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OP-ED: The beautiful game?

  • Published at 08:19 pm June 14th, 2021
Photo: Bigstock

Football will never again be a sport for working people, played by working people

I should say from the start that I am not a huge fan of football. So the next four weeks of the almost back to back TV coverage of the delayed Euro 2020 football tournament will be something I will endure rather than enjoy. Having said that, I am aware that for millions around the world, the so-called “beautiful game” brings enormous pleasure, excitement and, at times, despair. 

But for me the whole ethos of the game has changed beyond recognition since I last actively followed the sport back in the 1960s. My father was a lifelong supporter of West Ham United, a middle of the road club from the East End of London, and regularly took me to matches to watch his beloved team. 

This, of course was in the days before all-seater stadia were demanded by the government following a number of disasters during the 1970s and ‘80s; at Glasgow Rangers, Ibrox, in 1971 when 66 fans suffocated in a crush and at Hillsborough in 1989 when 94 died in similar circumstances and 766 were injured.  

Back then it was standing room only and I have vivid memories of habitually being squashed against the barriers as the crowd surged in the hopeful expectation of another (usually unfulfilled) chance of a goal. 

It was then that I often found myself wedged under the armpit of some enormous beer swilling middle-aged man who had clearly not seen the inside of a bathroom for a fortnight and who then invariably accidentally stubbed his cigarette out on the back of my head. It was not a pleasant experience.  

But on the plus side, it was cheap. Nowadays, a ticket to a Premier League match can set you back over £50. Back then I could watch a match for one shilling and sixpence, 5p in today’s money. 

And money seems to be the main problem with the modern football setup. Today, the game is worth billions of dollars a year worldwide. Most of the top clubs in the UK are owned by absentee foreign investors and the majority of the players in the Premiership are paid upwards of £100,000 per week. 

This has not gone unnoticed by the fans. Ask the average football supporter what he or she thinks of their club, and they will likely tell you that they don’t like the owners, and don’t like the fact that nearly all of their players are foreign-born and are generally overpaid prima-donnas. Why they still follow them and pay out thousands of pounds a year in season tickets and satellite subscription is a mystery to me.

Back in the 1960s, most players were locally born and often lived on the same street or housing estate as their working class fans. I can remember my father telling me of the consternation at West Ham when Geoff Hurst signed for the club. Hurst, the only player so far to score three goals in a World Cup final, had been born in Lancashire in the North of England and had come south aged only six. He looked like a Londoner, he talked like a Londoner but some fans wondered if he really counted as a Londoner. 

Bobby Moore, the club’s and arguably the country’s greatest ever player was born a couple of miles from West Ham’s then ground at Upton Park. In 1966, he captained England’s only ever World Cup-winning side. But, unlike some of today’s players, Moore remained grounded in his own community. 

As well as his stellar playing career, he also ran a small sportswear shop just outside the ground where he regularly worked behind the counter. So, at 5 PM on Saturdays just after the match, fans could pop into Bobby’s shop, buy a new pair of football socks or a replica shirt, and have a chat with him about the game. 

A different game today

How very different from today. Fans wouldn’t get within spitting distance of a modern player who is whisked to the match in a flashy car with darkened windows and a posse of minders to keep the great unwashed at bay. 

There are some noble exceptions; Marcus Rashford, the 23-year-old Manchester United and England forward has been an outspoken campaigner on homelessness and child poverty and has, rightly, just been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list. But most of his contemporaries live in a cocoon of privilege and entitlement with little interest for the concerns of those who effectively pay their inflated salaries. 

It seems all the more odd therefore, that the practice of “taking the knee” in the style of the Black Lives Matter protesters in the US, is now seen at all clubs up and down the country before the start of every match. It was even seen at the match between England and Croatia last Sunday. It is hard to see quite how 11 English millionaires kneeling in a muddy field can help the poor folk of Moss Side in Manchester or London’s Tower Hamlets.  

No one denies that there is still massive racial inequality in this country and elsewhere around the world. But are a team of over-privileged, over-paid, virtue-signalling footballers really going to solve it? I think not. 

They might do better to follow Rashford’s excellent example and dig deep into their pockets and actually do something about it. Or better still, refuse to play in next year’s World Cup in Qatar, a country regularly condemned by Amnesty International for its racial persecution of its own ethnic minorities and its consistent failure to criticize China’s treatment of the Uighur people for fear of jeopardizing its financial links with the Communist Party there.

Football will never again be a sport for working people, played by working people. The world has moved on and there is just too much money now in the game. Gone are the days when the club and its players were part of the community. With a few worthy exceptions, both have become remote from those who support them and who ultimately pay them. I wish the England team well in the upcoming tournament. But I won’t be watching.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.

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