Christmas is often a roadblock to normality, for those who celebrate it and those who don’t, in part, as well. For me, it posed an unprecedented question this week; what to write about, in keeping with the festive spirit? Here in stiff-upper lipped Blighty, the lack of a winter break, in stark contradiction to its continental cousins, maybe? It seemed a little too easy. A Christmas list-style ode, or Yuletide carol, to all the things I want to see banned or introduced into the beautiful game, was that a possibility? Too similar to past (and possibly) future blogs for my liking, even if it had the potential to recap all that I’ve covered in the year, whilst still assuming a festive stance. I even took a brainstorming session while sitting in the bath – fully clothed – on Thursday morning in attempt to discover a fitting subject. One that hits the theme for the time of year, chiming a hopefully positive tune, yet still captures the footballing scene in all its inglorious magnitude. In the end, it was only by the time I assumed my position, crouched over the desk in my slightly smaller-than-average room, on Thursday night, and began to pen the weekly blogging mind map that a (hopefully) fitting topic struck me.
Obviously football and Christmas have had a visible intertwining over the decades and centuries, with each having the other to thank for many a moment that will go down in history, à la the Christmas Day Truce of 1914, in the frozen fields of Northern France and Belgium, where British and German troops dropped weapons to partake in light-hearted games ‘over the top’. The annual tradition of Boxing Day matches in England, too, is a reminder of the sentiment those who run the game still have, or are pressurised into having by those with more soul, with the holiday period, a heart-warming and familiar presence in the modern game. This same game, expanded into unimaginable extremities by the businessmen in charge over the past half century or so, has not forgotten the religious holiday in many areas which mark it, even for its sins elsewhere, representing a peculiar, if seldom considered, period in even the most professional of leagues. Peculiar in the sense that many European leagues mark it with an extended break, I suppose, yet England, as a footballing fraternity, has so stubbornly refused to, in spite of the criticism of many a currently or formerly exhausted player, foreign manager or beleaguered pundit over the years, rather than by any other definition of the word. But as I said, we aren’t discussing the winter break here.
Why, then, did I lay my eyes on the eponymous subject of this week’s blog? Well, through my eyes, Christmas highlights both the best, and in dire cases, the worst, of football’s messy form, one decidedly torn by loyalties to the playing side and the commercial side alike, and how both can occupy the same mad house as one another. There are, of course, the examples of how football graces the institutionalised religious celebration, such as in the entirely touching behaviour of a number of clubs, players and fans across the globe, reaching out to those less advantaged and going out of their way to put a smile on the face of one another. However, an immovable presence, depicting how the grossly overfed sport has tarnished the name of the mid-Winter ceremony through its continued pursuit of stakeholder’s cash and inaction in attending the gaping wounds in the game, does hang over us all as we admire football and its role in society at this time of year. That’s why I’m here to analyse how useful the festivities are in expanding football’s presence amongst professionalised sporting ranks, and how, moving into the future, the likes of the Premier League will attempt to utilise our celebrations in their marketing ploys and financially profitable schemes.
Other than the obvious, in which you could observe that Christmas aids football in a purely commercial sense, considering the stature now of the holidays as an economic hotbed, as the sales of football kits, scarves, hats and any other kind of merchandise you could ever imagine, rise greatly, the time of year does affect the sport in many more subliminal ways. For one, it forms an impressive fan base for FC Santa Claus, the third division – or Kakkonen - Finnish side, who play their home games in the northern city of Rovaniemi, which lies within the Arctic Circle. I jest, though that is one of the less obvious affects in the Western world. What I’m keen to explore is to what extent football and Christmas are tied, how each relies upon the other, but more on how the former is a recipient of the latter’s message of goodwill and peace to all men. A message that transcends religious beliefs and personal backgrounds, I’m sure you’ll agree, whether you celebrate the holidays or not. These lessons, at least in the pressure cooker of a world we live in, especially at Christmas time, in the capitalist, majority Christian West, are put on repeat for the extent of the celebrations, maybe if not through the heavy-handed media, by the education we received, impressing these basic morals upon us.
