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Football: A capital idea

Football is now a commodity packaged and sold to make money for the clubs’ shareholders.

Football fans were given something meaty to chew on recently when the English Football Association appointed an Italian, Fabio Capello, as manager of the national team. Capello, in turn, brought with him a bevy of besuited Italian colleagues to help him to ensure that England qualify for, and preferably do well in, the next major tournament, the 2010 World Cup.

Most football fans, including large sections of the press, have been tearing their hair out in frustration because the England team hasn’t been doing too well recently in comparison with the top national sides. (Let’s leave aside the fact that England isn’t strictly speaking a nation and that the United Kingdom actually has four ‘national’ teams). The crunch came when the previous manager, Steve McClaren, failed to ‘lead’ England to the 2008 European Championship finals this coming summer. He was considered not to have enough charisma or technical know-how for the job. Capello was seen as the best qualified manager to take over. The only fly in the ointment was his nationality, but for the sake of getting the right man, this was overlooked and those who would have preferred an Englishman breathed a collective sigh of resignation. At least this foreigner, with his no-nonsense approach and impressive managerial CV, might knock a bunch of spoiled, overpaid players into shape and win something.

This is not the first time a foreigner has been involved in English football, although based on the press coverage and fan reaction, we’d have been forgiven for thinking so. Only a few years ago, the England team was managed by a Swede, Sven-Goran Eriksson, but, perhaps because he spoke good English and was temperamentally more like an Englishman than Capello, he was more readily accepted. More significantly, there is now a proliferation of non-English players in professional English club football, to the extent that some sides rarely field an English player at all. In this sense, the game in some quarters is truly cosmopolitan.

Looking farther back, the reality is that there has always been a foreign or non-local element in English football. Almost from its inception as an organised sport, in the late nineteenth century, players moved around from club to club if their services were required. Thus we had, firstly, northerners playing for southern clubs and vice versa, then Scots playing for and managing English clubs, then English players and managers moving abroad to foreign clubs as their overseas counterparts came in the opposite direction, only more recently in far greater numbers. At every stage of increasing “foreignness”, there were many objectors.

But after the inevitable cries of horror, each encroachment of ‘foreigners’ into the game is accepted as long as it helps ‘your’ team to win. For the fans, winning is an end in itself, a kind of vicarious success and reflected glory. For the players, it means a better living (sometimes, in the case of the top players, dramatically so). For the clubs, it is a means of making profits, or at least avoiding losses and staying in business. So if foreign players and managers can help in the process of winning, most people involved in the game are satisfied, albeit grudgingly in some cases.

The other side of the coin is that employing foreign players and managers is regarded as a failure for the national game. The general view is that the England team is not good enough because, as a result of the foreign influx, there aren’t thought to be enough good English players or managers bubbling up through the system.

Shame, we are told, and we hear players saying that to play for their country is the greatest honour. But interestingly, club managers aren’t so patriotic – they don’t like ‘call-ups’ for fear their players get injured and reduce the chances of winning for their club.

The issue of club versus country or national versus foreigner in football is a reflection of the confused attitude to nationalism in capitalist society in general. After all, organised football is entirely a product of capitalism. The same is true of all modern professional sport. Its increasingly ruthless and competitive nature is a direct result of the increasingly ruthless and competitive society it is a part of. Here are some more examples which show the increasing pervasiveness of capitalism into sport as in everyday life.

  1. Sponsorship is a big money-spinner: thus we see a proliferation of company logos on team kit and perimeter fencing. ‘Lesser’ sports get away with even more crass commercialism, such as the large RBS logo painted into the centre of rugby pitches and angled directly at the camera such that it is almost constantly in view.

  1. Merchandising is an integral aspect of any football club’s everyday activities: typified by the annual introduction of new strip to keep up sales of replica shirts.

  1. Pressure to succeed becomes ever greater: at some clubs, huge sums are paid for what are seen as star players and managers (regardless of nationality), who are then discarded almost as a matter of routine after a year or less if they don’t bring instant success.

  1. As in many other areas of capitalism, the top strata of football are awash with money while there’s precious little to spare lower down, with many of the smaller clubs are living from week to week.

  1. We have the absurd situation of millionaire players bullying referees who until recently didn’t even get paid to do the job.

  1. There is regular tinkering with the laws of the game to make it a more entertaining, and thus saleable, ‘product’.

  1. Clubs are now known as brands – even some players such as Beckham.

  1. Returning to the nationality issue, the increase in foreign ‘trade’ reflects the increasingly global nature of capitalism: witness the recent proposal of the Premier League for an extra match per team each season, to be played at various venues around the world – there can be no other reason than that of generating more profit.

  1. The game is ultra-competitive: mistakes by players or referees are more and more costly; at a far lower level we have pushy parents on the touchline at school matches bullying their children to play harder and be more like the heroes they worship.

  1. So much rides on success that you have to have a winner. This is particularly ironic in football when roughly 25% of matches are drawn. The draw is increasingly unacceptable, hence the increasing number of penalty shoot-outs to replace replays.

  1. The desire to win also perversely means a fear of losing – for many decades the game has been over-defensive, with too few goals.

  1. Teams are run on almost military lines, with the players being routinely drilled like soldiers by their coaches and disciplined by referees and organising bodies.

  1. Football is now a so-called ‘middle class’ game and lower-paid fans are being priced out. To watch even a modest club play can cost three times as much as a cinema ticket.

Most of the above observations are commented on weekly in the national press. Most football fans agree that money coupled with the overweening greed of the big clubs is spoiling the game. Alas, lasting solutions are never suggested since most fans and journalists are as blinkered by the constraints of money-based society as the sport’s practitioners.

The only way to stop the rich clubs getting richer and the poor clubs getting poorer is not to limit the amount of money in the game or to distribute it more evenly – a virtually impossible task anyway – but to take the money out of football altogether. And that in turn means abolishing money in all other areas of life. And how do we stop foreigners being brought in to manage the national team? Well, why don’t we try abolishing nationality? The national football team is a product of the nation as a competing political unit in capitalism, and in a nationless society would have no role.

ROD SHAW