Football could be different and could be better. This is how. Bristol-based journalist, David Goldblatt, gives his take on how the game can restore its beauty.
Photo: Crystian Cruz
We have reached a point where the transformation of football by commercial and private interests has worn the fabric and culture of the game so thin that only a major intervention by government can begin to stop this process.
You might think this a trivial concern when set against the anaemic state of the economy and the madness of the housing market. But consider this: does anything expose our sharply divided economy better than football, where a tiny elite sequesters the gains of globalisation but can’t pay its part‑time staff a living wage? Does anything illustrate the consequences of private opulence and public squalor in this nation better than the Premier League’s disregard for the grassroots of the game, regardless of last week’s funding promise? Is there any sphere of popular culture where we seem, so consistently, to dramatise issues of gender, ethnicity and class?
In the past 30 years the game’s status has changed. It has become among our most important public political theatres, a drama whose cast, plot and calamities has uncannily tracked the wider changes in Britain’s economy, politics and culture. It gives us theatrical one-off dramas and the running commentary of a multi-layered soap opera.
Of course, it is still just a game, a mere entertainment, Saturday afternoon in the stands, Sunday morning in the mud. Yet that is the point: it is a place, rare and precious in our workaholic culture, where we go to play, whether on the pitch or in the crowd.
In the absence of strong local government, football clubs have become among the most important carriers of urban identities, their stadiums more central to our sense of place than town halls or shopping malls. They draw a map of our nation that is more representative than any other cultural practice or industry, most of which are concentrated in London.
Football evokes the kind of collective ecstasy that can otherwise only be found in churches and music festivals. In all its forms the game has become a complex set of collective rituals and public conversations. In a deeply individualised world, it is a place where we go together. In a deeply divided world, it is a place where we socially mix. In a deeply atomised world, it is a place that is about us, not me.
Football is part of our common culture, a fabulous heritage of more than a hundred years of play, a repository of powerful identities and solidarities. It is not utopian. Someone must pay for the show, but the mainstream culture of British football insists that money is not everything, that too much inequality is morally wrong, that regulation and intervention is necessary to secure the common good. Moreover, at its best, in the form of the supporters trust movement, football has been showing that there are real alternatives to the venality, criminality and incompetence of many private owners.
The football industry has been telling us a very celebratory neo-liberal story. From out of the wreckage of industrial Britain, an ailing giant, burdened by violence, underinvestment and amateurish management, was transformed by the commercial dynamism of the new owners of the Premier League and the new satellite broadcasters. They invested in the product, transformed the spectacle and created a globally successful brand. But as with so many of the stories we are told about the economy and social transformation of Britain, so much has been left out that its moral and intellectual worth is, as the bond markets like to say, junk.
First, in a form of modern institutional enclosure, the common property of football clubs’ identities and histories were, by legal manoeuvre, taken into private hands in the form of holding companies. The accumulated public cultural capital of more than a century of playing and watching football was privatised by stealth.
Second, the old rules established by the FA and Football League to regulate commercial activity and mitigate the worst forms of financial inequality were deliberately swept away.
Third, in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, an entirely avoidable tragedy, it required the force of the state and considerable taxpayer subsidy to make the clubs do what they had failed to do for half a century and invest in their stadiums. Nearly all the rest was paid for by raising ticket prices.
Above all, football is not a business. Even in the most conventional terms it fails, for the industry as a whole, despite the exponential growth of income, loses money and is swimming in debt. It is a collectively produced popular culture and its form of ownership and regulation needs to reflect that.
At the top, of course, the stadiums are safer, the football is better, but we know that something is not quite right. We are told that business knows best, but the people who own football make losses and serve only their own interests. Crowds are bigger, but getting ever older, the atmosphere more often than not falls short of expectation. The culture of football has been opened up to minorities and women but its reigning masculinities remain stuck in their narrow groove. Football fans are more organised then ever but the governance of the game feels less democratic.
We are often told that there is no alternative. That the many industries sold off and privatised these past 30 years can never be returned to us. We disagree. Football, like the rest of the country, can be reclaimed and transformed.