It is, then, practically impossible to escape their reckoning, whether you support them or not. Maybe it is this overbearing status that forces the clubs in our public eye to send their stars out to the local hospitals to surprise the young patients and pose for photo opportunities, as we have seen over numerous occasions in the media over the past week, then. I understand there are many kind-hearted players who would jump at this opportunity, but considering the out-of-touch behaviour and extortionate wages of certain other players, you can’t draw any other conclusion than the fact that Premier League clubs, at least, are pressurised into acting in such plainly warm manners to their local communities by the league they compete in. Both sides need to keep up reputations in order to maximise profitable opportunities, as any other reasonable business does. As a wise man once said, it’s all about reputation. Never will that be more obvious than in football; an unapologetically fickle business in which hundreds of millions of pounds can be brokered in a single deal, brought on by the success of a team, who, more often than not, succeed because of their strong community ties, and their exploitation of this.
Let’s not be so cynical though. There is the possibility that club and league chairman do believe in the spirit of Christmas, and that their actions at this particular time of year are fully resultant of a warm heart overtaking their raw commercial urges. Sorry to put a dampener on that, but let’s not fool ourselves; they still make a healthy profit from their community-friendly schemes. Even by using a façade to reach out to their loyal and much-beleaguered fans, seeming as the men who walk with both the prince and the pauper, it seems blindingly obvious to most of us that their ties with the former of these two extremes sways their actions across the rest of the year. It’s interesting to discover just how much we convince ourselves of this though; because we still return to the terraces, and more commonly in front of the 40-inch, 4K, Ultra HD box, every weekend, eager for more, conveniently forgiving of the sport’s misdemeanours.
The point I think I’m trying to make here is that Christmas, as a fundamentally spiritual and thought-provoking festival, perhaps provides a timely reminder to those Scrooges we have in power of the game that, maybe just for a week or so, they should reform their ways and act in accordance with the morals, which come into more profound inspection at this time of year. Whether this small but apparently significant show of, what can only be viewed in my eyes as artificial, heart, is enough to settle the quarrels in the sport, from disillusioned fans to the billionaires in charge, can be adjudged through the continued success of the Premier League – it does enough to drown out the naysayers. Whether we believe their pageant seems to be a foolish debate – overwhelmingly, fans would say no, but subconsciously, the money flying out of their wallets on a weekly basis to continue viewing such exclusive football would prove otherwise. Maybe the Christmas celebrations are in fact the silver lining professional football needs to survive in the eyes of the public and the subservient corporations, the stakeholders of the game.
However much those in charge of such leagues as the EPL want to expand, treading the line between on-field performances and overbearing commercial involvement ever more as the years go by, perhaps it is the past that holds them back from such reckless abandon. Considering the sentiment English football fans still hold with the Boxing Day round of fixtures – in which, usually, every team would play at 3PM on the same day -, as well as the aforementioned romanticised historical landmark of the 1914 Christmas Day Truce amongst British and German troops along the Western Front, in some eyes, it could be seen as no surprise that clubs and leagues still bend over backwards to suit the needs of the fan at this most unique time of year. After all, it is the fans, despite their largely pessimistic outlook on the game, who keep the cogs turning in the trundling football machine we see before us today, as they pump more money in, mostly through TV subscriptions. There is definitely a visible trend in this nation of dogged protection of the past, and such sentiment can spell the downfall of those who disobey such quirks in societal fabric. It is sensible, then, on the part of the PL and other organisations, to act cautiously when eyeing up such traditions.
