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50 Years Ago: Looking at Football

Sport for profit

Once competition was on its feet, professionalism was the inevitable outcome. Watching competitive games became a popular recreation in the northern industrial towns, and success-hungry teams used the obvious means to get good players to join them. In 1885 professionalism was recognized; in a few years football meant Preston, Blackburn and Sheffield instead of the Wanderers, Royal Engineers and Carthusians ( . . .) .

The biggest changes were still to come. However skilful its play, a losing team has few followers—that is, its income falls. The huge partisan crowds at football matches in the ‘twenties were prepared to see only their own sides win, and applaud any sort of play to that end. The Arsenal introduced the “stopper” centre-half, a player whose business was to obstruct the opponents and nothing else. The method caught on because it was successful; it still dominates football. The units in the pattern of today’s teams are the rough, destructive centre-half, the fast-chasing wingers and the hard-kicking, opportunistic centre-forward ( . . .).

A footballer’s maximum wage is fifteen pounds a week in the playing season (many clubs pay nothing like the maximum). Players receive bonuses of two pounds for a win and one pound for a draw, and a few of them are famous enough to make a little more by writing newspaper columns or advertizing. Thus, a first-class player is lucky if he take £700 in a year. Certainly his earnings are not to be compared with a jockey’s, and his playing career usually ends before he is thirty-five (though every footballer understates his age). A small number become managers, coaches and so on, but obviously there is not room for more than a few to do so.

Football combines some of the best things games can offer—physical exercise, skill, co-operation with others. Commercialism has shaped it along certain lines, making success more important than enjoyment. Watching it played well can give us much pleasure as a ballet or a symphony. More often, however, it is a weekly relief from tedium or a source of vicarious satisfactions ranging from dreams of fame to revenge fantasies. Nor can too much be said for commercial football from the players’ point of view. It would be wrong to suppose they do not enjoy it (even the ones who say they play just for money). All the same, it is their bread and butter, and only the exceptionally skilful plays can afford not to help the fair means with some of the other sort (so you can see the same nasty little tricks aped in schoolboy games, too). A professional footballer has several years with play instead of work and a great deal of adulation, and afterwards he is turned into a workaday world almost completely unprepared for it.

It seems a pity that a good sport should be tarnished by the profit system. But then, what isn’t?

(From an article by R. Coster, Socialist Standard, February 1955)