A footballing revolt

Like most aspects of modern life, sport hasn’t escaped capitalism. Rather, it’s persistently and comprehensively shaped by economic considerations: how much advertising revenue can be generated, how many shirts will be bought if a club signs player X, how many people can be legally admitted into a stadium on matchday. The necessary ills of capitalism have become inextricable from professional sport.

The recent experience of English football club, Arsenal, exemplifies this well. The Arsenal Football Club bureaucracy (and the media that reports on it) has ignored and abandoned the fans. It is an elite that acts for itself, in spite of the supporters’ best interests. The crises that have recently engulfed governments – from the US to Greece and Brazil – and the established press, have spread to the sporting arena, where a small number of wealthy individuals control the direction, the distribution of information and the finances of clubs.

In 1996, Arsène Wenger became the manager of Arsenal Football Club. He lasted almost twenty-two years in the position. The first half of his tenure was defined by unprecedented success: winning plenty of silverware and even going an entire season unbeaten in 2003/04, an unmatched accomplishment.

The second half of Wenger’s career is far less celebrated. He was unable to spend the required amount on player transfers to challenge for trophies. Nor could Wenger retain his best players. Most crucially, he wasn’t getting the results that the public had come to expect. He won no major titles in his final fourteen years at the club.

It took time for the majority of Arsenal’s fanbase to turn against Wenger. With the previous years of success in mind, many fans anticipated that Wenger would rekindle the success he had delivered. Though, as his trophy drought grew, a consensus emerged: his time was up.

For years, he remained. The Board, led by owner Stan Kroenke, refused to remove Wenger. Instead, they continued to offer him lucrative contracts that peaked at £8 million per year. The Board’s rationale was clear: Wenger’s extended stay as manager guaranteed their profits. He was willing to operate on a comparatively slender player transfer budget, and kept up the club’s international reputation – enabling it to secure enticing sponsorship deals, high revenues for television broadcasting rights, sell club merchandise and fill up its stadium on gameday.

Wenger never questioned the club’s motivations in public, making him the perfect foil for the Board’s agenda. It’s not stellar football or excellent results the Board seek, but considerable economic gain for themselves. After all, Arsenal’s stadium is the most expensive to attend on matchday in world football.

But it wasn’t just Wenger that fans were fed up with. It was management, too. Many have concluded that Arsenal’s transfer blunders were the product of the Board’s frugality. The Board also seemed perfectly happy to tolerate unexceptional results, provided the club remained profitable.

Stan Kroenke’s status as an American sporting magnate – whose company, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, owns the Los Angeles Rams, the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and the Colorado Rapids – incurred the ire of fans. The prevailing perception is that Kroenke couldn’t care less about Arsenal. He rarely leaves the United States, and even more seldomly attends games. The club is a conduit of wealth for Kroenke, an asset.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s fans became sceptical of the footballing media. The newspapers, television channels and radio stations that reported on English football were no longer trusted. Their reportage was seen to prioritise increasing readership levels over the truth. Online articles have been deplored by supporters for being ‘clickbait’, using the tactics of scandal and innuendo to pull in curious readers, often at the expense of club morale.

The same goes for pundits. Often ex-footballers, ex-managers or seasoned journalists, their expert ‘analysis’ is divorced from the concerns of footballing fans. It’s often held that pundits have their own agenda. Pundits, such as Jermaine Jenas, have defended Arsenal’s marquee player, Mesut Özil, from accusations that he often cuts a disinterested figure when a game isn’t going well. ‘[Özil] is not a player who’s … going to [defend].’ But fans are unlikely to accept that. They expect greater effort from a player who earns £350,000 a week, paid largely out of their pockets.

Fans felt they’d been stripped of all power. Despite filling Arsenal’s stadium, purchasing its merchandise, and giving it a reason to exist, fans had little power in determining the trajectory of the club – who governed it, who managed it, who played for it – and how information regarding it was dispersed. Regular supporters have ‘tried going to the Board and tried going to the club, but what [they] get are generic letters … [they] are treated as customers rather than fans.’

Unwilling to see their club persist in mediocrity, bands of fans acted. Their plan to redirect the club was twofold: to force the club’s hand to appoint a new, energetic manager, and to establish a grassroots media.

The protests against Wenger began roughly in 2010. Disapproval of him then was sparse. His successes were still within recent memory. But as time went on, Wenger failed to arrest the decline of the club. By the 2017/18 season, results had hit a nadir, and the calibre of player at Arsenal was markedly reduced.