The FA, I’m sure, would appreciate, much more than the Premier League, the potential sacking of Boxing Day fixtures, and traditionally hectic winter schedules, in favour of a winter break, in the ilk of the Bundesliga’s 30-day rest period, Ligue 1’s 24-day respite, La Liga’s 18 days’ worth of stoppage, or Serie A’s respective hiatus of 16 days. Even the SPFL is downing tools for a month from New Year’s Eve this season! Why would the FA be so enamoured to it though? Well, it benefits them to have a well-rested and competitive, rather than overworked and eventually exhausted, national team, when international fixtures return in summer time. I know there have been many debunking’s of such an apparent myth by statistic-friendly journalists over the years, but just watching the England players, usually so proactive and interested at club level, dawdle over a simple pass, arguably more in fear than in basic fatigue, and fail to set alight a pitch, as we all know they can, has to highlight this basic fact. When given a period of physical rest, player’s careers are more likely to be extended, providing obvious benefits to national teams especially, who have such exclusive selection pools anyway, before having to face numerous injuries, retirements and hiatuses – for example, that of Ben Foster, hardly a key England player, but still a valued squad member, who took three years out of the format back in 2011.
The Premier League, however, desperately needs the Christmas period to ensure its absolute financial domination in the highly competitive footballing market, if not for the endless PR stunts, but for the unstoppable televisual income. With at least one PL game on either Sky Sports or BT Sport every day, other than December 29, from Boxing Day until 4th January, this year will provide bumper income for those in charge after a masterstroke in fixture formulation for the fans and businesses involved, but a nightmare period for managers, players and fantasy league bosses. Well, maybe the latter won’t be of much significance to those in charge, but when making such crude business decisions, the consultation of the employees who effectively control your industry (power the people and all that) is an advisable action. Without assessing the opinions of those involved, the powers that be have left themselves in a tricky position in that managers, especially those who enjoyed festive breaks in their previous roles – Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp, who happen to be in charge of what are currently the top three clubs in the nation – are going to have to go on the record and criticise such ruthless choices. In doing so, a single quote can spread like wildfire through the national media, landing the league in hot water.
This water only gets to boiling point, however, if we, as fans, give it the power to do so. Currently, I don’t see any collective fan movement which has the resources to do that, so we continue in this self-unfulfilling cycle of progressively worse corruption and capitalism. Considering the make-up of our strange world, however, it seems that perfection is ugly. We like to see faults within the things we love, as it shows them as possibly vulnerable, possibly weak, as if we finally have an upper hand on them. In football, there is so little perfection that in any other walk of life, the very concept would’ve long been dispatched. Arguably, having cavernous faults is football’s best asset, as it keeps it relevant, maintains its ability to divide opinion, splitting the population into loyal fans and dismissive doubters.
This is where Christmas makes up. Football uses the holiday to place weights on either side of the scales; positively, the sport appears to be acting ethically, negatively, it doesn’t seem to be truthful in these actions. As much as they like to deny it; cricket needs its sledging, rugby needs its concussions, boxing needs its pre-match bust-ups, Formula One needs its crashes and football needs its respective evils; inglorious capitalism and dishonest corporate actions. Despite each being glaringly negative aspects closely associated with the sports on show, they are the same aspects which attract debates, whether in newspapers, on twitter, or just over a pint. Debates are what attract the masses. In this sense, everything we live is intensely political.
It’s Christmas though. I don’t mean to be a curmudgeonly Scrooge. There are people in football who do the right thing, based upon the basic principles of Christmas, the whole year round. Just admire the people at St Pauli, Red Star FC, A.S. Livorno Calcio, Dulwich Hamlet or even Lewes FC (that old chestnut again), where left-wing, footballing beliefs win over in a truly uplifting section of the landscape we see before us. If they can succeed all whilst acting in an ethical manner, why can’t the other 99% of the footballing map? Stubbornness, ruthless business nature, disillusion with the game maybe? A combination of all of these, really. At this time of year, it’s important to remember our purposes, consider our actions and make up for all of our inevitable faults. If only football could heed such advice and do this truthfully, rather than put up a smokescreen to their stakeholders and claim that they are changing, then we might not be having this conversation. As I said before though, maybe football needs these evils, this continual plight, to keep its steam train running. It does have many other faults, mainly on the pitch, however, and I do wonder whether these alone would be enough to satisfy the public demand for evil in the sport. Providing a few of those in charge listen to the festive message a little more closely, then that is a world we could soon be living in. If there was one present football could afford its long-suffering public; then that should surely be it.
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!