Eric Cantona, who can probably make a strong claim to being Manchester United’s finest ever player, once said, ‘I have never, and will never, find the difference between the pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the World Cup of 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud.’
It’s a fine pass, if perhaps a pass for those who think of themselves as football connoisseurs. But in my eyes it can’t hold a candle to Megan Rapinoe’s stupendous cross, under huge pressure, to Abby Wambach in the very last seconds of the US match with Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal.
Cantona has always been a strong exponent of football as The Beautiful Game. He has certainly scored some amazing goals (including this one, that captures Cantona’s unintentionally hilarious goal celebration) and, with Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson, was largely responsible for United’s resurgence in the 1990s.
Arguing that art involves spontaneity, Cantona drew an equivalence with football, contributing to football’s (and art’s) fantasy of itself as a transcendent, sublime activity, and its practitioners as divinely inspired. Artistic transcendence is probably a concept that only the madly romantic or the very naive could subscribe to. Cantona, I think, falls into the latter category.
Growing up in a working-class mill-town in Lancashire, England, I was a fanatical Manchester United fan from the age of six. My parents once allowed me to stay up late after they’d gone to bed so I could watch United demolish the ace Portuguese side Benfica in the European Cup Final, an epic nail-biting game that featured a star turn and a game-changing goal from my childhood hero George Best, who it was then my ambition to become.
It was a significant game in many ways, as this United team was not only the first English side to win the European Cup, but was also the side that the manager, Matt Busby, had rebuilt after his young and supremely talented United team, the ‘Busby Babes’, were destroyed in a plane crash in Munich a decade earlier.
Football was for a long time a working-class sport with working-class loyalties. Toffs in private schools played rugger and polo and rowed and did other weird stuff. Street urchins like me played football. Football seemed to really matter. The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said, ‘Football isn’t life or death. It’s much more important than that.’
If only football were really like that. If only it really were the transcendental but quotidian activity available to all, and watching Pele’s pass to Carlos Alberto a kind of satori. But football is not about football anymore than art is really about art. The only thing more important than life and death is, apparently, money. Football is a branch of the entertainment industry, an activity engaged in by the super-rich and watched enviously by everybody else.
English football means huge, obscene, gobsmacking amounts of money, more than any other team sport across the world. To be one of the twenty teams in the English Premier League (EPL) means you benefit massively from TV rights as well as brand promotion. And ditto if you are one of the top four finishers each year who are automatically given entry to the elite and highly lucrative Champions League competition in Europe.
Football has become notorious for its racism, misogyny and homophobia and for the often blatant cheating by its players. World football’s governing body, FIFA, has levels of mendacity and lust for cash and power that is staggering. During the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa, FIFA famously bullied Nelson Mandela into attendance while also demanding – and getting – the right to have their own judicial system and their own courts in which anyone who broke FIFA’s marketing rules was tried and sentenced. And jailed.
The English Football Association, the FA, has been under considerable pressure to take action on racism, a call they have been usually content to pay the most minimal lip service too. Last year’s inept handling by the FA of the cases of Chelsea player John Terry and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, both eventually found guilty of racially abusing other players, laid bare the truth of both EPL clubs and the FA’s complete unwillingness to acknowledge the endemic racism in football.
In the past decade there have been a couple of scathing parliamentary inquiries into the conduct of the FA and the cash cow that is the EPL, the recommendations of which the FA and EPL have completely ignored. Even the Tories have had to admit that football is ‘the worst governed sport in the country’.
In late 2012 the chair of the UK Society of Black Lawyers, Peter Herbert, called the FA ‘institutionally racist’ and pointed out that the FA hadn’t even adopted the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry on reporting racial incidents. Herbert went on to say:
The FA have a dreadful record of indifference on hate crime generally; failing to challenge anti-Semitism at Tottenham Hotspur and at other grounds; eventually finding John Terry made a racist remark but remarkably found him not to be a ‘racist’; whilst the derisory penalty of a four- or eight-match ban [for Luis Suárez] is believed to be a suitable punishment for what in any other industry would be summary dismissal for gross misconduct.
