The current football season got off to its traditional start with rampaging “fans” whose activities attracted almost as much space in the press as the actual events on the field. The Observer (28 August 1983) reported one early clash: “The Birmingham fans were staking an early claim for the annual first-day-mindlessness-over- matter award”.
The beginnings were rather different. Football has developed from an informal, local, mass team game in feudal times to a nationally organised sport, with a sophisticated bureaucracy and a financial structure of its own. with armies of officials, players and spectators. In its organised form the game emerged as an acceptable type of violence. From being considered disorderly, even subversive, it came to be thought of as encouraging manliness and gentlemanly virtues. The game’s purpose became the formation of character — preparation for the game of life. Many clergymen, influenced by their own public school education, introduced football to the young men in their parishes. They hoped that such a team game would influence working people into becoming “decent”, law-abiding citizens — a satisfactory result for the master class. Along with better physical health, footballers would develop the vagaries of character necessary to the protestant work ethic.
This season could well be make or break for many league clubs. Wage bills have been reduced by drastically cutting playing staffs, forcing many footballers onto the dole and bringing home to them that their type of work is not as glamorous as it might once, in the days when they dreamed of being a First Division hero, have seemed. The struggle for survival is worsened by a conflict between the Football Association, the administration of the game which still clings to the ideals of amateurism, and the owners of the football clubs who have rather different priorities. The FA have always been reluctant to allow club directors to be paid a wage, or to allow players to wear advertising matter on their shirts. The owners argue that sponsorship is part of the more “businesslike” approach the game needs if it is to survive.
Since the sixties both Labour and Conservative governments have encouraged firms to put their money (and, of course, their advertised names) into football and this growth in commercial sponsorship is the latest challenge to amateur attitudes; the Football League has now become the Canon League. Honest and sporting values have to be sacrificed by team managers and players for the sake of commercial values. Directors demand not only prestigious clubs but also prosperous ones. This puts the managers in a difficult spot. They know that to make the paying spectators come through the turnstiles their sides must play exciting, which means attacking, football but they also know that this policy is likely to concede goals. Every manager knows about job insecurity, as a succession of them are thrown out by directors who, like the supporters, are interested first in success.
Unscrupulous methods are used by managers conscious of the axe which hangs over them and which will fall if they fail to please the board. On the field defenders, aware that they will be dropped if they are responsible for too many goals against their team, use cynical fouls on opposing strikers. Players are transferred on a market as managers try desperately to reconcile fielding a winning side with the confines of a limited budget. Spectators join in thinking that they are watching “their” team and that their interests arc bound up with it winning. They jeer and harass opposing players who, if they happen to be black, are followed with loud imitations of ape noises.
Why do such large numbers of workers take so passionate an interest in something which has no real effect on their lives? Football is a fantastic escape from the reality of exploitation; it gives spectators a sense of order and continuity which they cannot find in their workplace. If the team is doing well, a supporter may feel that capitalism is not so bad after all; whatever the pressures during the working week there is always Saturday to look forward to. In his book The Sociology of Sport Harry Edwards claims that watching sport serves to: “Reaffirm the established values and beliefs, defining acceptable means and solutions to central problems in the secular realm of everyday societal life”.
This squares with the concept of football as a quasi-religion. The game not only provides hooligans with an outlet for their pent-up feelings; it also gives other followers a sense of identity. After willingly handing over the fruits of their labour to the capitalist class during the week, or being a nobody on the dole, the football spectators, like churchgoers, can have a sense of belonging somewhere. They are not simply one of 25,000 people but a City or a West Ham fan. To label the hooligans as “not real fans”, who “give the game a bad name”, is to misunderstand; if football is in the place of a religion of modern capitalism then they are its priesthood.
In a profit-dominated society the appreciation of sporting skills is overridden by the desire for the dominance of one side, often at whatever cost is necessary, over the other. After their weekly dose of exploitation workers trek along to their holy shrines to give homage to the teams, hoping they will put their opponents to the sword without mercy. Strong words are spouted about violence on the terraces and about unruly youth, with calls for greater punishment but anti-social behaviour has its roots in the basis of capitalism. Sports goods firms cash in on the market with their pennants and scarves which create artificial bonds between the fans and their chosen team. The football priests robe themselves in the colours of their denomination and, if their side wins, can go back to their exploitation with an easier mind.
And that, for capitalism, is justification enough. For this is a social system which weighs everything, including such concepts as sporting behaviour, in the balance sheet and leaves the fans to walk on, walk on, with only hope in their hearts.