As football slips into the mire, it must remember it is first and foremost a sport | Jonathan Wilson
It’s been another fine week for the people’s game. The Super League Three – two of whom will probably be eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage despite the enormous advantages they enjoy both financially and via the coefficient system – continue to agitate for a competition that would make them even more money.
Fans chant disgracefully about tragedy and find their club not merely not condemning them, but blaming the manager of the other side for having made an entirely reasonable observation about the financial advantages enjoyed by state-run clubs. That manager, on the very weekend local referees had gone on strike to highlight the abuse suffered by officials, is sent off for abusing an assistant referee. Team buses are attacked, social media becomes a battleground of the basest insults, managers who are the de facto agents of authoritarian states lecture others about touchline behaviour.
Preparations continue for a World Cup in a country whose human rights record remains highly questionable and which has imposed extraordinary restrictions on media covering the tournament.
The schedule remains ludicrous. Before the World Cup in four weeks’ time, there are still three rounds of the league, two of the Champions League and one of the EFL Cup to come. Injuries are already mounting and any further knocks in the next three weeks could rule a player out of the tournament. Fatigue and a lack of preparation time will almost certainly have a negative impact on the quality of football played in Qatar.
One of the game’s great stars storms off the bench in a huff, while another denies having threatened to leave because he wasn’t being played in exactly the right way.
Further details emerge of the chaos at the Champions League final. Uefa appears an increasingly shambolic body, beholden to the wealthiest clubs, unable to challenge the financial might of the elite clubs, unable even to stage football matches safely. The Swiss system the Champions League takes on from 2024 will be a mundane slog largely devoid of even the slight jeopardy still delivered by the present format.
Catastrophic inequality means most European leagues are effective monopolies. Florentino Pérez, the Real Madrid president, supposedly has evidence that young people are drifting away from the game (although he has never released it) but his proposed solution to that problem is to increase the inequality.
Football hasn’t quite gone the way of English cricket, disdaining its traditional audience in the lust for growth, but with three-quarters of Premier League clubs owned overseas, nothing is certain.
Arrests at Premier League games are up 68.5% on pre-Covid times. Costs are becoming prohibitive. And the collapsing West Coast mainline means that, in England at least, it’s almost impossible even to get to certain games, the grim mantra falling softly over the waste land: Avanti, Avanti, Avanti.
So what then to do, if the status quo is unappealing and the future apparently worse? Bernd Reichart, the new CEO of the company backing the Super League is clearly on a mission to charm after the disastrous attempt to launch the competition in April 2021. “We want to reach out to stakeholders in the European football community and broaden this vision,” he says. “Even fans will have a lot of sympathy for the idea. It is a blank slate. Format will never be an obstacle.”
That “even” before “fans” raises immediate concerns – what, you’re actually going to consult the people who watch your product? My, how you indulge us – but let’s take him at his word. If there were a fresh start, how would we build football? It’s easy to complain, far harder to lay out a blueprint. What are the first principles? What should football at its most basic level be?
And that, perhaps is not such a difficult question to answer. A competition, ideally, as the word suggests, would be competitive. Does anybody doubt that? Does anybody really derive satisfaction from watching some superclub stroll up and smash half a dozen past some patsies every week? Teams should be rewarded for success, but not to such an extent that their domination becomes permanent. Every game should be a challenge; every team should be able to dream that, one day, with a fair wind, they could at least challenge somewhere near the top.
That means one of two things: either a closed system and a franchise model, which cuts against the sense of a club as an organic part of its environment, the democratic spirit of English football that meant a Huddersfield, a Burnley or an Ipswich could take on the big city clubs; or some proper form of redistribution – as existed until 1981. But that would require elite clubs to consider the game as a whole, and it’s a long time since anybody in football thought about anything beyond their own interests.
Measures to restrict spending – salary caps and financial fair play regulations – have proved essentially unworkable, not least because they are effectively unenforceable when clubs have such wealth they can stymie investigations with endless legal challenges.
You would almost certainly want some fan representation on the board, with a golden share to prevent the takeover of clubs by those whose primary concern is not the health of the game – although given the way fans race to prostrate themselves before the nearest passing billionaire, desperate to sign over their birthright for new signings, suggests that is no guarantee of anything.
Because the problem is that nobody sees football as a sport any more. It is a business, it is an entertainment product, it is content. Some clubs plot Entourage-style dramas around their daily affairs, while others seem to value social media engagements above matches or trophies won. Everything is about money and greed and growth, the game itself, or the club’s place in its community, an afterthought.
But football isn’t, at heart, either a business or an entertainment. It certainly shouldn’t be a tool of state propaganda. It is a sport and, until that is remembered and prioritised, it’s hard to have any hope for the future. Or, indeed, the present.