Happy birthday to the Football Association, conceived of 150 years ago this coming October by some serious Victorian chaps in Holborn, and due to kick off a year of celebrations on Wednesday. If you were writing a birthday card to this venerable, oft-maligned, frequently misunderstood, occasionally self-defeating organisation it might be hard to sum up your feelings in a few words.
The FA falls into a certain category of English institution, along with the likes of the Royal Family, the Church of England, the BBC and the NHS that are all judged with the same ferocious intensity, largely because they are all considered, to a greater or lesser degree, public property. Although the FA, a not-for-profit organisation, receives a relatively tiny fraction of public money.
In the age of the £200,000-a-week footballer, when the disillusionment among some supporters is so great that a game like yesterday's at the Emirates is boycotted by away fans over ticket prices, the need for an independent organisation that connects the top of the game with the millions of amateurs at its base is more important than ever. What the FA can do about such issues, is another matter.
There can be no doubting that in its 150th year, the FA faces as big a battle as ever for its place in the English game. The biggest clubs in the country would like to run it largely for their own benefit and the establishment of the Premier League 21 years ago was a giant step in that direction. But if you care about all aspects of football, you will care about the FA.
As a public body, it is in the unenviable position that the average fan holds it responsible for just about everything in football while the parameters of its power are more limited than many realise, and the competing influences that seek to make its policies and direct its path through the modern game serve many different interests.
In his impressive global history of football, The Ball is Round, the historian David Goldblatt describes the domestic English game at what is regarded as one of its greatest moments – the 1923 FA Cup final. The old Wembley chaotic with 120,000 people inside, demonstrating good humour, respect for the authorities and, above all, a mighty passion for the game.
Goldblatt wrote of that snapshot in history: "The FA had made its peace, albeit with regret, with the forces of commercialism and professionalism but no further shift in that direction would be tolerated. The authorities regarded," he added, "the chaotic gentility of late Victorian football to be the gold standard of football's athletic and aesthetic values."
The FA once ruled the game, along with the Football League, like benevolent dictators –in charge because, well, it always had been. Not even the founders who sketched out the rules of the world's game can have expected it to last for ever but then those capable gentlemen might have struggled with what has been left for their organisation to govern.
The FA is judged largely on the success, or otherwise, of the England team. It is typical of many of the conflicts at the heart of English football that the FA cops it for every failing at a major international tournament despite having no direct input into the development of elite young footballers on a day-to-day basis (the clubs claimed that privilege years ago).
International football itself is under attack from the elite European clubs who are seeking to control and curtail the involvement of their players. On top of that, the credibility of international football is not helped by some of the shambolic dealings in the last decade of Fifa, the ultimate power, to which the FA answers. Yet it is to the FA's credit that it has been one of the very few to stand up to Sepp Blatter.
Starting to get a picture of the FA's dilemma? And that is before we consider the thorny issue of disciplinary matters, a hot potato that the Premier League, for all its undoubted success, is quite happy for the FA to keep. Increasingly a fraught, complex business presided over by expensive QCs with a tendency to place the FA right in the firing line, as demonstrated by the recent cases of Luis Suarez and John Terry.
Beyond that there is the great amorphous category which we know to be important, but does not command newspaper back pages or require the services of super-agents – "the grass roots". The FA invests £100m into the game, £50m of which goes to the grass roots. They are by no means the only ones, the Premier League has its own foundation too, but what the FA offers is a direct connection from Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard down to the Sunday league.
This week, the FA will celebrate the 7 million people who play the game in this country, the 400,000 volunteers, 300,000 coaches and 27,000 qualified referees who fall under its auspices. Also among the party will be Fabio Capello, once the highest paid England manager of all time on £6m a year, who unexpectedly accepted his invitation this week from the FA. His presence is a sharp reminder of the polarities the FA embraces.
This is not a perfect organisation, far from it, and as if to remind everyone of its capacity to blast a smoking hole in its standing equipment, the FA's council made sure that current chairman David Bernstein will have to leave his post in the middle of the 150th celebrations. All because he turns 70 this year, making him considerably younger than some of the councillors themselves.
There are always the mistakes. In an organisation that is so many things to so many people, and at the mercy of so many stakeholders that will always be the case. To my mind, it lost a major battle when the new breed of owners sidestepped the ethos of the FA's original rules that clubs could not be run for the profit of shareholder and owners.
But these are the oversights of a different era and the principle of the FA that endures – governance for all, from the top to the bottom – by an organisation as independent as possible is required as much now as it ever was.
And if England could win another World Cup some time between now and the year 2112, that would at least make the 250th anniversary celebrations a bit more comfortable for the next generation.
Rare white elephant is spotted in South Africa
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