By James Reid
In the 1980s, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suggested that, in an attempt to stop football hooliganism, instead of fans going to away games they could simply gather at their team’s home ground and watch the match on big TV screens.
It was, of course, a ridiculous idea made by someone with no knowledge of football and thus it did not get off the ground. Indeed, Thatcher never professed to have any interest in football at all.
The European Super League was another silly idea made by a group of people with no knowledge of football yet due to the insatiable greed of those behind the plans, they went ahead with no thought of how it might be received by the wider footballing world.
It was indicative of an attitude that has shaped football for the best part of 30 years in which the pursuit of ever-greater wealth has been placed above a more romantic understanding of the game which values the whole game, not just those at the very top.
For years, Europe’s top clubs – often grotesquely referred to as “super clubs”, such is their financial obesity – have sought to bully their domestic leagues and UEFA for an ever-greater share of the financial pies available.
For years, this has worked. At first, it was the Premier League, in which clubs sought to break away from the Football League in order to generate greater revenues for clubs at the very top of the English football pyramid.
Then, it was the Champions League; the threat of the top clubs going off to form their own elite competition used to funnel more and more prize money into the coffers of an increasingly small number of clubs.
Each time, fans could only glumly accept what seemed to be the inexorable force of greed taking over football, despite the fact that, more often than not, it was they who lost out. Perhaps for fans of those clubs being financially engorged, it was slightly easier to stomach but for everyone else, being a football fan, on the whole, got worse.
Even for the fans of those clubs benefitting from this system, the relentless pursuit of ever-greater wealth enabled their clubs to become increasingly dislocated from them both geographically and financially; ‘legacy fans’, as they have been so coldly labeled, simply mattered less and less.
This pursuit of wealth has meant that match-going fans simply matter less and less in an increasingly globalised football market, where more money can be made by pursuing fans from all over the country and all over the world as new fans naturally migrate towards only the very best teams.
The current system has created a generation of football fans for which the sport exists almost entirely on a screen, akin to a box set in which there are new episodes every week that can be watched no matter where you are in the world; a TV generation for whom actually going to games is not actually the primary means of experiencing football. For many, they will be able to count the number of times they have watched their team in the flesh in single figures. For some, it will never happen.
They know not of the buzzing hum of the crowd in nervous anticipation of a big match, or of the jubilant, and often quite frankly dangerous, scenes that accompany a last-minute winner.
They have never experienced the motorway service stations on an away day halfway across the country and the muted journey back after a resounding 2-0 defeat in the cold and wet laced with doubt about why you actually have this bizarre hobby only to do it again two weeks later full of faith.
These fans are told they are closer than ever to the club through reams of content on social media, all the while never having stepped foot in the stadium of the club that they love and often simultaneously ignoring the live football that is taking place locally to them in favour of the very biggest clubs; whether that be the local League Two side or a maligned top division abroad.
They are not to blame though; they are merely products of their environment and exist as much within the UK and as they do outside of it, as more and more people support only one of the vaunted “top six” clubs regardless of distance, often with a football league club on their doorstep.
Those clubs are often actively derided, especially on social media, as a waste of time; what is the point if your club is not winning all the time and competing for trophies? For many, the idea that your club has not a hope in hell of winning the Premier League, perhaps even playing in the top-flight at all, is alien and anathema to these fans.
It is all part of the idea perpetuated that winning is the only thing that matters in football and that only watching the very best players is worth your time. This is reflected in the now incessant focus on trophies amongst fans on social media, often used to disregard the quality of players because they have not won the Premier League or a World Cup, as if that is the be-all and end-all.
Losing just one game is often a crisis. Fans of top 6 clubs regularly lament on social media just how painful it is an experience to support clubs that regularly finish with healthy points totals, goal differences, qualify for Europe, and win trophies.
This season, Arsenal fans, in particular, have wallowed in self-pity about how arduous a task it is to be a Gunners fan, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are the current holders of the FA Cup – a tournament that most clubs will never even reach the final of.
This is all a reflection of the commodification of football. Fans are seen as consumers, the game itself a product to be sold and consumed for entertainment. It is in that vein and with that logic that those who have perpetuated this system have sought to constantly improve their product, most recently with the Super League in which they have sought to pit the very best clubs against each other week after week with claims that matches against lesser opposition are boring to watch.
But this is a completely false understanding of football. If you want guaranteed entertainment, go to the cinema or watch something on Netflix: football isn’t for you.
Moreover, the idea that pitting the best sides against each other will guarantee dramatic and exciting matches is simply wrong; they are often more likely to be turgid affairs and any drama is heightened due to its rarity and the jeopardy that often comes attached, particularly in competitions like the Champions League where it is all or nothing.
It is the physical act of going to football matches that transforms it into something far beyond what happens on the pitch; the being part of a crowd, the meeting up with friends, the shared euphoria and despair with thousands of others. Knockout football, in particular, those famous European nights, creates a unique nervous energy that cannot simply be recreated, and mass-produced.
It is that sense of community and collectiveness that makes football truly special and it is that which solely watching football on the TV can never recreate because it seemingly creates little value beyond the role a live crowd plays within the showing of games on TV.
And it is that element of community and camaraderie that those behind the Super League fundamentally, and ultimately fatally, underestimated. For many still, football is more than just a TV show; it is a physical entity that is more than just what happens on the pitch.
It is the romance of a lower-league side’s cup run, or the likes of Atalanta and Leicester City in the Champions League, or a relegation-threatened side upsetting the league leaders. All of this is seen as irrelevant by those behind the Super League, and behind the forces that have shaped football for the past 30 years.
Watching the very best players, or the very best teams, or winning trophies is ultimately not the sole or primary focus. Perhaps that is a romantic view and an increasingly minority one, but the attempted Super League has shown that it still exists to some degree and it won’t go out with a fight.
As much as money increasingly makes the football world go round these days, it doesn’t have to. Football can, and does, exist without the multi-millions craved by those behind the Super League. Across the world, and notably in the UK, football exists up and down the country without the riches of those at the top. There is still the same romance, the same sense of community and camaraderie.
As long as the fans are still there, then football will still be there no matter how much the players are paid or how much the prize money is. Those who truly love football and everything that comes with it – not just the glory and glamour at the top – will still be there.
Football is more than just a TV programme or a commodity to be bought, sold, and reshaped to exert as much profit as possible.
That is what the plotters of the Super League simply did not get. The community, the highs and lows, the jeopardy, the romance. We don’t just want to sit and watch matches designed to make the most money, we want to see matches that mean something, where glory is actually on the lines rather than places guaranteed to those rich enough to afford it.
Those behind the Super League will probably be back to try again and they may well succeed as football seems to inexorably succumb to the dominance of money within the game.
It will be a shame if it does, because it won’t really be football, not really. It will be football with its heart and soul ripped out in exchange for greater profits, which won’t really be football at all.
Image: Mobius in Mobili via Flickr