Football and Society

Football – which is called “soccer” in North America but “football” in the rest of the world – is the most popular of sports. Like almost everything else it’s changed since I was young, not necessarily for the better. Nowadays, the top European clubs are big business and have huge national and international  followings. Lesser clubs struggle to pay their way.

This growing disparity between rich and poor reflects the deepening socioeconomic divisions in the UK and elsewhere. A million citizens in the world’s fifth richest country have to rely on food banks supported by charitable donations to keep themselves and their families alive. The analogy between football and wider society is worth examining.

There’s always been a gulf between the successful and the unsuccessful, but during recent decades in the UK it’s deepened to an abyss. The disparity between the richest and poorest in society is greater now than when Dickens was writing, and most people accept this as the norm, without protest, even without questioning. Our top football clubs and their star players are among the richest, while the fans who support them include some of the poorest. This too is accepted as the norm.

Sixty or seventy years ago, the players in our top football clubs were workers. Their incomes were on a par with the factory workers who watched them play on Saturday afternoons. Travelling to matches when we were boys, we often shared train carriages with the stars of our team, whom we badgered for autographs. Now the top players earn more in a week than the average worker can earn in four years, and they travel in top of the range sports cars, not public transport.

When I was young, most of the top players had been born and bred within a few miles of the ground on which they played. A few came from further afield, but none from outside the country. Therefore, team was rooted in its ‘home territory’. Nowadays, top players are commodities, traded internationally with transfer fees typically running to tens of millions of pounds and earning wages to match. If you support a top Premier League football team you’ll be lucky to see even one or two players on the field who were born and bred anywhere nearby. The others will represent a significant cross-section of the United Nations.

All that links a present-day team to its ‘home territory’ is the community of fans, who continue to follow that team, come what may, irrespective of the ways in which the game, the players and the grounds have all changed. Yet the big clubs aren’t much interested in fans. Television rights bring in more revenue than season tickets, so the television channels take precedence over faithful supporters.

The richest clubs sell merchandise to their followers all over the world, making themselves richer. This enables them to buy the most expensive players. The most expensive players increase the likelihood of success on the field, and therefore the chance of winning trophies and big-money prizes. Nothing succeeds like success. And in football, as elsewhere in society, success and riches are intimately entwined. The poorest clubs sell little merchandise because they have few supporters and can’t afford to generate much merchandise anyway. So they can’t buy expensive players and are unlikely to prosper on the field or win trophies and rich prizes. So they continue to be poor. In some cases they run into debt and can’t even afford to pay the players’ meagre wages. And do the rich clubs help the poor ones out? Guess.

The pressure on football players to succeed leads to systematic rule-breaking. When I was a boy, players committing deliberate fouls were roundly booed by the spectators, including their own supporters. Now, breaking the rules of the game has become an accepted part of the game itself. If you’re tackled, it’s almost de rigueur to fall over and feign injury in the hope of winning a free kick or a penalty and perhaps getting your opponent booked. If an opposing striker has broken through your defence and is heading for goal, you’re expected to trip him up or grab his shirt in order to stop him, at the expense of getting yourself booked; it’s known as “taking one for the team”. Thus, the world’s most popular sport, watched week in and week out by millions, including children, has degenerated into a morass of foul play. Of course it’s still a great spectacle, with brilliant individual and team skills on display, but it’s profoundly and incurably infected by rule-breaking. The top players are role models for our youngsters. So what is the game teaching them? It’s teaching them that it’s right to break rules, even break the law, in pursuit of individual and collective success. It’s teaching them to behave as the top bankers did in the build-up to the global financial crisis of 2007-8.

Moreover, since football makes very big money, and big money breeds corruption, football has become corrupt. The scandal that recently engulfed FIFA made international news headlines, though it could and should have been predicted. But there’s corruption at national level, too. Within the past few days, HMRC (the UK’s tax inspectorate) has raided two of England’s Premier League clubs. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Officials, players and agents are likely to face fraud charges. To those who have even more shall be given, and if it isn’t given they’ll take it anyway. Meanwhile, the less privileged lose out.

Once again, this picture seems to reflect evils of the banking industry during the past decade. Top bankers known to have broken the law continue to flourish, while those lower down the pecking order languish in prison, and small businesses that banks ought to support go to the wall.

The appalling disparity in wealth and the accompanying decline (or demise) of public morality is harming our society, nationally or internationally. And it isn’t good for football, either. Football does seem to mirror the wider culture: it glitters with wealth, but what lies beneath the glitter doesn’t bear contemplation.

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