While fans had been appreciative of Wenger’s efforts, the consensus was that he needed to leave. They knew management wouldn’t push him – for he offered them a scapegoat – so they had to make it happen. Banners and flags, adorned with the phrase, ‘Wenger Out’, were paraded, and chants of ‘Arsène Wenger, we want you to go’ reverberated around European stadiums. This display reflected an atmosphere of fan aggrievement, and a desire for renewal.

The increasing emptiness of Arsenal’s stadium at home games likely precipitated managerial change. Online and in person, supporters encouraged one another to boycott games. It was the only way to force Wenger out, the only way to get management to listen to their demands. As such, one-third of the Emirates was regularly empty, which translated to disappointed advertisers and less revenue for the club.

In April of 2018, without warning, Wenger resigned. He insisted that he hadn’t been sacked, but that view still abounded in the press and fan circles. Past declarations that he ‘always respects his contracts’, and his refusal to leave Arsenal, despite offers from other illustrious clubs, suggest he was pushed. It’s believed that the reason for this was the record-low fan support, resulting in reduced management revenues.

The fans had banded together, organised themselves, and exercised their mass-based power that had laid dormant for many preceding years.

In a similar vein, an appetite for fan-based media emerged. That marginalised self-proclaimed ‘experts’, whose priority is ensuring the profitability of their media company. This was satiated by the rise of the Internet. Fans created blogs and forums, where others could debate recent games, players signings and their thoughts on football. Arseblog, All Arsenal News and JustArsenal are just some blogs set up by fans. They became empowered to drive the news agenda about their club, to reclaim ownership over the discussions about their club’s progress. No longer did they need to be endowed with knowledge from pundits, experts and journalists.

Arsenal Fan TV has accorded regular supporters the greatest autonomy in having their voices heard. Established by ex-surveyor Robbie Lyle in 2012, Arsenal Fan TV prides itself on giving fans a platform to discuss their club. Lyle travels to games, conducting extended interviews with supporters, often eliciting passionate diatribe and adulation. The YouTube channel is well-known for its humorous qualities, in the way that fans argue about the club’s performance.

But to focus on that would be to ignore the possibilities of Arsenal Fan TV. It reveals how new technologies can be harnessed for and by the masses. Lyle’s stated mission is to ‘reflect the mood of the fans.’ He has no ‘qualifications’ to run the channel, other than being a committed Arsenal fan. And neither do the contributors to the channel – the only requirement is that they’re supporters and have something to say. This means global audiences get a good sense, and a broad array, of fan opinion.

It’s also proven a source of newfound fan power. If one of them is called ‘an idiot’ by a pundit such as ex-Manchester United player Gary Neville for questioning a manager’s performance, supporters now have recourse to hold him or her to account. As Lyle did with Neville, fans can now haul pundits in front of the camera to justify the statements they make to substantial media audiences.

However, these exciting developments must be tempered. They haven’t found solutions to the problems of ownership, of class disconnect and power in the footballing sphere. While Wenger is gone, and new manager Unai Emery’s plans appear promising, Kroenke’s Board still reigns (he recently acquired 100 per cent of the club’s shares; an ominous sign). The fans haven’t rooted out that which fatally plagues the club: a self-interested management.

And as Arsenal Fan TV has grown exponentially, now with over 795,000 subscribers on YouTube, it has turned increasingly towards interviewing a select few who provide outrageous and unmoderated opinions on the game. Its skew towards loud, hard-core supporters – who are usually men – means that it isn’t representative of Arsenal’s fanbase. Lyle’s agreement, too, to host a ‘fan-driven’ show on Channel 4 in Britain poses the significant risk that commercial TV will co-opt, and thereby undermine, the anarchic potential of Arsenal Fan TV in foregrounding fan opinion.

The revolt still has unfinished business.


Image: Protests / flickr

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Nicholas Bugeja is an Arts/Law student at Monash University. He is an editor for Independent Australia and has written for Senses of Cinema, the ACMI Blog and Film Matters Magazine. On Twitter, he's @BugejaNick.

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  1. ‘he won no major titles in his last 14 years at the club’. He won 3 FA cups in the last 5 years. This article takes a very narrow definition of ‘major title’. By its standards only the Champions League and Premier Division are ‘major titles’.

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