How chasing profit threatens culture of English football

As Charlie Stillitano floats his Super League idea and Manchester United promote their 'Collaboration Tractor', English football's traditions have never been under greater threat

It might have taken two years of blue-sky thinking to develop, and involved more scrutiny of closely typed contracts than the average optician would recommend, but Ed Woodward and the boys got the deal over the line. Glory, glory Man United.

Yanmar, the club’s first Agricultural Vehicles Partner, will promote the so-called Manchester United Collaboration Tractor on Old Trafford’s digital marketing boards and exploit football as the ultimate B2B networking opportunity. 

Not content with such Herculean labours, they also promise “to make people’s lives more affluent in Thailand”. Truly, the entrepreneurial spirit of the supposed European Super League is alive and well, on whiteboards from the Far East to the West End of London, United’s commercial citadel.

United’s pursuit of profit at the expense of domestic popularity has long since become self-parodic. They have no less than 70 officially sanctioned “partners” to hawk the likes of paint, ready meals, tyres, male shampoo, noodles and feature films. 

In the eyes of Charlie Stillitano, a hitherto obscure American businessman and radio host who portrays himself as a friend of such luminaries as Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho but comes across as Piers Morgan without the wit and intellect, this is the natural order of things.

He came to the fore, unannounced and unfettered by a grasp of his subject, when Woodward and his fellow Premier League powerbrokers were caught like schoolboys sneaking a cigarette behind the bike sheds.

Stillitano insisted he was speaking to them about the International Champions Cup, a corporate conceit consisting of a series of meaningless pre-season friendlies involving below-strength European teams, which have spread from the US to China and Australia.

Yet, in straying beyond his brief and confirming they also discussed the concept of the Champions League as a closed shop, he recycled the myth peddled by train franchises, telephone companies and public utility services, which wilfully confuse monopolistic power with competitive parity and customer satisfaction.

By belittling the achievements of Leicester City, he ensured fresh focus on the greed and amorality of leading clubs, who will have no compunction in using the threat of a breakaway to extract more money and influence from Uefa. He also highlighted the dangers of the ignorance he represents. 

Despite its delusions of global grandeur, American sport has many strategic advantages. The draft system equalises talent, and salary caps offer a modicum of financial protection, yet the mistrust of meritocracy is insidious and infectious.

It is designed to reward mediocrity, a happy coincidence, since four of the five least-successful NFL franchises – the Cleveland Browns, LA Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – are owned by those with interests in English football, respectively Randy Lerner, Stan Kroenke, Shad Khan and the Glazers. 

The problem of foreign ownership is not confined to the Premier League. Look at the chaos consuming clubs like Charlton Athletic and Leeds United, who are at the whim of feudally inclined businessmen with no conception of connection to a community or the heartbeat of history.

These people are cultural vandals who would not understand the primitive howl of appreciation that greeted Jon Flanagan’s tackle on former Liverpool team-mate Raheem Sterling at Anfield on Wednesday  that could be generously described as being robust.

This was a tribal rite of passage, repackaged as the working-man’s theatre. Its resonance was reflected in the gleeful response of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, who couldn’t stop himself breaking into applause.

The traditional English game has never been under greater threat, yet its value lies in its strange blend of hope and enmity, competition and empathy. History and geography shaped yesterday’s cotton-mill derby between Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, which was played with ferocity beyond the imagination of the cotton-bud warriors of Major League Soccer.

People care, despite appearances and distorted reputations. Much-maligned Millwall staged the fourth annual “Jimmy’s Day” yesterday, when Blackpool visited the Den. Initiated in honour of Jimmy Mizen, a young fan whose murder has become the focal point of the club’s anti-knife crime campaign, it was broadened to recognise similar victims from six other London clubs.

Bounty hunters like Stillitano may schmooze with the stars, but they cannot comprehend why countless men of a certain age sighed and celebrated when Kenny Dalglish turned 65 on Friday. He is the sort of icon whose humanity means more than his achievements in winning six League titles, four League Cups, three European Cups and two FA Cups.

Football is not defined by financial flowcharts. It has no need of patronising references to “fandom”, or the malign influence of corporate trailer trash. It is time to call the bluff of clubs who, having betrayed their supporters, the Football League and the national team, appear to be contemplating turning on their own.

Do your worst. Form your sterile Super League and retreat into your diamond-encrusted, widescreen-infatuated ghetto. It will have the shelf life of a pro-celebrity tractor-pulling contest in Bangkok. 

Rio in Shangri-la la land

It must be liberating to be as relentlessly optimistic as Carlos Nuzman, who landed in London this week to promote this summer’s Games, which appear to have been transferred from Rio de Janeiro to Shangri-La.

The 2016 Olympic organising committee president, who has overall responsibility for a notably ill-starred event, insisted the world’s athletes have nothing to fear from water pollution, the Zika virus, desperate cost-cutting and dismal ticket sales. 

He might have got away with it, had he not revealed his intention to invite disgraced former Fifa president Joao Havelange to celebrate his 100th birthday at the Games, as a gesture of respect.

He explained Havelange “was very important to our country”, this despite being found to have been responsible for systemic bribery and corruption. Is it any wonder that so many are alienated when this ogre is welcomed as a guest of honour?

Comments