This article is from the 8th edition of The Cynical, our free online magazine.
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In a sport where its supporters have and are still experiencing classism in several forms, Eoin Coyne looks at the grim parallels of modern society and modern football; where the differences and gaps in financial strength is rapidly increasing , with the ladders of opportunity being made taller and more slippery, all to protect the wealthiest at the top.
Amid all the blood and death of Celtic’s recent Champions League exit, the Green Brigade, on-point as ever, served up a not-so-subtle dig at the increasingly protectionist and closed-shop nature of the current Champions League format. With the ‘big’ leagues guaranteed more spots than ever, it is becoming increasingly difficult for any club not lucky enough to be from England, Spain, Italy or Germany (a whopping 4 automatic spots each) to gain access. France and Russia (somehow) have two spots apiece whilst the champions of Turkey, Belgium, Ukraine and Portugal get automatic entry. This has led to the extra qualifying round for what can charitably be described as ‘the rest’: a hubble of traditional ‘big’ clubs hamstrung by seeding, geography or both; obliged to undertake even more qualifying rounds to protect the interests of the same old faces at the top table.
Maybe another case of football reflecting the broader society, it seems that the policy of recent years has been one of appeasement towards those with the greatest financial heft. Cutting some slack to those who quite literally need it the least has been the way of football for decades now, but it has become a lot more naked recently. In the case of Leicester City upsetting the apple cart and actually winning the league, champion of the big guy Charlie Stillitano asked the prescient question, “What would Manchester United argue: did we create soccer or did Leicester create [it]?”. That may just be the typical bluster of an American business blow-hard type but the underlying implication is as clear as it is sinister – why don’t we just take the title away from Leicester and give it to Manchester United?
Stillitano, in case you weren’t aware (lucky you) is the head of Relevant Sports, the charmers behind that yearly series of glorified pre-season friendlies, the International Champions Cup. If you (like me) saw Celtic play Barcelona that time in Dublin a couple of years ago, then (like me) you overpaid for a game played at half-pace whilst Messi played 45 uninterested minutes before being ushered away like James Brown. The perfect analogy for the International Champions Cup, really – top-prices for half-arsed stars from clubs fulfilling contractual obligations – it’s a football match, but not really. They have dozens of these games every summer now, mostly in the US and in front of some pretty poor crowds. Such a pity.
As fun as it is to gloat at the failings of the International Champions Cup, it is equally futile. If it fails, then 10 other nondescript awful-sounding pre-season shills will pop up to replace it. Such is the way in the “people’s game”; the never-ending quest to extract as much money as possible from anyone who likes the game. Was it ever thus? Well, football’s relationship with money, class and snobbery has moved in cycles as the game developed through its various eras. Originally, football was a product of the public school system. It’s painful to type that, but The Cambridge Rules of 1848, drawn up at a gathering of students from various prestigious public schools, including Eton and Harrow, was the first known rules framework from which association football and rugby football would spring from.
So, basically, organized football come from the same background (and indeed, game) as rugby, the upper-class dominance of the game lasting roughly 40 years before Blackburn Olympic became the first team outwith that public school tradition to win the FA Cup in 1882. Once usurped, the die was cast. Society and the game were changing and no public school-associated team would ever win another cup.
That Blackburn team, reportedly made up of a dental assistant, a gilder, a plumber, a clerk, a loomer, a licensed victualler, and two iron-foundry workers, essentially served as the lighting torch as the game took off and spread rapidly throughout the working-class areas of the north and Midlands, in particular. It was, at this point, firmly established as the people’s game – the implication being that these particular people were working-class.
You could understand their love of the game and the huge crowds. Working-class people worked long hours, often in treacherous conditions and almost always for meagre pay. Football was an affordable local pastime and it was not uncommon for factories and works to schedule around the local club side’s home games. The players did not typically earn several times a week what the crowd did in a year and were, for the most part, of working-class stock themselves. At the administrative level the owner would typically be a well-to-do local businessman or a loose affiliation of several of the same.
Unfortunately, by the time we hit the late 70s, the game’s reputation was in the pits on this side of the world. It remained cheap to go, but the blight of hooliganism had driven many away from the game leaving dwindling crowds that were either unmoved by the regular violence or were there for that specific reason. Football fans were regularly portrayed as nothing more than a rabble of drunken, violent sociopaths stabbing and stealing their way through your town, this weekend. Of course, the worse you paint a group of people (any group) as being a certain thing, you can easily then remove their humanity. One can only assume that is the kind of thinking that went into the cage structures that became such a regular sight and, tragically, contributed to the altogether avoidable deaths at Hillsborough.
