By Sam Tomlin
This article is the second in a mini SJF series: ‘Football and society, then and now’. See here for the first article in the series.
English football is about as ‘modern’ as you can get. The brand of the Premier League is known world-wide with boys and girls all over the poorest parts of Africa, Asia and South America wearing replica shirts with Rooney, Lampard and Tevez emblazoned on the back.
But football was not always this way. In many ways a microcosm of wider societal change, subject to the introduction of neoliberal thought in the Thatcher/Reagan experiment, major changes occurred in the 1980s. Many of these changes were positive: tackling the hooligan culture that had emerged was vital (although this was clearly not the fault behind the Hillsborough tragedy, as some have claimed), re-branding the game to make it more family-friendly and the insertion of some more private investment. I remember my Dad telling me going to games in the late 70s was often like going to a football fight hoping that a game might break out.
I was always aware, however, that something was not quite right with the game that I grew up to love. Part of this was due to my growing socialist tendencies in my mid-teens: being awoken to the vast inequality of the world alongside an ever booming football market, transfer fees in the millions and wages in the tens of thousands a week never sat easily with me. But blissfully uninformed of the effect of modernisation, I continued my support of Bristol City (& Man Utd in the Premiership – you don’t say you support Bristol City on a primary school playground in Oxford when you’re 6!)
In the last few years, though, I entered tentatively into the world of football policy through work, and began to understand the consequences beyond the positive elements listed above. I learned that there are broadly two camps in the debate – those with the power who set policy and unsurprisingly benefit disproportionately (financially and structurally – not sharing power and influence more widely) with the status quo (mainly the FA, Premier League and owners), and the ‘resistance’ movement which tries to unearth the truth behind the propaganda, making the game democratic and representative of those who pay for the gig – namely, the supporters.
My eyes were opened to a world the average football fan sort of knows exists, but isn’t inclined to find out more about because they are too busy ‘consuming’ the product they are being fed, which they are told unequivocally is the best in the world – now shut up and enjoy it! The excellent Dave Boyle has done my job for me in this instance, in an article describing a world of secrecy, lack of accountability, astronomical debt (English football holds around half or all European club debt), and generally a bleak picture which isn’t getting much better. As Dave explains, the sad thing is that like Lloyd George said about the First World War: if people knew the truth it would stop tomorrow – it is in the interest of the ruling parties to keep the masses down. Sound familiar…?
From my perspective, one of the most lamentable elements of modern football is the acceptance of being taken advantage of on behalf of supporters. Reading Sheila Coleman’s article in this mini-series, describing standing in the Kop in the 70s and the collective spirit which came with it made me envious. My football experience these days is limited to mainly travelling to Championship (soon to be League 1) grounds, paying an exorbitant price to get in, and listening to the latest lyrically vacuous chart-topping singles blaring out on a tannoy (sponsored by AXA insurance), watching players who don’t care about the club with a dwindling away support in a stadium far too big for the attendance. (As I have blogged elsewhere – exorbitant ticket prices is football’s way of financing the greed and debt in the game, holding us to ransom because they know ‘stopping going’ is not an option). The capitalist dream.
Compare this to German football (e.g. see this article by David Conn), and we see a vision for a game existing for and with supporters, not oligarchs and millionaires. High levels of supporter ownership (all clubs are required to have at least 51% voting rights with supporters) lead to lower ticket prices, higher attendances and a sense that the game belongs to the people and communities. A few years ago, Union Berlin needed to build a new stadium – up stepped 2,000 supporters who gave time (in exchange for tickets) to help build the stadium, an incredible example of civil society borne out of collectivism, and almost unthinkable in England.
The way forward does not require a backwards step to the 70s though. What is required, as Boyle points out in the earlier referenced article, is that supporters unite to fight for the game they want which will keep elements of modernisation – safer stadia, less violence etc. – but crucially promote elements of collective identity endeavour (denounced by Thatcher, who incidentally held football – and its working class clientele – in contempt). Social media and club forums should provide adequate tools for such tasks, building on the already inspirational supporters trust movement championed by Supporters Direct. As with wider societal debates – supporters (or the people) don’t know how much power they really have.