under the undoubtedly luxury desks in Nyon (Switzerland) and London by now. Before they try and dispute it as well, there is an unarguable mandate for the introduction of the system into at least the top three leagues of the English non-league system, with a majority of teams at that level progressing every closer to their professional dreams considering the bulging budgets and vastly increased commercial income – with BT Sport running the National League Highlights Show for example – and a fair number also running with dangerous business plans.
The FA knows this only too well, so I cannot believe they would be putting off the establishment what will be an absolutely imperative system in the future, in order to save clubs from their own greed, at a time in which non-league sides cannot wait to join their full-time counterparts in the big time. It seems totally irresponsible on the part of the nation’s regulatory organisation not to put FFP into place, as picking up from where I left off in January, the likes of Rushden & Diamonds, Hereford United, Darlington and Maidstone United all fell to their demise at the hands of hundreds of thousands of pounds of carelessly racked-up debt. Each of these clubs has had a resurrection, but they have learnt their lessons, now focusing on structure and the reality of a club at their level, with the latter side from Kent finding particular success through their 3G pitch, constantly packed 3,000 seater ground and long-serving manager Jay Saunders. They are the perfect demonstration that patience and common sense will see you through to your goals in anything you do, and that it is a far more sustainable business plan than hitting and hoping with a wealthy benefactor, both on and off the pitch.
I know I’ve told you before about the Maidstone vs Margate story, linked to my local club Lewes, but this year in the South East’s football scene there are two more models of recklessness in the pursuit of a second in the limelight, Greenwich Borough and Shoreham. The first, based in the ideal catchment area of East London, clearly have had a considerable amount of cash injected into their playing budget over the past two years, as former journeyman striker Gary Alexander, most memorable to me for his years at Leyton Orient and Crawley Town, has been appointed player-manager, also bringing Peter Sweeney, part of the 2004 Milwall FA Cup Final team and ex-Crystal Palace Young Player of the Year (2004) Gary Borrowdale in with him. Slightly more obscurely, goalkeeper Craig Holloway was on the bench for Arsenal in their 2002/03 Champions League group stage match away to Valencia alongside Kanu, Ray Parlour and Giovanni van Bronckhorst, but any top-level experience counts in this ‘blast from the past’-style team.
The thing is, Greenwich are bankrolled by Chairman Perry Skinner, brother of the late David Skinner, who owned the (very) profitable international shipping insurance firm DGS Marine. A stain on his reputation was that he was exposed by the Telegraph in 2012 as he funded oil tankers transporting from Syria, but I guess to Greenwich none of that mattered a year later, when the brothers took over the club, as they now sit second in the Ryman League Division One South (where Lewes now play), with a game in hand on three-point leaders Dorking Wanderers. Speaking of Dorking, they have an interesting owner themselves in manager (yes, you heard that right, he’s running the club both on and off the pitch) Marc White, who is a bit of a wheeler-dealer in the sense he holds director roles at four different companies, has resigned from another two in the past, and was at the helm while a further two collapsed in debt, with a current reported net worth of these companies reaching over £40,000, certainly enough to strip out if you wanted to have a bit of fun with your local football club on the side.
In a slightly smaller-scale example, Shoreham FC have become the latest side in Sussex to try their hand with a sugar daddy in order to dominate the field in the county scene. Every year it seems, there comes a new challenger to the fore with a wealthy backer, with Littlehampton, East Preston and Peacehaven & Telscombe all winning the Southern Combination Football League in the past five years by sweeping up the best players in the county, but unsurprisingly none actually getting promoted as they didn’t have the foresight to prioritise ground improvements, which would’ve allowed them to move up the pyramid, over the playing budget. This is exactly the kind of thing FFP is designed to discourage and excommunicate from the game, be it at the multi-billion business of the Premier League or the one-man-and-his-dog stereotyped non-league level. I can assure you, Mr Clarke, us fans in the non-league are sick and tired of these clubs taking advantage of businessmen with a bit of money to spare and bypassing the accepted rules and morals of the game at that level to take a shot at the big time without earning it. They act disgracefully and selfishly in their mindless pursuit of the financial rewards that come with promotion, not actually caring for the fans or the club itself, as if they did they wouldn’t risk its future in such an dishonest way.
It doesn’t have to be immediate or across every single league in the English league pyramid, but the FA, with the help of the legal experts at UEFA, have to do something within at least the next five years to stop this alarming trend of reckless owners being coaxed into their local clubs and running them into the ground, before leaving them battered and bruised with crippled resources as soon as the team starts to struggle. Unless the FA wants to encourage this sort of behaviour from owners and clubs across the country, I cannot see why they are leaving the game as it is right now when there are so many issues in plain sight. Well I can actually, it’s because they don’t care. They don’t f***ing care anymore, as they never appoint the men and women who actually understand football and realise that the fundamental stakeholders of the game are the fans to their boards, but instead run their dangerous organisation with a bunch of old white men, who are so blinded by sponsorship deals and pleasing the moneymen that they have completely lost the good intentions they had when they stepped into their roles. That’s the thing with football these days; everything else is forgotten as soon as money is mentioned, and that is not good enough. Those forefathers of the game in Victorian England, from the FA to the chaps at the pub looking to start a village club, did not design the game with even a single thought of players being paid, entry prices being enforced, sponsors decorating the specially-designed (and outrageously priced) shirts of players or agents sucking onto the value of their clients like leeches when organising moves between clubs for even the most mediocre of players. It is an absolute disgrace, to the furthest stretches of the word, at how the FA is acting these days, and the scary thing is I think it is completely accidental, as they have totally forgotten what they are supposed to be fighting for. No, their main priority shouldn’t be dragging out £30 million from the sponsors of the most historic cup competition in the world, it should be ridding the game of these evil parasites who ruin it for the rest of us, who respect the rules and try to run our clubs sustainably. (Edit: sorry for the rant, but it had to be said, as it really gets on my wick, and I don’t see anyone else highlighting the issue.)
Some of you might argue that this issue isn’t the greatest one facing the English, or even non-league, game in 2016. You might say that because of the lack of FFP, competition is increased as any number of clubs can latch on to wealthy local benefactors in their race for triumph, and that the standard of football is increased. Not many of you though, I should hope after all I’ve already said, as these arguments are totally pointless in comparison to the basic principles of fair play and equal regulations for all, which FFP deliver as best as any system possibly can in modern football. In a perfect world, all clubs would be fan-owned, harnessing the power of their communities in order to beat the competition, and only spending as much as they could afford, as it would be a much fairer and simpler system (at least the Germans understand it). In our imperfect world, though, we have to deal with our problems as they are, and for this one the FA imperatively has to expand the FFP system to non-league. There is no sense in limiting the benefits of this project to just the most advantaged in footballing society, as the FA needs to continue looking down the leagues and stop turning a blind eye to the part-timers, who deliver far more for the health of the game than the ridiculously overpaid, ungrateful and disloyal automatons at the top level of the game. The world needs FFP, and far sooner than later, non-league needs FFP, so those in power better deliver on the expansion of the one good idea they’ve had in years, because the system cannot afford to be left in a wishy-washy half-and-half no-man’s land, only afforded to the most privileged, but has to be in place to make sure those at the lower stretches of the game don’t make the same mistakes. It may only be a safety net of a system, but FFP provides life-saving security for the countless alumni of the project, and should be offered to everyone for the good of the game. Period.
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!