Looking at Football

Sport for profit


Four hundred years ago, seven countrymen from Ryslippe were indicted for playing “a certain unlawful game called foote-ball, by means of which unlawful game there was amongst them a great affray, likely to result in homicides or serious accidents.” Today the “unlawful game” is a huge branch of the entertainments industry: more, it is part of the social life of Britain. And, as a touch of irony to make the seven men turn in their graves, the Queen goes to watch the Cup Final not seven miles from Ruislip.


Every Saturday about a million people go to see League football—nearly enough a thousand watchers to every player. The cry that we are all onlookers today is not quite fair, however. For one thing, playing football requires agility, keen senses and good stamina—is, in short, a young men’s occupation. For another, facilities for it are increasingly limited. Land is valuable, and several acres can accommodate only two or three football pitches. In fact, almost every male adult has played football at some time, and most would probably rather play than watch; as it is, only a minority can do so.


To say that football is big business is not to say that every professional club is a thriving concern. A good many of them are companies which have never paid a dividend, financed mainly by local business men who want a hobby, and like to be in the public eye. The big clubs however—Arsenal, the Spurs, Newcastle and the rest—are each as profitable as a chain of cinemas, and their methods have changed the game itself. There is no need to consider the pools much in relation to footnall. Merely the bigger, better successors to prize crosswords and “Bullets”, they have little influence on the game: as much money would be wagered on cockroach races if the rewards were big enough.


This is the age of professionalism in sport. It is a quite recent development: within living memory, the F.A. Cup was won by an Old Etonian side, The nineteenth-century sportsman was an amateur in the ideal sense, a well-to-do man who played football or cricket for recreation and because he had been taught to do so. The public schools fostered football (in various forms) to help develop the character of empire-builders, in line with what Wellington said about the playing fields of Eton. And the professional eighty years ago, was a lowly man indeed who drank beer and touched his forelock tyo the gentlemen.


Ordinary people had played football long before there were public schools, however. For three centuries, their rulers tried to stop them; there were half a dozen statutes against football in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the kings and preachers railed against it still in the seventeenth. It was certainly a rough affair. There were no rules; whole villages, sometimes whole districts, played against one another, and the rough-and-tumble fights were not much related to the ball’s progress. Philip Stubbes minced no words in “The Anatomie of Abuses“:


“As concerning football playing, I protest unto you that it may be rather be called a frendlie kind of fyghte than a play or recreation—a bloody and murthering practice than a felowly sport or pastime. For dooth not everyone lye in waight for his adversarie, seeking to overthrow him and picke him on his nose . . . ?”

What concerned the ruling class was not the folly of it or the broken heads, but its distraction from military exercise. It interfered with quarterstaff and archery practice; that called for legal action.


The first universal rules for football were an attempt to compromise between the various codes and make competition possible. Cambridge, the public schools and the old boys’ clubs proposed model rules, but there was little unanimity until the Football Association was formed in 1863—at the same time establishing the distinction between “Rugby” and “Soccer”. 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.


One of the first things professionalism did to football was make it less violent. Injury meant nothing worse to the amateurs than an interruption of their favourite game; to a professional it could mean displacement and loss of livelihood, and so heavy charging was outlawed. The style of play changed, too. The old amateur forwards could juggle delightfully with the ball, but a paid team wanted only the quickest way to goal. Individualism declined and “combination play” became the thing: a famous back, writing in 1906, complained that modern forwards passed the ball before they could be tackled.


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.


Meanwhile ball play, the real craftsmanship of football, has declined. The mechanization of leisure and the increasing congestion of towns have had a lot to do with it. Thirty or more years ago, boys spent half their spare time kicking small balls in the streets or on waste ground; now they watch the Telly instead, and in any case there is less waste ground and they have been taught that playing in the streets is dangerous. Then, too, the young model themselves on the professionals.


Britain has always been regarded (by Britain as well as the others) as the world’s schoolmaster in football. Since the war, half a dozen other nations have produced teams which have beaten Britain’s best and started everyone asking what has happened to football in this country. Hungary, Uruguay, Yugoslavia and the other nations have the best of both the old and the new football worlds; ardent for personal skill, their players have learned besides the most useful elements of commericalized English football. It is true that nationalism plays a considerable part. Rapidly developing countries (like those mentioned) are hungry for every sort of prestige, and sporting success can carry a great deal of it. That is why the governments of Russia and the satellite nations spend large sums on sports facilities and give great honour to their leading footballers and athletes. International sport, commonly believed to promote goodwill more often contributes to its opposite.


In recent times there has been strong criticism of the transfer system. Fifty years ago a player named Common was sold for a thousand pounds, and the football world shook (indeed, the F.A. tried and failed by legislation to prevent any more of it); a few weeks ago a player was bought for thirty thousand. A great deal of nonsense is talked about footballers being slaves; they are no more so that any other wage-slaves. Most transfers take place at the players’ wishes, and the only time a player is victimized is when the club asks a fee for him that nobody will pay; the legal validity of the transfer system, incidentally, was established in 1912 when a player named Kingaby sued Aston Villa in exactly those circumstances. Players themselves receive no share of transfer fees, though a sought-after man usually looks for such inducements as a house and a side-line job. The worst aspect of the transfer system is that it tends to produce a monopoly of talent by the wealthy clubs, emphasizing again the business character of modern football.


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 players 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?


Robert Barltrop