Leading Article: Ministers should not tackle the business of football

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The Independent Culture
AS THIS century closes, football is at the pinnacle of popular culture in Britain. From Manchester United fans in Mauritius, anxiously following David Beckham's exploits, to Arsenal victories being cheered in bars in Japan, Britain - or rather England - has finally got itself a world brand to rival the ageing escutcheon of the Royal Family. But how has this glory come to be?

It was but a few years ago that English football was better known for grinding negativity than the flashes of brilliance now associated with Old Trafford and Elland Road. Talented foreign imports have something to do with it, but it is more a result of brilliant marketing. Television gold has brought money and glamour into the game; and these have been followed by improvements in players, facilities and image.

But not everyone is pleased. David Mellor, for one, the chairman of the Government's Football Task Force, has criticised the "commercialisation" of the game. He is not alone in lamenting the way football has been taken from its fans who in the good old days went, father and son, on a wet Saturday afternoon, to stand on decrepit terraces in support of the local team.

New Labour sought in its manifesto to appeal to this nostalgia by promising a task force to investigate football, and now Mr Mellor has obliged with a report (or rather two reports, as his commission split into fans and professionals). The fans want cheaper tickets, sell-by dates on replica team clothing and a Football Audit Commission to supervise how clubs treat their supporters. The flavour of this approach is well caught by Kate Hoey, the Sports Minister, who opined: "One of the tasks of government is to help sport strike a balance between the necessary business interests of clubs and those of supporters..."

What errant nonsense. Substitute "chocolate manufacturers" or "pop music" or any other industry for "sport" in that sentence, and "consumers" for "supporters", and you will see the intrusive silliness of this whole project.

It is the market that has lifted football from its prosaic dullness, and it is no more the business of government to provide cheap seats at club grounds than to provide cheap seats at the cinema. Or to tell Sporty Spice how often she can change her look. And it is the market that is learning the limited appeal of European club games, or of the lack of appetite for tinkering with the dates of FA Cup matches.

The Government should treat football like any other business. It should draw up regulations to stop a would-be monopolist, such as Rupert Murdoch, from buying a stake in enough teams to corner the market in television rights. And it should ignore the nostalgic gripes of this futile task force.