The Beautiful Game

The Beautiful Game

Football is a global game. From the streets of Brazil, and the Ginga style that emerged, to the jumpers for goalposts terrace culture of England. There is no sport with the same permeation and unifying spirit as football, and its ever-pulsing heartbeat is its fans. The sights and spectacles are like no other. European nights at Anfield, the wall of yellow and black from the Dortmund faithful, and the impassioned flares of the Copa Libertadores final. Unforgettable moments made possible through the passion of people.

Though fandom, with its internet face, has taken on a statistical, corporatized flavour that threatens the spirit of supporting your team. Instead of sexagenarians remembering the impression of greats, newer generations think more in numbers and ratios; iconoclasm is the iPhone-enabled teenage rebellion. It all smacks of taking things for granted, as if the stadiums and teams will keep playing as long as we keep watching. That is, until they stopped. No gatherings at the watering hole, no pretence to see a friend, no bonding impetus between parents and children, grandparents, and their children.

In a time of lockdowns, masks, and social media prominence, it is easy to forget the importance of rites and rituals in culture. In England, football begins with the park near your house where you first kissed a girl, got into a fight, or scored that incredible header. You lived for the scrapes, the tackles, the noise after a winning goal or the clamour when it was argued if it was over the invisible bar or not. It was the same grass and mud that saw your father and his father lace their boots, perhaps on the weekend after an arduous shift at the factory. That spirit will never be extinguished, it is what binds generations, creating stories and song.

The Rover That Never Returned

I have never been a football fan in the die-hard vein, but I am a lover of the game. I did not belong to a football family, but my Grandad shared an interest in the game. He loved his sport and was a gambler with a penchant for the races. A man’s man, with all the relics of the past haunting him. He passed away due to cancer before I was old enough to understand, but he connected me with football in a way only a relative can.

We watched live games together at the home ground. He would pick me up in his Rover 75 and try to find a parking spot down a side street, the parsimonious figure that he was, avoiding any kind of fare. We could never afford to see the first team, and we were fortunate to get a ticket at all, but I did not care. I was only glad to feel the cold air.

I still remember the noise and drama, picking up programmes and goodie bags, and feeling the rush of those novelties. I saw everything as a treat, a hot drink at half-time, a complimentary pen or sweet. I had an appreciation for every moment, but what I will never forget was the first time I walked out into the stadium. The noise, the atmosphere, but most of all, the energy. Singing chants and screaming songs and hurling abuse at the referee, it was like being immersed in something greater, a oneness.

Most support their local team and wish for the best, but the pride is in the performance. The football pyramid in England (and many other countries) offers any team the chance to be promoted and to rise to the top. When Leicester won the Premier League in the 2015-16 season, the initial odds at the start of the season were 5000/1. This is the true spirit of the English game, that David can beat Goliath, that the underdog can come out on top.

The Money Machine

Over the last couple of decades, money has poured into the European football markets. Massive agent fees, transfer fees and salaries, boosted by syndication, network deals and sponsorships have inflated the risk factor to such a degree that protecting investment led to desperate moves. The market allows clubs to put large figures on players to prevent moves. Managers and coaches are traded in and out, with a ruthless emphasis on results. To some degree this is inevitable, and with big clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United having American ownership, the influence of these owners was bound to occur.

Enter the European Super League (ESL), the most contentious move in all of football for a long time. The ESL was proposed to unite the ‘biggest’ self-nominated 12 clubs to create a closed shop where the big teams could never be relegated—a mirroring of American-style models, where revenue surrounds the celebrities. The ‘big’ clubs would be protected from a risk-reward system.

Theoretically, a team could be promoted from the lowest division right to the heights of Europe in the English game. This spirit of competition would be quashed with the ESL, with fat cats structurally ensuring their seat at the table. The history of these great clubs, with their mandate being for the people, decimated in act of systemic greed. What is there to play for if the victory is guaranteed?

An attempted murder on English football.

Pundit Gary Neville on the ESL

To say this invited backlash is an understatement; fans, pundits, former players, and countless people in the media were against this (primarily in England). Vociferous protests ensued after key figures spoke out while the beautiful game teetered on the precipice. Protests soon mounted outside Stamford Bridge (the home of Chelsea). Petr Cech met the fans asking them to let the coach pass, shouting “we know” towards the collective frustration. It was a turning point. Eventually the jeers turned to cheers as the news came in that owner of Chelsea, Roman Abramovich had ordered the departure.

The dominoes started to fall.

The Spirit of a Team

In the wake of Chelsea’s decision, Manchester City followed, with the rest of the English and Italian clubs following suit. The Spanish clubs held firm, but the groundswell was too powerful. The ESL in its current iteration, was over.

Yet in times of rebellion, fires are stoked, and momentum is set. Protests continued towards owners, with the reputational damage unresolved even after apologies. The idea of fan ownership hit the media, and the critical issue became representation. With the rise of fan channels such as AFTV, fandom online had become an armada, fostering tension between fans and owners.

In short, both parties had to come to the table for these big clubs. The Glazers of Manchester United agreed to talk more, and other owners admitted mistakes. It was a wakeup call, but then came the sobering truth: Arsenal miss out on Europe, Tottenham fail again to win a trophy after sacking a manager made for trophies. PSG are pipped to the post by Lille, and instead of the usual La Liga two, Atletico Madrid seal the Spanish title, while the two Milan clubs outperform Juventus.

As these ‘big’ clubs reel from the fallout they are forced to introspect, as their performances do not match their status, it is apparent there is no entitlement for any team. It is about what you show on the pitch. Despite all this, one shining example emerges referenced earlier, Leicester City, a club that now is frequently in the top six places, thus challenging the ‘big six’ concept the ESL attempted to validate.

The team that faced down relegation and survived to win the Premier League in 2016 with a collection of undesirables and unwanted players. A team with a striker that a few years prior was in the lower divisions, not expected to reach the heights of Champions League.  

It is therefore poetic, that after a few weeks post the ESL debacle, Leicester won the FA Cup 1-0 against Chelsea. In the aftermath, the goalkeeper revealed that an image of the late owner, that died in a tragic accident, is sewn into the kits so that he is ‘always with them’. In the buoyant celebrations the manager brought the late owner’s son down from the stands to join in the spirited embrace and hold the trophy aloft.

Football without fans is nothing.

Jock Stein

In those moments, everyone was on the same page. No distant owners not even aware their team is playing, no dispassionate debt vehicles or portfolio assets. No hierarchies that see resources and contractual obligations. It was a family. The same spirit of good faith that exists between fans and players. This was a team that connected the people to the club, and the values of the city to the owners.

Yet football is an example for every sport. A masterful putt without the cheers, a last minute goal without the rapture, any sport without its fans has its soul stripped away. They are what ground the spectacle, make it real and relatable to the common man, so it can become embedded in sagas and stories, as time marches on.

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