The pomp and circumstance that dogs English football is, in part, a saviour. Through Sky’s hyperbole and huge injections of money, English football showcases some of the most talented footballers on the planet. Through Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ to the staggering sight of Cristiano Ronaldo running at breathless defenders at full tilt, the English Premier League has had some gooseflesh inducing moments.
However, a growing number of fans are becoming increasingly jaded with the whole thing. It would be easy to blame the money that surrounds the game at the top level, but that is only a fraction of the problem. Sure enough, some athletes are paid ludicrous sums of money and ticket pricing has become a larger issue (look at Manchester City fans protesting against stub prices in advance of £60 to watch their team at The Emirates stadium recently), but ostensibly, most fans couldn’t care less about the wages of the players. If Tom Cruise can get vast sums of cash for shooting a film, or if musicians harvest massive advances from record companies, then footballers shouldn’t be singled out, especially given that they’re performing in one of the most-loved spectacles on planet Earth.
So what is eroding the joy of the English game?
One aspect is the constant chest-beating of the EPL being ‘The Best League In The World’. Look toward Italy, Spain or Germany, and you see an equal – if not better – standard of football and, more to the point, more top-level clubs being fan-owned. Bayern Munich and Barcelona simply couldn’t exist in England, and both teams have an enviable support and structure that makes the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea look hard and unlovable. Dortmund’s refusal to play ball with the German FA over their infamous and dazzling Die Südtribüne, sees fans and the club protesting in harmony. One of the most famous terraces in the world, with one of the most incredible spectacles in football, with tickets around £10 per match, thanks in part to an agreement with German clubs that investors can’t buy a controlling vote.
The structure of English football is a large chunk of the problem, but again, it is only a grain of what irks. They are, like NFL teams, huge franchises. Big business in sport is nothing new, so to blame it for a sporting malaise is folly, especially when the main problems lie elsewhere.
One jarring line of thinking sticks in the craw, which is the promotion of ‘passion’ in the game. Successful footballing nations seem to portray a level of intellect when approaching the game. Pirlo fast became a favourite, showing intelligence on the international stage, rather than rash passion. English football is quick to blame all shortcomings on a lack of strong feeling toward a football match. Sure, a player wearing their heart on their sleeve is a good thing sometimes (football without emotion would be a sorry specimen indeed), but given the choice of a teary battler and say, someone smartly picking their opponent to pieces, you’d choose the clever guy on the team that keeps winning.
As David Hepworth wrote during the World Cup in South Africa: “If you wanted to fly somewhere and were offered a choice between one pilot who was capable and another who was immensely passionate about every aspect of flying, surely you'd choose the former rather than the latter? Feeling strongly about something doesn't make you do it any better. It may well make you do it worse.”
The English press are swift to impose a feeling of a team’s failure because apparently, they are too concerned with the trappings of their bank accounts, rather than declaring their love for the sport wildly. However, ‘passion’ in English players is usually seen in the lower leagues, which is all well and good, but at the top level, one should be asking for more.
It is this removal of intellect from football (not always a bad thing, granted) which is grinding away what was once a major part of everyone’s infatuation with association football. Football has slowly become infuriatingly thick-skulled, from Soccer AM onward. The mix of visceral thrill to considered debate has been replaced with a disingenuous pally-ness, a boorish guffaw of lads in the club house and, as one writer put it; “a thickening culture of bullish arrogance, absolute pride in not thinking.”
Where Stateside has seen jaw-dropping documentaries such as ESPN’s ’30 For 30’ series, English football has replaced its own documentation of the Beautiful Game in favour of an endless reel of clip shows and “feeble home-brew humour.” Italy gave the world the wonderful “Il Divin' Codino” (the divine ponytail) for Baggio, and England shouted ‘Rooooonaldo’ or ‘Golden Balls’. While cricket, golf and darts mix an everyman approach with fairly lofty ideas and analysis (so too in America and the rest of Europe with great, zingy, snappy sports journalism), England has simply started to shout louder than everyone else because that’s what the media rooms think football solely consists of. TV panels consist only of ex-professionals in awful shirts, instead of mixing it up with people offering a perspective outside of the Masonic world of professional football. Where writers like Paul Wilson, Richard Williams or Daniel Taylor could offer terrific insight and self-deprecation, we’re instead offered the ever-dreadful Andy Townsend or the amiable, but cripplingly dull Dion Dublin. In Ireland, one of their mainstays is the tremendously ranty football journalist Eamonn Dunphy, while in England, you get Adrian Chiles with his ‘chummy bloke down the pub’ routine.