But racism is just one of the problems that the FA and the EPL refuse to face up to. Speaking out against misogynist rape-culture, homophobia and cheating remains completely off-limits. Anyone watching a football match might be excused for thinking that the scoring of a goal is actually an excuse for sanctioned displays of homoeroticism, but the story of Justin Fashanu is an object lesson for any gay footballer who thinks of coming out.
Fashanu, a talented striker who was football’s first million-pound black player, and came out in 1990, killed himself in 1998 after years of persecution, innuendo, and marginalisation. US player Robbie Rogers recently came out and immediately retired even though he is only 25 and a US international. He spoke of the difficulty of enduring years of secrecy and the locker room culture in football of homophobic slurs and banter.
Women’s football is a different story. Megan Rapinoe came out last year – by no means the first women’s football player to do so – is at the peak of her career and actively speaks out against homophobia.
In England, many football clubs started life a century or more ago as workplace clubs, owned by railway companies or whatnot in which one could buy shares. Supported by workers, with teams composed of working-class players, they were rarely owned by workers. They were leisure activities for working men. It was the model of industrial benevolence that very few saw fit to challenge. There were masters and servants, and servants and dogs.
The traditions in English football, such as they were, were exterminated along with Thatcher’s crushing of the working class. The clubs of the EPL formed their own elite league in the early 1990s, largely so they wouldn’t have to share the wealth poured over them by Murdoch’s Sky with the lower leagues. And they don’t. Working class supporters were rapidly priced out of attending games, with the deliberate and aggressive cultivation of an affluent middle-class audience. After all, wasn’t it those ghastly lower classes that were responsible for football’s hooligan reputation anyway?
Club loyalty among players and managers has largely vanished. Investment groups and plutocrats want results. They want money and glory. So they compete to buy and sell the world’s most expensive players, and change underachieving managers like socks. Players have a market value, just like houses and are bought and sold as investments.
The player with the current highest market value in the EPL is Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, who comes in at 65 million euros. Rooney might be paid thousands of pounds a week, but as far as the club is concerned he’s still a disposable object, a piece of meat that can do tricks. In that sense he’s more working-class than my family ever was.
Once neoliberalism really got its teeth into English life, the most successful football teams of the working class were hived off as potential gold mines for a few individuals, and the towns and cities that produced those teams eviscerated and left to rot. Football clubs became brands to be promoted to Thatcher and Blair’s vaunted middle classes. Manchester United is now probably the most famous sporting brand in the world. But being a United fan in the twenty-first century is like barracking for a corporation. It has as much meaning as being a fan of Apple.
Like the game of Australian Rules Football in Melbourne (not the same game as ‘soccer’) the structure of English football was once maintained by the structure of the working class, by loyalties of location and workplace. The supporting of one’s local football club constituted a social bond. But even those social bonds, as tenuous as they were, were atomised, commodified and sold off during the long destruction of British civil life that began with Thatcher, and her demonisation and brutalisation of the working class. As far as football is concerned Manchester United have been one of the ringleaders in the neoliberalisation of football.
Manchester United was floated on the London Stock Exchange as a public limited company in 1991, amid much controversy and vociferous objections from fans. This effectively meant that the club directors and owners suddenly found themselves sitting on shitloads of shares worth a mint, shares they were happy to begin to dispose of, turning a working-class club into an investors wet dream.
Manchester United is now owned by the odious Glazer family from the US, who loaded the club up with mind-boggling amounts of debt and essentially used its huge earning capacity to leverage their own borrowing potential. United is no longer a football club. It’s a tool for the wealthy to manage their stratospheric debt, disguised as a football club.
A few years ago Manchester’s other club, United’s poor cousin Manchester City, was bought by the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Mansour. After having a billion pounds invested in the club, City then went on to win the 2012 Premiership with their clutch of new hyper-expensive players. Mansour bought the club off Thaksin Shinawatra, the ex-prime minister of Thailand whose original purchase went ahead despite protests from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, protests the English football authorities chose to completely ignore.
