By Jake Shepherd
“When you arrive in England for football it’s a paradise.” – Eric Cantona
The above quotation, used to describe English football and made by the iconic Manchester United forward ‘King Eric’, was the embodiment of David Goldblatt’s keynote speech at the Football and Culture conference held at Manchester Metropolitan University. Corresponding with the release of his new book, The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football, Goldblatt illuminatingly examined football in the current era of globalisation, individualism and inequality.
Despite being promoted internationally by the aristocrats of Britain in the 19th century, and despite the elitism deeply embedded in the FA today, the monumental scale of football within popular culture ensures that the game is still very much characterised by the working class. With an immense level of exposure in all aspects of the mass media, namely extensive television and newspaper coverage, video gaming, the internet and the ever increasing indulgence in social media, the beautiful game is becoming more and more accessible to the populace. In order to understand the nation’s adoration of the game, comparisons are made between the social importance of football and different aspects of modern and traditional life.
Religion, much like football, engenders the social capital that is exclusive to being a member of a specific community, whereby the sense of collectivity and common good is superior to that of the individual. Both football matches and church can be seen as organised rituals in which the spectators devoutly attend each and every week. In these rituals, a ‘chorus’ is present in both the church and the football stadium, which is reflected by the roles of the singing choir and the passionate chanting of the club’s supporters, producing a unique experience of shared public performance.
The same notion can also be applied to a more contemporary form of communality, the music festival. Although not remotely on the same scale as following Catholicism or even supporting Real Madrid, the number of people attending music festivals continues to expand as a result of an increasingly individualised culture. Hedonistic thought is the initial motive for attendances – everyone just wants to listen to music and to have fun. However, the festival’s ubiquitous sense of communion ultimately consumes the individual, and peak moments of excitement and pleasure are enjoyed collectively, much like a football match.
However, modern life tends to break up the community and the English Premier League epitomises the socioeconomic situation of today. It operates as a corporation intent on accumulating as much capital as wholly possible, often at the expense of those that it aims to exploit, the fans. Oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich purchase English football clubs in order to transcend their own wealth, status and political power. Abu Dahbi, the nation sitting on one of the world’s largest oil reserves, has also tapped into the market of football through the ownership of Manchester City, advertising their four state-owned companies to a global audience. The ironically nicknamed ‘The Pensioners’ and ‘The Citizens’ may well be basking in their dominance of English football, but there is a feeling of detachment and disparity amongst other clubs in the football league.
Manchester United, despite their recent turbulences, have always remained a club very much at the pinnacle of the sport. However, the takeover by American businessman Malcolm Glazer in 2005 had a more adverse effect on the Old Trafford supporters than that of Chelsea and Man City. The debt acquired by Glazer and his family in order to make the takeover feasible was pushed onto the club, putting it into debt for the first time in many years, leaving fans feeling disgruntled, dissatisfied and disengaged. They felt as though they were nothing more than a commodity and that their beloved club had lost touch with its roots. This sense of estrangement set in motion the formation of semi-professional club F.C. United of Manchester, which is owned and democratically run by former Manchester United supporters, reinstating that football is a game of the people.
Inequality is driven by globalisation, even within the economy of football. The mega-rich clubs of the Premier League generate astronomical amounts of revenue, especially when compared to newly promoted clubs like Burnley. There is an increasing gulf between the prosperous, such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal (four of the five teams to win the Premier League since its inauguration) and the rest of the football league. ‘Parachute payments’, obtained through television revenue, are now distributed to relegated clubs of the Premier League in order to help them become accustomed to loss of lucrative television revenue, meaning teams are given a greater chance of ‘bouncing back’, creating further disparity between the leagues. Once upon a time, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Portsmouth were formidable teams that were proving their worth across Europe. Nowadays, they sit in the lower divisions of the football pyramid, following relegation from the Premier League, and are subsequently unable to win back promotion. Many clubs simply lack the financial power needed to send them to the peak of the English football league system.
Although the majority of football fans recognise the dialectic tension between the business-first approach running of their clubs and the moral importance of traditional social interaction, many decide to stay loyal to their club. Almost all clubs are named after a specific place, and as many supporters follow their local side, a strong sense of affection and identity is created. Minnows such as Accrington Stanley F.C. attract attendances of no less than 2,000 a week, despite displaying a quality of football that is far surpassed by the Champions League, which can be enjoyed from the comforts of one’s own living room.
This demonstrates that cultural bonding and social integration, which, for some, can only be incited through the paradisiac of football, can counteract the feelings of alienation, disruption and polarity that are so typical of modern life.
Jake is currently in his first year at MMU, studying English and Sociology. As a Newcastle United supporter, he too can identify as a victim of the ruthless ownership of the modern football club, as Mike Ashley continues to pursue his expansion of his sports goods empire at the sacrifice of the Geordie faithful.