This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.
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My relationship with football is wittering, a death by a thousand cuts break-up, sponsored by Gazprom.
There are so many facets of your life that change as you get older, in so many ways, that you might be forgiven for feeling a little lied to and underprepared. There’s the standard stuff: you’ll gain weight a little easier, hair ain’t what it was, can’t get up (or sit down) without making a pained groaning ‘whuhhhh’ sound, not as nippy around the dance floor and a latent interest, if not understanding of, politics and the world around us at large.
That’s all fine, all of that can be dealt with in a ‘managed decline’ kind of way. What has crept up at me out of the long grass and rightly bit me on my sagging arse is the change in how you feel about things.
For so long I had football and the people I consumed it with as a tent-pole in my life. If you feel awkward socially in a group or have almost nothing in common with people, you could usually hit that common ground with someone. It’s a good social crowbar you can use to gain initial acceptance or drag a conversation out of them. A nice placeholder conversation topic until enough drink has been consumed that we can bask in the illusion of friendship and the notion that this is what having a good time equates to.
Increasingly, the football became my crutch. I hadn’t much by way of confidence or wit so that was how I modelled myself – football-loving man. For a lot of people that’s primarily how they knew me. I remember being introduced at a wedding thusly: “This is Coyner, he’s uh…he’s….emmmm…he knows a lot about football.” At the time I took that as quite the compliment. Turning it over in my head years later I’m not sure it really was.
Why the football? Well, unlike a TV show or movie, it has permanence. Football goes on in perpetuity and will continue on long after we’re all gone. That’s common in other but not to the same level of enduring, unending intensity. I used to love that about it: if this season is crap there’ll be another along next year. You always get to try again. From playing to watching – it took up so much of my free time and I was more than happy to surrender to it. I had nothing else going on.
And football, to be fair to it, stepped in and filled that void for me and, during darker times, it was an obvious beacon. You can drag yourself out of bed because other people are counting on you for astro or as much as you hate your own life you still want to watch your team in the Champions League.
There were times when watching Celtic, in particular, might have been the only high point of that entire week. A brief respite then back to the grey when I remembered who I was and what I was like as a person. We’ve been through a lot together, me and the football, is what I’m getting at here.
We should be tight, we go back years, all the way to the 1990 World Cup. Recently, though, something has changed in a fundamental way, and for the first time in my life I am seriously asking myself; do you even like this fucking game anymore?
So, what changed? Who changed? We both did in truth. The first game I ever watched was in 1989. Liverpool beat Manchester United 4-0 thanks to a John Barnes master class. That was the first minor hit, then the World Cup came along and the whole of Ireland went batshit football crazy. It was like a sporting equivalent of the heroin epidemic that had been along a few years earlier. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, it was fucking everywhere and all the kids were seriously into it.
The Premier League came along just a couple of years later and soon after I began going to League of Ireland games on a regular basis. Three to six of my days and nights every week would revolve around football in some way, shape or form.
The most-played game of my youth is undoubtedly Championship Manager 97/98. It was all-encompassing. As the game became more globalised your viewing options improved exponentially. Still living at home and with plenty of available income I subscribed, like the compliant mook I was, to all of the ridiculously expensive packages to make sure I got all the football. I was the golden child for the types who market these things. I’d buy whatever new, shiny thing was going if it meant I got more games in.
What of the here and now though? The ending of any relationship is tough, tougher again when the relationship has so many years behind it, a shared history. Much like a breakup – you’d prefer to keep it simple and linear if possible. We all prefer a cut-and-dry scenario, you cheated on me, you tried to strangle my mother, and so on. The instant animosity makes it easier to deal with the fallout and the sense of loss that’ll be along in its own good time.
Far worse, far harder are those lingering, doubt-riddled breakups that draw out over months and years. Nobody cheats, nobody beats anybody up but neither of you feels the same anymore. You wearily sigh and go your separate ways, wondering if you can ever be arsed to go through it all again.
And that’s where I feel I am with football. My big life constant has changed, in how I see it and how I feel about it and I’m not sure if you ever get that back. From the time I was a kid I have heard people cite ‘falling out of love with the game’ and I never was quite sure what that meant. I think I have a handle on it now.
Not to be melancholic or overly dramatic, but in many ways, it feels like one of those drawn-out, death by a thousand cuts breakups. There’s this person that you were sure you knew and loved and yet you find yourself looking at them wondering, “Did they always bang on about money so much? They seem slightly racist sometimes and why do they hardly ever mention gay people? They sure mention Gazprom a lot.”
