Football needs its Martin Luther moment, and soon

In England, traditional football was no more perfect than the Early Church idealised by the Protestant forefather

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The Independent Online

This week brought cheering news for the sort of folk who fear that Britain has become a land of sanctimonious goody-goodies where any expression of “politically incorrect” views will call down a deluge of opprobrium and swift expulsion from public life. And it did not only arrive from Rochester and Strood.

A top manager in a leisure organisation with a huge youth following admits that he communicates with a senior colleague in these terms: “Nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers”; “Not many white faces amongst that lot but worth considering.” What happens? He picks up another plumb job in the same business. Malky Mackay, former manager of Cardiff City football club, has accepted a new appointment at Wigan Athletic.

Even in the age of texts and tweets, we should hold the line between public and private life. Everyone has a right to their intimate idiocies. But consider what transpired after the airing of Mackay’s garbage. The League Managers’ Association brushed it off as “friendly banter”. Mackay slipped into his new berth at Wigan before the completion of an FA investigation. When the local MP, Lisa Nandy, raised concerns, the club’s  owner Dave Whelan charmingly replied: “She is not a Wigan lass, so she doesn’t understand football.” Pressed further, Whelan has now made clear what he thinks: “Jewish people chase money more than everybody else.” Let’s accept both men’s apologies. The chronic problem with England’s degraded football culture is that so many of its top brass would be happy to hear his squalid emissions blasted out over the PA system during half-time at Wembley.


When it speaks and acts like some knuckle-dragging throwback, why should anyone bother to understand football? Elsewhere on the toxic turf of the once-beautiful game, Sheffield United fans harassed patron Jessica Ennis-Hill with obscene tweets after she complained about the club’s welcome – now rescinded – to former player and impenitent convicted rapist, Ched Evans. In Glasgow, England supporters marred a rare decisive victory with witless chants about the IRA. Further afield, whiffy proof emerged that the fish rots from its global head. Sepp Blatter has refused to publish the un-doctored version of lawyer Michael Garcia’s report after a partial summary – denounced by Garcia himself – “cleared” his Fifa empire of wrongdoing over the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

Home and away, football has seldom given off such an array of noxious odours. We could go into extra time trying to itemise every crime and misdemeanour, from routine racist abuse to shabby and secretive mismanagement at Fifa. Yet, from potty-mouthed coaches and maladjusted millionaire strikers to cosy stitch-ups with desert despots, a common thread connects every unpunished foul. The sport has simply grown too big for its top-dollar, limited-edition, celebrity-endorsed designer boots.

In Britain, flush with two decades of ill-gotten gains from Premier League TV rights, owners, managers and stars strut across the media like “overmighty subjects”: haughty and boorish heirs to medieval grandees like Warwick the Kingmaker. Abroad, Fifa has marched out from its Zurich fortress to become an extraterritorial imperium. (It will take in excess of $4bn from this summer’s World Cup in Brazil.)

Fifa demands tribute, protects its cronies, hounds its critics and fires off anathemas, while shielding its own murky affairs under a thick veil of legalistic obfuscation. Boundless wealth and endless flattery have nurtured a potentially fatal arrogance. A sense of impunity and entitlement links the excuses of serial chewer Luis Suarez to the snug-bar profanities of Mackay, the fascistic witterings of Whelan and the shameless conduct at Blatter’s Zurich citadel. Money has spoken, and money today brooks no dissent.

Clubs which once drew nourishment from sturdy roots now bounce from one plutocratic owner to another, bargaining chips in a portfolio of assets (like the Glazer family at Manchester United) or spectacular investments to serve some opaque strategic goal (Roman Abramovich at Chelsea). Sheffield United, in the spotlight after it first opened and then slammed the door on Evans, is itself co-owned by Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ed bin Abdulaziz, a Saudi Arabian paper-manufacturing magnate and his country’s new “General President of Youth Welfare”. The Blades, by the way, have a thriving Community Ladies’ Club. Will the Prince encourage women’s football back home?

Think of football as a 21st-century equivalent to the medieval church. It has its Pope (Blatter), its curia (Fifa), its phalanx of rival cardinals and bishops. They may bicker, intrigue and compete. Ultimately, though, they know that privilege and preferment flow from the central hierarchy, and from the status quo it upholds. Local tithes imposed on the faithful in the form of gate fees, merchandising and (above all) TV receipts generate fabulous sums. Last year, the Premier League’s turnover reached £2.7bn, some £1.8bn of which went on wages. Parishioners – or fans – must pay but have no effective say.

The system stifles doubt, blocks improvement and excommunicates heretics. Infallible proprietors parachute in their choice of lavishly rewarded managers. Like medieval bishops or abbots, these Special Ones shuttle around Europe from one plush post to another: this year London, next Milan, then Paris or Barcelona. In Lisbon, Benfica fans call their “Stadium of Light” by another name: “The Cathedral”.

If professional football resembles the late-medieval church – bloated, proud, corrupt, unaccountable – then it urgently needs its own Reformation. Whether or not Martin Luther physically nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door at Wittenberg in October 1517, he was objecting to the mercenary peddling of access rights (to heaven) in the shape of indulgences. Hawked around Germany by a friar called Johann Tetzel, these get-out-of-purgatory cards were meant to finance a sumptuous new venue in a distant city: St Peter’s in Rome, as re-designed by the Blatter-esque Pope Julius II.

Historians doubt whether ecclesiastical greed, luxury and misconduct alone could have triggered the wave of Protestant reform across Europe. Other, deeper currents swept along the call for change. Church abuses did place a handy recruiting tool in the hands of the revolutionaries. Above all, though, reform-minded Christians hankered for a simpler, purer, more direct and more democratic vehicle for their faith. In footballing terms, where might we look today for Reformed congregations? To Germany, of course.

For several supporters’ groups in England, enraged by the top-down transformation of their beloved clubs into playthings for capricious and prejudiced tycoons, Luther’s nation shines like the promised land. Many admirers attribute the unfussy strength-in-depth that this year saw the German Mannschaft crush Brazil and then lift the World Cup not only to a state-of-the-art national training scheme but to the much-envied “50+1” model of ownership. In other words, most German clubs remain voluntary associations, not corporations.

Via individual stakes, supporters retain majority control even of such European giants as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund (where you can find a standing place for €16/£13). Member-run, close to their roots and much less dependent than their English peers on transient shooting stars, German clubs still by and large belong in the civil society that incubated them. England does have its fan-owned clubs: AFC Wimbledon; Exeter City; Wycombe Wanderers. Tellingly, Portsmouth – the largest in this group – only passed into supporters’ hands in the wake of a catastrophic near-bankruptcy in 2012.

In England, traditional football was no more perfect than the Early Church idealised by Luther. Hooligan and sectarian elements deformed the game. Decades of small-scale corruption, squalor and neglect led to calamities such as the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The nationalist belligerence prompted by the visit of a Russian team in 1945 led George Orwell (in “The Sporting Spirit”) to condemn international matches as “war minus the shooting”. No doubt the dressing rooms of yore seldom resembled a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference. Still, in the age when mercury-footed idols both took home a skilled plumber’s wage and then retired to work as one (as Preston North End’s Tom Finney did), the game avoided the overt crassness in word and deed that now disfigures its image. Call it hypocrisy. Or call it decency.

As ever, football holds a mirror up to England. Unregulated global finance has fattened the few, beggared the many and chilled the human climate. It has eroded solidarity and sown division. It gives a platform to cash-flashing bullies, bigots and sociopaths, egged on by our servile media. Private interests flourish while national institutions – notably, those leaden-booted under-achievers with three lions on their shirt – wither.

Reformations always begin at home. Any “Protestant” revolt in football has to arise not just from disgust at the game’s pampered elite but from the fans’ desire for a smaller, sweeter, more neighbourly sport. Neither Brussels nor Westminster has forced English clubs to mutate from (sometimes cracked) pillars of working-class community into flash-trash temples to footloose capital and overpaid delinquency. They did it all themselves. However, German-style seizures of control are possible.

In the early 2000s, Wimbledon supporters rose up against the owners’ profit-driven plan to relocate to Milton Keynes. They founded AFC Wimbledon. Starting from nowhere, the people’s team rose fast. Last month, it even beat the deracinated “MK Dons”. Yesterday, Wimbledon; tomorrow, Chelsea? Any potential Luthers in Premier League stands should start preaching now.