Deborah Orr: The beautiful game has turned ugly

'As team sports go, football is unsurpassable. It's just that the business of football is now such an unsporting spectacle'
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The Independent Online

I surprised myself while watching Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. One scene unleashed in me a feeling of ludicrous, tribal, atavistic pride. I'm old enough now, surely, not to feel a thrill because the colours of Harry's Quidditch team are identical to those of my home team, Motherwell Football Club? Apparently not.

The feeling was nothing more than nostalgia, of course. When I think of football, I think of Motherwell, a fact that even the most minor of experts on the game will understand to be a comic paradox in itself. I loved football as a little girl – going to matches with my Dad, being lifted over the turnstile, greasy mutton pies, and my Dad yelling with the crowd, a different, more passionate person to the man I saw at home.

And that enjoyment extended into my young adult years – I carried on following Motherwell and Scotland, counting the seasons in patterns of relegation, then promotion, looking forward to the big international tournaments, watching important fixtures in bars or in groups round people's houses, feeling shame, misery, anger and frustration during the years that football became a violent, nasty gangfest, and marvelling uncomfortably as it rose from the ashes to become the multibillion pound concern it is today.

Now I rarely watch football, and usually become bored quickly when I do. I've even been finding myself wondering if I ever actually liked football at all. Maybe the time has come to admit to myself that I merely affected to like football, first to curry favour with my father, later to curry favour with young men (or at least confound their 'expectations').

Or maybe not. I do still think that as team sports go, football is unsurpassable. It's just that the business of football is now such an unsporting spectacle. Words such as "play" and "team", let alone "beautiful" and "game" seem entirely inappropriate.

As if to confirm my jaded opinion, there's now the amazing strike scenario being talked (and voted) up by the footballers' union, the Professional Footballers Association. It believes it is not receiving a fair cut of the money paid to the league clubs for the broadcasting of games. The clubs believe that the union is being greedy. The players believe that the clubs are being greedy. And so on.

Except that this glorious clash of various footballing interests is notable because in this supposed fight over principles, no one is right. They're all being greedy. And watching this drama, in which many men fight over who gets many millions, is mesmeric in its shameless, naked avarice.

The greed of the clubs is easy to see. Here is a bunch that has negotiated the sum of £1.65bn simply to allow ITV and Sky to televise matches. Traditionally, the union has had a slice of this, a slice that as the sum has rocketed may have become proportionally smaller and smaller but has still been numerically bigger and bigger. The initial offer to the PFA was so much less than anything the clubs could comfortably manage that they've raised it eight times without the tiniest pip. Shame on them for being so tight.

The union, on the other hand, seems to have the angels on its side, arguing that it has an unwritten right to five per cent of the revenue. So now the union is turning down an offer of £50m over three years and guarantees of revenue for the next 10. It says it needs £57m for the wellbeing of football, which is, coincidentally, the magic five per cent.

However, any more than a cursory look at this story reveals that the union is far from being the champion of the injured, the washed-up and the desperate that it purports to be.

Once upon a time, the union was needed because professional footballers were paid little and tossed on the scrapheap once their playing careers were over. In the lower echelons this still, sadly, pertains. But the union spends a surprisingly small amount of its chunky revenue on such cases. Rather, the man who has run the union since 1981, Gordon Taylor, personally receives a salary and benefits package approaching a worth of nearly half a million pounds. Meanwhile, large investments he has made on the union's behalf include the purchase of L S Lowry's Going To The Match for £1.9m. Taking a grandstanding part in art auctions using other people's money is such fun, isn't it?

Then there are the players. There are 4,000 of them in the union, and among those who voted in the ballot, 99 per cent wanted strike action. Again, at face value, this looks heroic – collective action helping the less fortunate.

But actually, it's hilarious. All the players pay £75 a year to the union, whatever they earn. So the wish to strike can also be read as indicating that some of the wealthiest young men in Britain would prefer it if they didn't have to dip into their own pockets to finance the good works of the union that they supposedly believe in.

Or, even sadder, this wish to strike could be read as a weird sort of escapism, the flowering of a yearning for things to be more like they used to be. It is as if the players are playing the parts of ordinary working men, willing to stand up and be counted for a point of principle, just as footballers were once compelled to do.

Maybe the players and the union are just as nostalgic about the game their fathers and grandfathers once enjoyed as I sometimes find myself being. Maybe they find the cut-throat avarice of modern football hard to stomach as well. Except they're kidding themselves.

They're only in a position to be able to go through these extraordinary motions because football has more money than it knows what to do with (although re-establishing school playing fields would be a start).

This charade does nothing except illustrate further just how far removed from real life professional soccer has become. There is no heroism in this strike threat, because everyone involved knows that their personal well-being is unassailable. Instead of recapturing the "spirit of the old days", this farce makes a mockery of the issues that people, if they dare, go on strike to attain.

Still, it's nice to dream that the footballing "fraternity" might take this situation to its logical conclusion, and refuse to play for the cameras on 1 December. Alongside many of the nation's womenfolk, I can declare that the prospect of a holiday from televised football seems like a charming prospect.

It's not that we ever watch it in our house. It's just really annoying when you sit down to Coronation Street and find that it's not on until 9.45pm. Now, who's willing to make a bold stand against that outrage?

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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