The beautiful game?

It's boom time for football. Or is it? The money that's poured into the sport hasn't all been for the good; and the spectre of crowd violence refuses to go away
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
EVERY Sunday from autumn to spring, Alastair Campbell reaches for the papers and turns at once to the back pages. The Prime Minister's press secretary, one of the most powerful people in the country, casts a hungry eye over the sports section for a Burnley match report and then the results of the games affecting his team's fellow strugglers at the foot of the Second Division.

No matter how much politics may be a way of life for Mr Campbell, football remains a constant. And like the man himself, the people's game has come a long way in the past five years and both now find themselves in unfamiliar, choppy waters.

There is today an uneasiness beneath the well-polished surface of the game that means so much to so many. Football has undergone its own big bang; it was long ago characterised as the new rock'n'roll; it is supposed to be trendy and classless. The crowds are up, the money has never been bigger, and England are in the finals of the World Cup. What could possibly be wrong?

Plenty. The game itself, while just about recognisible as the one that produced Sir Stanley Matthews and working-class heroes in baggy shorts, has lost its ethos. Behind the astronomical financial figures lies increasing anxiety over the future of many clubs, and as the death of a Fulham fan outside Gillingham's ground showed, the nasty side to the football audience has by no means been eradicated.

"The post-war game that many fans grew up with, that they first went to see with their dads, has died in the upper echelons of English league football," says Dr Rogan Taylor, the football academic and member of the Football Research Unit at the University of Liverpool.

"A new sort of football has sprung up and no one is quite sure where it is going. Make no mistake: these are revolutionary times for football. There are genuine concerns that the widening gap between the rich and poor clubs will inevitably lead to a reduction in the number of sides in the new professional game."

Some experts predict that the 92 teams in the English league will have been cut by up to 25 per cent in 10 to 15 years' time, in the same way that corner shops have withered in the face of supermarket competition.

"THE emergence of a few super clubs threatens the traditional anchors that have tied teams and supporters to their communities," says Dr Taylor. "If that happens and a substantial number of the smaller clubs are derailed, an umbilical cord connecting the supporters to the game will be gone for ever."

Dr Taylor believes that the soul of football is rooted in what he calls "blood and soil", with local people supporting their home team or the side that their fathers have always favoured. He fears that, once broken, this link may never be re-forged, and while fans may be able to watch more quality football on television they will be excluded from the experience that has sustained the game throughout this century.

Dr Taylor said: "The game runs extremely deeply into the cultural sub- soil of this country, and the people who run it must be aware that they tamper with it at their peril. No one in their right mind wants hermetically sealed leagues dependent on television for their survival."

Today's craze for ever more football has resulted in extreme pressure being applied to the game from above and below. Ordinary fans demand success as never before, while the stakes in the boardroom have attracted a new, sabre-toothed class of entrepreneur. At every level, the disparities in our national game are growing.

Some Premier League chairmen have speculated about the top half-dozen or so teams breaking away to play in a European super league. Meanwhile, in the Third Division of the Nationwide League, the lowest level of the professional game, teams such as Brighton and Doncaster Rovers struggle on the verge of bankruptcy with no chance of sharing the game's new riches.

Fear of failure as much as expectation of success has driven managers at the top to buy foreign stars for many millions and then pay them as much as pounds 20,000 or more a week. Ordinary fans, many on low incomes, feel they are being forced to bear the burden of this hyper-inflation and are angered by the rising cost of season tickets and the cynical marketing of team strips.

The Government's response has been to set up the Football Task Force, a sort of think tank on football aimed at improving all aspects of the game.

"Some people ask if the Task Force is just a gimmick," says its chairman, David Mellor. "I say no. I believe there is a worthwhile job to be done and the Government will spare no effort to help us succeed. Government has a duty to protect the weak and vulnerable from commercial exploitation."

But with a budget of just pounds 100,000 to fund a series of "meet the fans" roadshows, many feel that this is simply a spin-doctor's approach to a serious structural problem at the heart of football.

Graham Bean, chairman of the Football Supporters' Association and a Task Force member, thinks the answer is to appoint a football regulator. He said: "Football has never had a higher profile in this country but most of my members would agree with me when I say that this is not a golden age for British soccer. At too many of the grounds, ordinary supporters are being forced to make way for corporate hospitality boxes. We have no faith that the pool of money now in the game will filter down to the grass roots.

"An independently appointed regulator, backed by legislation, could prevent some of the worst excesses of commercialism currently plaguing the game as well as sorting out fair prices for admission and season tickets. He should also be able to sort out some of the conflicts within the game before small clubs are forced to close." But in reality what influence would an "Off-foot" regulator be able to wield over the powerful business interests now driving the game?

Football has created a new oligarchy of multi-millionaires. At Chelsea, where season-ticket prices are to rise by 41 per cent next season, chairman Ken Bates's shareholding in the club is worth about pounds 51m. At Manchester United, his opposite number Martin Edwards's stake is valued at approximately pounds 80m; at Spurs, Alan Sugar has a pounds 50m-plus holding, and Everton's Peter Johnson's is put at pounds 60m.

THE exposure of two Newcastle directors and their cynical remarks about fans only confirmed what many supporters have suspected about the motives and attitudes of some who now control football. And while it is true that television, in the form of Sky Sports, detonated the game's big bang with a deal worth about pounds 7m a year to each Premiership team this season, the real money comes from the marketing income that TV exposure brings. One stockbroker has estimated that any team relegated from the Premiership this season will instantly sacrifice pounds 50m.

Some chairmen believe there are even greater riches to be made from pay- per-view televising of matches. Chris Akers, chairman of Leeds United and owner of the Caspian Group, told his fellow-Premiership chairmen that revenues from this form of digitalised viewing will be worth more than pounds 500m by the year 2000 and pounds 2bn by 2010. Armchair fans would, he suggested, pay pounds 10 a game or pounds 250 for a season ticket to view all a club's matches.

But most experts say pay-per-view could be a reality only for a handful of clubs, and fans predict that the system would ultimately erode those teams' travelling support, leading to matches being played in front of home fans only, with none of the traditional atmosphere.

Many of the new breed of corporate proprietors want spectators to share a Disney-like theme-park experience with smart restaurants, hospitality suites and plenty of shopping opportunities at their grounds.

But they do so at their peril. Football is still about winners and losers, homage and hatred. The Gillingham incident and the threatened assault of the referee at Barnsley reminded us that the dark heart of the game is beating still, and it will never be as sterile and pre-packaged as the marketing men would wish.

As one lifelong Arsenal supporter said last week: "Football is the working man's game. Now they are taking it away from us and handing it over to the well-off fashionable middle classes. But where will football be when the yuppies have got bored and a new fad has come along? We want the terraces back, Bovril and pies at half-time, and games played by men whose names you can pronounce."

Comments