Now more than ever, there is a need for Football Action Network’s This Game is Our Game manifesto. This offers a model of a more just and socially responsible football economy; a more democratic and effective system of governance; a football culture that is diverse, atmospheric and participatory. This manifesto looks to politicians of every party, the football authorities and the public to make it happen. Football, like everything else in this country, could be different and could be better. This is how.
1. TIME TO LEGISLATE: PASS A FOOTBALL REFORM BILL
In 2011 Hugh Robertson, then minister for sport, said: “If football proves unable to sort this out itself then the government may have to legislate.” Four years later football has not sorted itself out and there has been no legislation.
John Whittingdale, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport must make the introduction of a Football Reform Bill a departmental priority.
This would serve as the final opportunity for the Football Association to complete its process of internal reform. Either way, there must be legislation to ensure the reform of club ownership, taxation and governance.
2. DO THE UNTHINKABLE: PAY THE LIVING WAGE
At the leading clubs, players, coaches and chief executives earn more in a day than those on the minimum wage earn in a year. Some clubs have tried to make their contract staff buy their own uniforms. Yet without the army of stewards, ticket takers and catering staff, the show cannot go on, however good the football. If the Premier League can now pay full-time staff the living wage, please pay all the part-timers the same. If FC United of Manchester and Dulwich Hamlet, six levels below them, pay the living wage then everyone in between can too; and that should include the FA and the Football League.
3. STOP FLEECING FANS: SET FAIR TICKET PRICES
In the past 20 years, at every level, tickets have increased in price faster than inflation many times over. In the Premier League the real rate of inflation at some clubs has been close to 1,000%. This is shameless rent-seeking by effective monopolies over people’s football affections. If you want to watch Spurs, there’s no option but to go to Spurs. This is particularly unfair given that the value of the game’s media rights is underwritten by the ebullience of crowds. Supporters are not just customers, but critics and chorus. Away fans, vital in sustaining a meaningful atmosphere, have been treated shamelessly. We call for the Premier League to collectively freeze ticket prices for the duration of the next television deal, set a maximum price for away fans’ tickets and increase the number of cheaper seats. We call for clubs at every level to ensure that a reasonable number of cheaper tickets are available.
4. STOP DITHERING: INTRODUCE SAFE STANDING
If football fans were customers, if football really was a free market, then presumably fans would get what they wanted and they were ready to pay for. The introduction of safe standing has been researched, tested, found safe and acquired considerable support from fans and their clubs. It is an effective way to improve the atmosphere at matches and to lower ticket prices. It is in operation in Germany with great success. Yet still government and clubs dither. This requires no more than a simple amendment to the Football Spectators Act to allow the licensing authorities to permit the introduction of safe standing. Do it now.
5. MODERNISE, AT LAST: TIME FOR A FIT AND PROPER FA
The FA’s record of internal reform has been so tortuously slow that this must be considered the last opportunity for it to complete the process itself rather than it being imposed by the Reform Bill. At the very minimum the FA needs to:
■ Reform the composition of the FA board, reducing the number of representatives of the professional game and the national game and replace them with independent directors and a supporters representative.
■ Reform the FA council so it actually looks and sounds like the wider football nation.
■ Establish and fund a system of club licensing and regulation with teeth.
■ The Freedom of Information Act should be applicable to the FA.
6 TAKE BACK POWER: WITH TRANSPARENT CLUB OWNERSHIP
Central to the Reform Bill, a proper set of rules on transparent club ownership:
■ All shareholdings in football clubs will be made public, including full disclosure of any beneficial owners and holding companies behind which the unscrupulous have hidden.
■ The introduction of a new club licensing scheme overseen by a reformed FA that would make clubs’ financial dealings transparent; strengthen the fit and proper persons test and make its workings public; require all new owners to meet a club’s supporters’ trust before acquiring shares; and protect key aspects of the club – such as its main strip and its name – in law.
■ Reform the composition of club boards and the duties of directors through changes in corporate law. This would include making the interests of the club paramount over those of shareholders; require a majority of independent directors on boards with a legal responsibility to encourage supporter ownership, and include a minimum of two directors from a club’s supporters’ trust.
■ A statutory right to buy for supporters’ trusts whenever a club faces insolvency, its shares are going to be sold or new ones issued.