Football, like most things, will be a reflection of the times, so its higher echelons will, in 2018, resemble that of an amoral cabal of money men primarily concerned with protectionism of the current elite and the monetisation of every little aspect of the game. Because in 2018, an amoral money man is the thing to be, and a cabal of them? World’s their oyster. That’s why enough is never enough.
The Champions League is set up to wildly favour the rich clubs from the rich leagues but it isn’t enough. It’ll never be enough, they’ll always demand more so now we have the mooted European Super League (no doubt to be sponsored by Gazprom). English Premier League clubs get the most eye-watering, ridiculously lucrative TV deal and yet that isn’t enough.
Because everybody gets the same. And in 2018 there are many who would argue that such equality simply isn’t fair. The big clubs down there are pushing for a bigger piece of the pie because, in all honesty, who the fuck is buying an expensive TV subscription to watch Watford?
The eye-watering amounts of money sloshing around the top end of the game are then offset by clubs outside that bubble going to the wall with increasing regularity. For the vast majority of clubs things are as much of a struggle as they have ever been. There has been a financial revolution in football, but it has certainly not been a revolution for all.
There has been very little drip-down of that exorbitant wealth, and a staggering amount goes straight back out of the game entirely through agent fees that aren’t far off the gross debt of a small country. What the agents don’t take seems to be swallowed up by the ever-increasing wages of the players – those at the top end now earning so much that they really fall under the category ‘celebrity’ rather than ‘professional athlete’. Which is great for your bank balance, but would also run the slight risk of alienating the fans.
The new ‘super’ clubs are on a whole different stratosphere when it comes to their abundance of cash and how they set about using it. PSG and Man City are essentially sporting advertorials for whole nations. Nations which are run by regimes which have extremely questionable stances on trivial things like human rights, but again, in 2018 this all just seems par for the course.
There was a time where I’d have eaten up the whole Man City project in particular. They were always such a woeful underperformer, not even United’s biggest rival. Now they have state-of-the-art everything, an incredible squad and the best manager in the world – who has them playing some next-level stuff.
I tried to watch that Amazon documentary everyone loved but only lasted 20 minutes – the stench of what this football club has come to be was as unpleasant as it was overpowering. A slickly produced PR piece for a slick club playing liquid football, yet the truth behind the people behind the money tells its own tale. I accept that it is entirely possible for Manchester City to be both an amazing football team with fantastic facilities and, at the same time, a symbol of the largesse of an oppressive regime who simply wants to use the club to boost its image through sport. I just find it difficult to separate the two.
Admittedly, none of these things are especially new. I’ve known money was ruining the game, that competitiveness was on the wane, that the wages are too much at the top and not enough at the bottom for a long time. I suppose much like any relationship it takes a while for the scales to fall from your eyes and see the other party, and yourself for exactly who you are. It tends to be unpleasant for all concerned.
I also know that it makes no real odds to TV companies or anyone else if I, personally, am bothered by how the game is now to the point where I can’t enjoy it anymore. The point is that in spite of the many voices who proclaim this to be a golden era of the game, the chasm between the haves and have-nots has continued to widen and little by little the soul of the game is sold off to the highest bidder.
The notion that football is still at its core the people’s game is fraying. Nothing that allegedly represents the people should leave you so cold, should fester and encourage such greed, and abandon the very notion that it should be held to any sort of moral standard. It is the global game yet it has no voice on global issues. Just an unending, insatiable quest for more – more concessions, more exemptions, more power, more money.
I still watch, of course. Celtic and St. Pat’s are guilt-free pleasures and cover my live and TV football fixes just fine but the bluster around the ‘haves’ is unavoidable. Coverage is as thorough as it is unappealing but again, outwith the likes of WSC and fanzines, their scrutiny is narrowed down to the top 6 or so clubs with 14 others pretty much lumped together as an interchangeable ‘the rest of them’.
Scotland is derided and patronised and Irish football is ignored altogether (even in Ireland). Money itself is not a problem, nor the abundance of it, but fuck me does it rarely bring out the best in people and that’s how I am left seeing the top-level game now.
A grotesque caricature of its former self, bending to the will of those who can throw the most cash at it. Where did that cash come from? Nobody cares. Not in 2018.
This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.
Download the magazine here: