With the World Cup hours away from kick off, Nathan Bolton reflects on how football’s flashpoints can have a wider political resonance. Originally published here.
I often feel I’m in a very small minority on the left when it comes to football. I support England at international tournaments, I’d sometimes rather go to a game than a meeting and I don’t see the whole sport as a meaningless distraction from making revolution. Even so, I’ve always felt that politics and football couldn’t mix. Now I’m beginning to think this may not be completely true.
In a World Cup year, football is everywhere but it isn’t just what’s happening on the pitch that is being reported. The corruption scandals engulfing FIFA’s decision to grant Russia and Qatar the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, anti-World Cup protests in Brazil demanding money be spent on social projects, not stadiums and the abuse of migrant workers in Qatar are on the front pages not just the back. In England a less high profile battle is being waged on social media against the recent FA proposals to introduce Premier League B-teams into the Football League. There is widespread resentment for those at the top of the game, be that FIFA, the FA or a foreign billionaire owner. I want to think that these things together present an opportunity, not to indulge in bashing the sport, but to use the passion associated with the game to begin to politicise football, in a much deeper way than the tokenistic anti-racism of FIFA and the Football Association.
The FA Commission and English football
It is likely that many will not be aware but the Football Association (FA) recently established a commission to investigate the decline in the number of English footballers playing at the highest levels in the professional game. It draws the conclusion that this decline has adversely impacted on the performance of the national team at International tournaments; a view proven in practice by the failure of England to qualify for Euro 2008. In the Executive Summary of the report from the commission it states:
“In the 2012-13 Premier League season only 32% of starts were by players qualified to play for England compared with 69% twenty years ago. Among the top four clubs that season, the number reduces to only 28% of starts by English qualified players…”
The reasons for this decline can be found here in the full report. Interestingly the report acknowledges the importance of grassroots football to the strength and vitality of the game. Many fans, coaches and players at the lower levels will scoff at this. The sport is top heavy – grassroots football is cut back whilst Premier League wages, revenue generated from television rights, sponsorship and merchandise register in the billions. Since 2000, only £1.2 billion has been invested by the FA, the government and the Premier League. The vast amount of wealth at the top of the pyramid is in contrast to the poverty at the bottom and mirrors society in our neoliberal age.
This concentration of wealth is matched by a decline in the control and influence that fans have on their own clubs. Recent re-branding exercises, completed by Cardiff, and stalled in the case of Hull City show that club owners are happy to ignore the history of their pet project club and its fans if it could be a money-spinner. The rhetoric of the working class foundation of English clubs is nothing more than rhetoric in 2014; its’ simply a tool used to appeal to supporters when necessary and to be dropped if it was to ever effect revenue. This same attitude informs the new FA proposals.
The FA Commission proposes to revolutionise the structure of the Football League. Its’ core proposal is to introduce a new league, ‘League Three’, between League Two and The Conference which would be populated by Premier League and Championship “B” teams. This move would completely change English professional football and accelerate the trend of football being dominated by a few top clubs and their billionaire owners. The character and history of the game would be irrevocably damaged, likely force smaller clubs into financial ruin and is unwanted by fans. It would entrench the core problem of football in the neoliberal age: concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
Immediately, a number of groups were set up to oppose ‘League 3’ including the fan run website www.againstleague3.co.uk. This group almost entirely organised itself online, administering petitions, tweeting prolifically and in isolated cases, encouraged supporters to unfurl banners at the end of last season against the proposal. These tactics when stripped of their context are the same method that groups like UK Uncut used to confront tax avoiders.
Fortunately, the Football League (FL) has potentially buried the idea before it even gets onto its feet in a statement from its AGM, (in Portugal, of course). FL opposition should see off the League 3 move, but it is the level of opposition from football fans which I think has emboldened the FL to take the position it has. There were a number of petitions, including one which received over 25,000 signatures in a matter of weeks. This shows there is a constituency of fans who are unhappy with the direction of the game which provides an opportunity to challenge football as it is, and generate discussion as to how it should be.
These flashpoints in football present an opportunity to engage with social issues: injustice and inequality, racism and homophobia, profit and ownership. Were a movement to emerge, challenging those who manage the game, this wouldn’t simply remain a challenge to those who make their millions from the Premier League. It would go further to force people to question where else profit doesn’t have a place. This may seem an impossible task, but in small ways this is already beginning, lower down the leagues. Attempts are being made, at fan owned clubs to make football accessible for all, removing profit as the over-arching goal, replacing it with the simple joy associated with the sport, what is best for the community it represents and the impact a club can have on those associated with it.
An article written by Doreen Massey, Professor of Geography at the Open University, during the period when Liverpool FC was being sold, reiterates this link between the neoliberal version of football and the social alternative fostered by challenging football clubs’ ownership by the rich.
“…it is through such specifics that people encounter, and learn to address, the more general political issues. If we are to build opposition to this society in which everything is for sale and everything has a price, then it has to start at ground level, from the myriad concrete ways in which people are affected. The ownership of our football clubs is one of them.”
The logic of profit is entrenched in every sphere of our lives, in football this manifests itself through ownership and needs to be challenged. But, we aren’t starting from scratch. There is the prolific and long-standing campaign led by the families of victims of the Hillsborough disaster to fight for justice, anti-homophobia actions by German ultras in their stands, the emergence of fan-owned clubs and even non-League club fans visiting picket lines of striking workers. Fans are beginning to break out of the straitjacket imposed upon them by the football authorities in an attempt to create a football culture from below, a culture that challenges authority, calls out oppression and will fight to better its own community. It might start with football but who knows where it will end.