■ Changes in the tax regime. These would be designed to support social ownership and deter carpetbaggers – for example, removing tax relief on leveraged buy-outs and making it easier for supporters’ trusts to obtain it.
7. REAL REDISTRIBUTION: A WINDFALL TAX ON THE PREMIER LEAGUE
In the absence of wage controls the massive windfall that is coming the Premier League’s way will almost entirely disappear into players’ wages and agents’ fees. No one can say that these groups have not been generously rewarded. Some of that windfall needs to go elsewhere.
The Premier League’s pledge last week to give more generously to the rest of the game is welcome. Uefa takes nearly 10% of the money generated by the Champions League for solidarity payments. Fifa, for all its faults, has allocated 20% of its budget to development projects.
We want the Premier League to raise its contribution to 15%. Half of this should be spent on grassroots, non-league football and social projects and half allocated to a supporters’ ownership fund that will underwrite supporter trust buy-outs and rescues.
8. CLAIM CASHBACK: BOOKIES TO PAY THEIR SHARE
Bookmakers and broadcasters have made a lot of money out of the football boom. Profits have been very healthy and in the case of offshore gambling sites, taxes have been very low. Neither industry, despite a garlanding of corporate social responsibility projects, has returned a fraction of the value it has extracted from the game.
The gambling industry already pays a levy to the horse racing industry; it would be administratively very simple to impose a small percentage turnover tax on every football bet, and more equitable if there were to be a levy on bookmakers’ football profits too.
When football media rights are sold, by the FA or the leagues, the bidders should pay some pro-rata rate to social projects.
9. SHIFT THE FOCUS: TO GRASSROOTS AND NON-LEAGUE
If the grassroots of football received one pound every time the professional game praised it, it would be rich beyond all imagination. But the grassroots – including the youth, women’s and non‑league games – are not rich.
The state of the nation’s facilities is poor, the provision of changing rooms and toilets for women and girls is worse, and the massive squeeze of local authority expenditure has led to a collapse in the maintenance budgets of established grounds. For those who can find a decent pitch, the number of trained coaches per capita is a quarter of Germany’s where the costs are subsidised. Yet football’s private opulence feeds on the enormous pool of enthusiasm and talent that grassroots football generates.
The windfall taxes should be spent here, focused on: subsidising coaching education, supporting struggling clubs, building pitches in the poorest areas and making sure every single playing field has women’s changing rooms.
10. SWEEP AWAY FIFA: CLEAN UP THE GLOBAL GAME
The FA has been a hapless operator within Fifa; the Premier League’s lust for foreign markets is simply shameless. We want a football foreign policy that is a smart, effective voice for reform, not a marketing operation. Smart means working with Europe and acquiring a leading place in Uefa; the FA needs to be part of an effective coalition, not an ineffective independent. It goes without saying that both the FA and government must actively support international efforts to see the complete reconstitution of Fifa, and to insist on models of tournament hosting that are sustainable and carnivalesque.
11. A NEW CULTURE: A REAL FIGHT FOR EQUALITY
If football is the people’s game it needs to look like the people. Football’s diversity campaigns have had real successes getting racism, sexism and homophobia out of the stands, disabled fans into seats that work for them and women on to the pitch. Yet as recent accounts of racist fans on the Paris metro and sexist chants in stadiums remind us, there remains much to be done.
The problem is not just in the stands. The words and then tortuous apologies of, among others, Dave Whelan, Malky Mackay and Richard Scudamore demonstrate that the upper echelon of the football establishment holds attitudes to difference, to gender, ethnicity and sexuality that are at best antiquated and at worst discriminatory. It is this culture that is responsible for the scandalous under-representation of minority coaches at every level, and everyone other than old white men on football boards. If aiming for a quarter of company boards to be women is a good enough model for the FTSE 250, it’s good enough for football, too. There should be two years’ grace before legally backed gender quotas are required. And if the Rooney rule, ensuring a qualified minority candidate is seen by interview panels, works for the NFL, why not here? Football should introduce the Rooney rule immediately.
Football Action Network is an open, unbureaucratic network of football activists – including supporters’ trusts, independent fan groups, fanzines, campaigners in the women’s game and advocates for grassroots football
More: thefan.org.uk; @thefan_uk
A version of this article orginally appeared in the Observer.
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