EPL clubs have become investment and fashion items for the super-rich, who will be quite happy to live in gated communities and cruise the world in mega-yachts while the rest of the planet drowns or burns. The dream of most fans of English teams is that one of these appalling individuals will step in and buy their club. Ethics, politics and criminality matter not a jot as long as you’ve got the cash.
The German football league, the Bundesliga, is an interesting contrast to the EPL. Bundesliga clubs are still owned by their members, not by rapacious plutocrats. There are strict rules governing a club’s financial viability, attendances are greater than in the EPL and tickets are cheaper. Bundesliga clubs are fierce competitors in the Champions League, and the German national team is always a serious contender for the World Cup. There’s been a recent push for Bundesliga clubs to be allowed the kind of corporate ownership that has seen EPL clubs strip-mined by super-rich scumbags but the Bundesliga has strenuously resisted.
The invasion of football by the sociopathic practices of capitalism hasn’t been limited to the working class of the UK. Where the Germans have resisted the Spanish have caved in and enthusiastically rented their souls out to banks. Currently the world’s most successful club is FC Barcelona, whose players also comprise the bulk of the current World and European Champions, Spain. Barcelona, like Bundesliga clubs, is also owned by its members, but that hasn’t stopped it entering into an unholy alliance with Spanish banks.
FC Barcelona is regarded as having a model footballing organisation, and even pioneered and developed in their youth academy a unique style of play, tika-taka, a game of rapid intricate short passes and movements, that has won Barcelona truckloads of trophies and made them the 2009 and 2011 Champions League winners.
Barcelona is also a team strongly associated with Catalan identity. When the legendary Dutch player Johan Cruyff, who was once famously nutmegged by George Best, joined Barcelona in the 1970s he made himself instantly popular by making it very clear that he had chosen Barcelona over its rival Real Madrid, because of Madrid’s historical association with Franco.
But these days Barcelona is a city where the old Communist Party HQ has become the Apple shop, a potent image for the twenty-first century. The memory of the Civil War and the anarchist revolt of 1936 and the anti-fascist People’s Olympiad is now apparently marked only by a walking tour conducted by an Englishman. Catalan nationalism looks like it has become the lodestone of Catalan radicalism.
Spain’s corrupt and bloated banks have granted Barcelona extraordinary leeway in managing their stratospheric debts. If Team Barcelona were a suburban family they’d be living in a McMansion with Ferraris in the garage, the kids in private schools and with everything from the dog’s vet bills to the kids iPods financed by a bank that refuses to bother them about such a distasteful subject as the unpaid mortgage as long as the star kids keep bringing home the school trophies and Dad plays golf each week with the bank’s manager. Nobody wants to be seen to be damaging brand Barcelona, the most lucrative sporting brand in the world after Manchester United. Barcelona and their arch rivals Real Madrid gobble up more than half of the Spanish TV revenues between them and the Spanish football championship is essentially a two horse race.
If Spain’s banks go belly up so does FC Barcelona. The banks and Barcelona’s financial managers are on the same page. Youth unemployment is nearly 50 per cent, the Indignados are out on the streets of Catalonia, and FC Barcelona, wallowing in bankers largesse, last year paid their star player Lionel Messi thirteen million euros.
Now of course, as the financial structures collapse across Europe, so do major English football clubs groan under their weight of debt, with rapacious organisational structures designed to make as much money as possible so they can win as much as possible in order to make as much money as possible.
When we watch sport we are watching millionaires at play. It’s hard to generate any enthusiasm for that. To pay someone 200,000 quid a week because they are very good at kicking a ball seems criminal to me whether they come from Man U or from Barcelona. Similarly, when I consider going to see a Hollywood blockbuster I think, ‘Christian Bale is getting paid millions to dress up like a giant bat. Why should I even care?’
When I was six I cared a whole lot about Manchester United and what they did. And at age six, I think it was okay to do so. These days, as English football teams become the playthings of plutocrats and thugs, I think I’m entirely justified in not giving a fuck whether United win, lose or are devoured by ravening carnivorous space lizards in the middle of a Champions League Final. At least then I’d have something to cheer.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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