And all the while, this package of the ‘fan’ is what is being sold back to the supporters themselves. Joe Kennedy’s superb piece for The Quietus points out: “The supporters constitute the club's identity, and thus create its 'product', but the entities which result are - almost universally - owned by a limited number of people with the financial wherewithal to purchase a stake. The football 'experience' is then sold back to the people who generate it in the first place, and the loyalty of fans allows for a monopolistic control over things like ticket prices. Barring the occasional confluences of interest that occur when proverbial local-boys-made-good take over their boyhood teams, the relationship between supporters and owners is effectively an antagonistic one.
What are missed are the nuances of football that make so many fans tick. People who dismiss football as a pointless endeavour, backed by a blockheaded chorus, don’t understand that football also represents folk traditions (Martin Carthy said that football chants are the closest thing we’ve got to folk singing), politics and so much more. Football isn’t just the Sky Sports version of events. Football isn’t just the red tops screaming dramatically at everything. Largely, football isn’t smashing up beer gardens.
Football can be as glorious as the Liverpool fans who called out corrupt police forces and politicians, finally getting some justice for the 96 that died on that fateful day in Sheffield. Football fans are swift to get together for a cause, notably with AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, who rejected malaise and started their own clubs, and that is largely ignored by The Many. Football’s long fanzine culture is another hugely under-appraised quarter of the game, with its intelligent, wise-ass dissent which doesn’t fit the modern narrative of ‘heart-before-head’ which has slowly engulfed English football. Football has all the hallmarks of what made so many swell with pride during the London Olympics, but it is drowned out by exaggeration and boasting.
Of course, English football is still a wonderful thing at many levels, but the failures of the national team and the disenfranchisement of an increasing number of fans can certainly be attributed to the crow-barred narrative of the popular press at large where football has gone from something worth celebrating on a cultural level, to something that booms at everyone like a sad, ubiquitous, empty IMAX screen, determined to celebrate knee-jerk reactions and promote a supposed idea of fans’ passion, rather than the thoughtful nuances and the largely friendly debate which exists between supporters. The narrative demands a team and nation of crying Gazzas rather than the cool intelligence of France’s team of ’98 or just about every German outfit since 1974. We all know that football has room for eccentricity and measured thoughtfulness (in fact, most successful teams have combined both). It is time for English broadcasting, writing and thinking to smarten-up. If a nation demands passion, it’ll get it when teams start winning and being mindful of the fact that fans aren’t hapless, hooting devotees, but rather, part of a broader identity of football.
Yet sometimes, there’s the nagging notion that that football at the top levels could easily survive without ‘normal’ fans. Look at any professional team’s website and you’ll bump into the word ‘community’ and other narratives that want you to feel like you’re part of the club. However, you’ll also notice that clubs are actually far keener to sell corporate packages, so big spending visitors can sample that famous ‘football atmosphere’, which fans have effectively been relegated to. Even then, for a short period, Manchester City piped crowd-noise through the PA when they were still finding their feet at Eastlands. Rather than let something organically happen, or indeed, provide the fans with something to feel part of, they replaced them with a soundclip, just so those people paying hundreds of pounds to impress a business client don’t feel short-changed.
Money hasn’t ruined the game, but with it, something has been irrecoverably lost which is ultimately transferring to the English national team and beyond. Where Brazil (as corrupt as they come, granted) send their players all over the world, they reunite for the national team like a homecoming. Germany and Spain have fan-run clubs at the top-level and smaller nations thrive with their underdog status, leaving English football looking bloated, spoiled and simple. The bubble that surrounds English football is suffocating one.
All-in-all, the press demand passion through the hyperbole, the clubs court credit cards and the players are so well-drilled that they’re now playing point-percentage football which translates into a tedious spectacle, worsened on the national stage. ITV’s billing of the imminent England-Brazil friendly as ‘the ultimate test’ is laughable in the eyes of the football fan, which leaves them in a weird position. Some still love their team as hard as ever, like battered spouses, loudly proclaiming their love for an unyielding and cold relationship, leaving the rest to feel disenfranchised and losing that passion that is so demanded of them. Yet, we’re hooked on the game and will invariably end up watching whatever coverage we can get our hands on.
English football is at a crossroads and, to be frank, everyone working in the game seems to want to maintain this uncertain feeling because it can be passed off as everything being ‘a funny ol’ game’ (who would’ve thought that Saint & Greavsie would become a blueprint for British media coverage?), or the endless twists and turns of the media narrative.