Football: Lament for spirit of football

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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL IS not profit-driven men serenading each other with returns from sponsorship deals, share manipulation and extortionate pricing. Football is not owners carving up a future of European expansion.

Football is Ryan Giggs swerving past defenders, the promise held in Michael Owen's blinding speed and instinctive directness towards the opposition's goal.

Football is not clandestine meetings, broken contracts, lawyers and mediators.

Football is all our yesterdays, today and tomorrow. It is Pele, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore, Stanley Matthews, John Charles and Diego Maradona. It is a David Beckham free-kick, Ronaldo on the break, Alessandro Del Piero scoring.

Football is not men poring over balance sheets, boot contracts, the exploitation of supporters, television hyperbole and endless analysis.

Football is: "Why didn't he shoot?", or "He couldn't pass the time of day", or "We'll get nowhere with this mug in the team", or "Give the referee a white stick". Football is controversy. Not the controversy of insider trading and dubious affiliation. A dispute in football is an offside decision, not industrial strife.

Football is not newly rich men exercising their arrogance. Football is embraced by society like an over-protected child. It is the beneficiary of millions in free advertising, and in exemptions from the basic laws of the land. As was once said about baseball in the United States, it is a temple into which the money-changers should not have been allowed to creep.

Football was meant to provide relief from the real world where there are rarely any clear-cut winners, only degrees of losers.

Forty years ago this week, still feeling the injury that ended a modest spell in the game, I was given an opportunity to take up football writing as a career. Going back further than I find it comfortable to remember, Wolverhampton Wanderers were the First Division champions, Bolton Wanderers held the FA Cup. Liverpool, yet to come under Bill Shankly's marvellous influence, languished in the Second Division where they would remain for three more seasons.

It was a time of pending upheaval, with many voices raised against the maximum wage of pounds 20 per week and an iniquitous system of contracts that bound players to their clubs for life.

England - depleted by the awful Manchester United air accident in Munich - had failed again the World Cup. Despite the work done by the then-England manager, Walter Winterbottom, in his other role as the Football Association's director of coaching, little had been done to modernise methods of team coaching.

Attempts at updating a team's playing formation were ridiculed in newspapers as the "numbers racket". When asked if the Football League would ever agree to matches going out "live" on television, its secretary, Alan Hardaker, growled: "Over my dead body." Colour television was a miracle of the future. Corporate hospitality was friendship with a football director. Dividends on shares were held beneath an eight per cent ceiling.

The majority of football supporters stood to watch matches and floodlights were still something of a novelty. The Real Madrid of Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas dominated the European Cup. It would be another six years before Tottenham Hotspur became the first British club to win a European trophy, the Cup-Winners' Cup.

More than 30 years would pass before a burgeoning middle-class found football fashionable. It was more of a game, less of a business and, to my mind, better for it. Press boxes rang with a healthy cynicism. The game had romance, heart and soul but it fell short of the obsession it has become today in all walks of society.

Football has to do with our youth. We're all 25 years younger when we take our seats, and it's like the day when our fathers took us out to our first match. For many, the great escape, the uncommon denominator.

The trouble is that too many of the prime movers today have no respect for tradition. Mammon clouds our perception. Loyalty is now looked on as a weakness, profit rules. Greed has become the game's gospel. A European super league rises up before us, its inevitability reminding the majority of supporters that there is now no limit to ambition.

Since 1978, three clubs, Liverpool (8), Manchester United (4) and Arsenal (3) have monopolised what has become a tiered championship. "Only the clubs with resources to assemble a big squad can hope to win it," the Leeds manager, George Graham, recently said. "After that it is a group trying to make the top six and the rest trying to stay out of trouble."

But it is still football, for all that. A new Premiership season, fresh faces, high hopes, beckons. Over-exposed, over-hyped, and in danger of being over-intellectualised. And yet still Dream Street.

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