The police and media attitude towards the tragedy and its ensuing fall-out should never be forgotten. It was the time where the authorities deemed it perfectly fine to allow men, women and children to be crushed into unsafe sections with no regard for their safety. In fact, it seems that two of the most surprising things about Hillsborough are that 1) it did not happen sooner; and 2) it did not happen more frequently.
Go ask anyone who stood on a big, swelling terrace in the 70s or 80s about that feeling of being lifted off your feet and carried maybe 10 feet without touching ground. In a controlled or at least safe environment it’s fucking exhilarating, but even then it is partly terrifying. The fear and panic those that were stuck there must have felt; paying the price for how they were viewed. In essence, nobody had a problem with the cages going in in the first place because football fans were scum and it was OK to lock them in cages.
Much like a neglected, run-down neighbourhood will reach that ‘point of no return’ state and so kick off a cycle of regeneration / gentrification, so too would football reinvent itself. It came in little waves: the Taylor report, the Premier League deal, the stupid dancers and fireworks. Whatever. We got the idea, it was all going to change from here on in.
1992 – Judgement Day – birth year of both the Premier League and the new Champions League, and the dawning of new-money in football that would, eventually, usher in a new kind of classism that sought to separate the wheat from the chaff; for the viewing benefit of TV audiences in Asia and ensuring the best exposure for official “petroleum partners”. This can only be done by reclassifying the clubs themselves, and handing those privileged Champions League spots out in the manner they have shows that UEFA has a clear hierarchy of powerful clubs it must keep happy at all costs. How we got from there to here in such a short space of time is the surprising part. That football has become what it has become, is less surprising. Money arrives – principles depart.
Our friend Mr. Stillitano is a man who, worryingly, has been in on-off conversations with UEFA over the years and as depressing as that is, it is also tediously predictable. UEFA are always looking to monetise and anyone who can suggest a ploy to swell the coffers even further will be entertained. From our point of view, I sincerely doubt any such proposals will involve Celtic or Scottish football. At the very least Scottish football is in good company with some other very big clubs being pushed down these extra qualifying routes. The intention is clear. Get all the big names in, allow some minnows for variety and a patronising pat on the head and by the time the quarterfinals rolls around it’ll be the usual suspects and everyone likes that, don’t they? Repetitiveness and continuity in our TV show that used to be a fucking sport. It is my firm belief that people, especially these days, will get bored of anything, regardless of its inherent quality, if you serve it up to them enough times. Even Real Madrid v Juventus or Barcelona v PSG.
There are even elements of cannibalism to this sorry tale, as UEFA has also ruined the Europa League in terms of its stand-alone prestige. In the Europa League we have what were two perfectly fine competitions (UEFA & Cup Winners’ Cups) which were then smashed together and restructured and rebranded into what can be described, at best, as a cheap Champions League knockoff with a lot of teams people are unfamiliar with. UEFA have already told you this competition is rubbish, because ONLY the good teams play in the Champions League. Desperate to plug the prestige gap, they came up with the ingenious idea of making the prize for the winner a Champions League entry for the following year. If ever a competition was the unloved, red-headed stepchild in the family, then surely it is the Europa League.
What UEFA are doing here is tantamount to a massive exercise in rebranding. UEFA will TELL you who the big clubs are because ONLY the big clubs get to play in the Champions League. Maybe they will start letting teams of ‘historical significance’ into the competition. I mean, who cares about the Champions of an actual country, let’s wedge this fucking terrible incarnation of AC Milan in there because they’re a big name, I know they finished 11th but they have such brand value and if they don’t get into the Champions League the new Chinese owners will get antsy!
If football is meant to be our escape then why am I constantly reading about budgets and balance sheets and takeovers and net spends and new sponsorship deals and glass ceilings? That is the opposite of escapism, that is the same old depressing shit that makes up everyday news cycles. I know the game has ‘gone corporate’ and am fully aware that we live in a time where people understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing, but the naked greed of the premier club competition in Europe drawing its blinds and saying ‘sorry, you must be this wealthy to come inside’ is something I find deeply depressing, even in 2018.
This article is from the 8th edition of The Cynical, our free online magazine.
DOWNLOAD THE CYNICAL HERE: