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Football: The Bountiful Game?

Money in football has created a great spectacle but it has also destroyed the game’s integrity.

The extraordinary stand-off between Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson last month was finally resolved when the former, currently experiencing the worst form of his professional life, walked away with a deal worth around £50m over five years. His agent Paul Stretford, a former vacuum cleaner salesman from the North West, is said to have secured £10m.

The previous week Liverpool FC, a team with an epic and glorious past, was rescued at the eleventh hour from bankruptcy and humiliation at the hands of two American businessmen who didn’t understand the difference between an asset and a football club, by another American who no doubt intends to maximise the potential of their worldwide brand.

The beautiful game is still capable of great beauty and high drama: those who witnessed Liverpool’s comeback again AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final will never forget it, nor more recently Gareth Bale’s extraordinary double-demolition of Internazionale. Football’s near-unique capacity to enthrall, captivate and confound inside 90 minutes within the context of local or national rivalry explains why it remains the world’s most popular sport. Yet it is also a game whose potential for excitement has been financially exploited to the point where supporters are ripped off or priced out of the game, players’ salaries are inflated beyond our understanding and football’s integrity has been distorted to the point of ugliness.

English football’s pact with the devil began on February 20th, 1992. This was the day the old First Division broke away from The Football League and formed The Premier League, enabling the elite clubs to split television revenues between them where before they been divided between the league’s 92 members.

Thus the die was cast: as the television money grew so the likelihood lessened that any team from the lower leagues could break into the top flight and challenge for the title. Growing up I watched the likes of Norwich, Ipswich and Watford all challenge for major honours. Today the financial disparity between the divisions is underlined by the regularity with which newly promoted teams go straight back down and those that are relegated, cushioned by parachute payments of £16m plus a sum of £40m for finishing in the Premier League’s bottom three, come straight back up. This not only rewards failure but creates a merry-go-round of the same sides. Where’s the excitement in that?

Then of course there is the sub-group of domination known as the ‘Big Four’. The teams occupying the first four places in the Premier League qualify for the UEFA Champions League, a competition for the top clubs in Europe. The money garnered from this competition – in the region of £30m to add to their £50m Premier League revenues – is enough buying power to keep any team at the top of the pecking order. This self-sustaining monopoly has led to Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all occupying the top four spots continuously from 2005 until earlier this year, a circular situation where the richest clubs can afford to buy the best players and pay the biggest salaries.

What all this means is that every club wants a piece of the action and most will effectively bankrupt themselves to either get it or keep it. For the likes of Leeds United this led to just that – bankruptcy. Relegation can be disastrous. Most top clubs are stretched beyond their means: 14 out of the Premier League’s 20 clubs are running at a loss. Great clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool have been aggressively taken over and mortgaged to the hilt by foreign owners who wish to cash in on football’s richest and most globally viewed league. Then there are philanthropist-types like Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and Sheikh Mansour (Manchester City) whose private motivations and seemingly limitless financial reserves create an ever-more uneven playing field – not to mention Thaksin Shinawatra, former President of Thailand whose brief ownership of City made a mockery of the FA’s ‘fit and proper person’ test and who is now living as an international pariah.

What do all this money, opportunism and greed add up to? Certainly this heightened state of affairs has created a disconnect between players and supporters. With ticket prices rising to accommodate higher salaries, many football fans can no longer afford to go to what is traditionally a workingman’s game, or fork out for constantly-changing shirt designs.

Players, who once upon a time were amenable to a chat over a pint, are today viewed as superstars and are almost totally inaccessible. Young players who have barely made their debuts are strutting round with watches the size of dinner plates and cars that growl. Player power means dubious on-field behaviour is tolerated. The constant harassing of referees is a sickening sight, while player simulation (another word for diving which itself is another word for cheating) remains an irritant. Off the field player conduct has plumbed new depths. All of the above is a symptom of a game top-heavy with riches.

With pressure on clubs to survive and prosper, the time to nurture talent and invest in youth is severely restricted. Success is insisted upon, especially by oversees owners seeking instant returns, and foreign recruits – often less expensive than homegrown talent – are ushered in at the expense of domestic prodigies. With fewer and fewer English players representing the big clubs this in turn means the national team suffers. The FA’s Director of Football and former England international Sir Trevor Brooking has repeatedly warned that England teams of the future could be threadbare – especially if the Premier League continues to refuse to grant a winter break and our top players continue to turn up exhausted for major tournaments.

What of the lower leagues? While Premiership sides receive an average of £45m a year, the teams one tier below get only £1m, and League Division One teams half that. With less of the overall pie available since 1992, the sides lower down the ladder have moved from the occasional collapse to this being a fact of life. There is little let-up in the cycle of administrations, new owners, last-minute saviours and broken promises. Very decent footballers with mortgages and families end up club-less, along with coaching and ground staff, administrators, caterers and everyone else required to run a football club. The bond with the players may exist lower down the leagues but with less scope for a payout these clubs are even more vulnerable than those at the top.

I am intermittently sick of football: every game on Sky is ‘critical’, ‘the ‘biggest of the season’, or ‘make or break’. It feels over-earnest and overexposed; what started out as the beautiful game has turned into a relentless, churning business. Like many others I was adamant I’d had enough after England’s truly disastrous World Cup campaign; and here I am, still watching and letting the disappointments of the summer fade. Why? Because despite everything, football remains a great spectacle with a seemingly limitless potential for passion, skill and high drama. It is a soap opera that unfolds across seasons, decades and lifetimes and millions of people are tuning in.

Yet money continues to skew the game in England: it means an elite group of top teams dominate the league, foreign investors can buy clubs without supporting them, players think they can behave as they wish and supporters cannot afford to purchase tickets. If football can become so disconnected from its working class origins there is something very wrong with its mechanics. What this will mean in the longer term only time will tell.

October 2010