Football is ideally placed to be a force for social good, too
The Weekend Dossier
As the Olympics and Paralympics fade into warm memory, football returns to centre stage. Unfortunately it does so with a fixture that evokes the ugliness that can afflict the game: Queens Park Rangers v Chelsea. The summer's courtroom exposé of the unedifying events at Loftus Road last season is still too grimly fresh in the mind to wish a reprise, but there is no avoiding it. It is manna for the anti-football brigade.
If only they would look beyond the swearing and the snarling they would find that football, especially the brash, in-your-face, omnipresent Premier League, has become one of the country's leading agencies for social change. At QPR, for example, the club engages 880 children from deprived wards in their branch of the acclaimed Kickz project run by clubs in conjunction with local police. This has reached 60,000 young people in its six years of life and is now being exported, with the help of the British Council, to Brazil, India and Indonesia.
Kickz goes into the estates where outsiders fear to tread, police are distrusted and government agencies are rejected by disaffected youths. QPR began the scheme before they were promoted, but even while they were in the Football League the funding came from the Premier League, as it does for the 44 clubs involved in the scheme. At the other end of the age scale QPR also run Extra Time, a project aimed at the over-60s. One 84-year-old participant, Peter Sangster, said: "It breaks up the week for me. If I didn't come here I would just turn on the TV at home."
QPR are by no means unusual. Football clubs are uniquely well placed to do social work. Most are geographically rooted in inner-city areas which have suffered economically. The glamour of the Premier League enables them to engage teenagers who are wary of government agencies. And in healthcare they can reach men, who often avoid doctors until it is too late.Premier League clubs have run campaigns focusing on cancer, mental health, obesity and other issues. In Wolverhampton the partnership between Wolves and the local Primary Care Trust now tackles a range of healthcare issues.
Though Wolves have been relegated they will continue to receive funding for the scheme. Indeed, during Portsmouth's meltdown the community programme was the one part of the club that functioned relatively normally as the money was provided by the Premier League, ring-fenced and audited.
The big public policy sports issue at the moment is the post-Olympic legacy. Many of those enthused by the Games may be surprised to learn that football has been promoting minority Olympic sports since 2009. In partnership with other agencies and local clubs, Premier League 4 Sport has helped 60,000 children experience badminton, volleyball, judo and table tennis. As Gail Emms, the badminton Olympic silver medallist, said: "When you've got the backing of a football team then suddenly the kids become interested."
Through demand from the kids, the scheme now includes children representing their Premier League club against other clubs. So successful has been the organisation of the programme, which is being expanded to include hockey, handball, netball and basketball, it is cited by Sport England to other governing bodies as an example of how to deliver legacy.
Among the most imaginative schemes is the development of a free school by Everton for "vulnerable young people" in the Merseyside area. The school opened its doors this term to the first intake of 120 pupils. Other initiatives focus on encouraging literacy and young entrepreneurs.
Obviously, much of the work is football-related, such as a scheme by which players buy kit. So far 1,000 kits for under-16 teams have been provided, with Everton's Leighton Baines turning up unannounced at his old primary school to see the kit in use. Millions have also been spent on improving grass-roots facilities (often in conjunction with the Football Foundation) and clubs support teams for a wide range of disabilities from Down Syndrome to blindness. Individual players such as Didier Drogba, Craig Bellamy and Jamie Carragher have their own charitable foundations.
Could they do more? Of course they could. So great is football's income, top-flight clubs paid £1bn in tax last year. But, with a few exceptions, everyone and every company could do more. Unlike in America, there is no great tradition of philanthropy in the UK; the assumption is that the state will provide but in an age of cuts and austerity that is often not the case. There is an element of PR puffery to the good works, but much of the charitable work goes unpromoted.
When the new television deal was announced, its £1bn-a-year value surprising even the Premier League, there was an immediate acknowledgement that the new wealth was a danger as well as an opportunity. The League's officials are keen to persuade the clubs it should not just be, in Alan Sugar's choice phrase, "prune juice", going straight through the clubs to the players and agents, further distancing the game from its supporters. Clubs used to think social responsibility began and ended with a hospital visit at Christmas but the millionaires' game has the potential to promote real change in our poorest streets.
1. This week of all weeks, fans should shelve the abuse
This week has laid bare the shocking failures of authority – by the police, the ambulance service, the FA, the local council – that combined to create the devastating tragedy of Hillsborough. However, it cannot be denied that the prevailing attitude towards football fans that prompted the erection of fences, the brutally dismissive attitude of police to grieving relatives, and The Sun's eagerness to demonise the dead, was in part a consequence of two decades in which hooliganism had flourished. This weekend of all weekends football fans should remember they have a duty of care to each other and are the same tribe. Abuse and vile chants, whether in a stadium or on a Tube train, are not "banter", they foster a climate in which football fans are feared, which is the first step to the authorities seeking to restrain fans rather than protect them.
2. Let's hope canny Pulis gets the best out of Owen
Michael Owen's arrival at Stoke is intriguing for many reasons. It is further evidence that Tony Pulis, that canny operator, is changing his team's style. It is confirmation of Stoke's status as an established top-flight club, and raises the prospect of Owen enjoying an Indian summer to a career that once promised to be among the game's most glittering but has long been in sad decline. Anyone who remembers the joy Owen brought to the game as an 18-year-old will hope the move is a success for all parties.
3. England women offer test of post-Olympic cheer
Wednesday will provide one of the first tests of the nation's new post-Olympic devotion to "minor" sports, if women's football can be thus characterised, when BBC 2 has live coverage of England's Euro qualifier against Croatia at Walsall. The 5pm teatime kick-off should be perfect for families, and the viewing figures will be keenly scrutinised by FA officials and TV bigwigs alike. If Hope Powell's team win, as anticipated, they qualify for the 2013 European Championship.
4. Wembley crowd was still the evening's highest
The swathe of empty seats at Wembley on Tuesday was taken as evidence by some that the nation was falling out of love with Roy Hodgson's England team. In reality the surprise was how many seats were full, nearly 70,000. It was the highest global attendance of the night. England can still draw a crowd like few others.
5. End the pointless handshake ritual
Even at parks level the pre-match handshake seems a pointless ritual. In the professional game it increasingly causes more trouble than it is worth and should be abandoned.
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