Football, the people’s game, needs reform

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    The English may have invented the game and the Brazilians perfected it, but as rival football fans in England come together to protest exorbitant ticket prices and Brazilians rally at the Confederations Cup, there seems little love left for the beautiful game.

    While the protests in Brazil are primarily directed at their government rather than the game itself, football has never been far from the scene. The growing Brazilian middle class is demanding greater political transparency and better public services.

    In this regard, the protests may seem a world away from English outcry against expensive ticket prices.

    To give mileage to the phrase ‘against modern football’ is to risk censure. As one English protester explained, you run the risk of sounding like “the 45-year-old bloke who sits in the pub and moans that there are no good bands anymore.”

    The fact is, following the professional game anywhere these days is to buy into ‘modern’ football. Fans of struggling teams usually forget the politics and take down the banners when an oil baron, media tycoon or property developer injects a few million dollars into club coffers.

    Moreover, it is hard to know where ‘modern’ football starts and ends. Football clubs have long been dependent on rich and powerful benefactors, while no amount of nostalgia will change the fact that fans have rarely ever been in the driver’s seat.

    Still, it’s becoming harder to ignore the fact the people’s game has increasingly little regard for ordinary fans. It’s popular to blame overpaid players, but the real problems are structural.

    In England, fans at all levels of the game are being fleeced for the privilege of watching their team. According to recent data from the BBC, a day out on the terraces at York City in the English Fourth Division costs nearly $40. What a world.

    The situation is, of course, far worse in the Premier League. Which is why fans, led by Liverpool’s ‘Spirit of Shankly’ Supporters Union, camped outside the FA last week.

    A deep, often irrational love for their club keeps them coming back and paying the high prices, but the economic realities of austerity in Britain makes it harder and harder for them to justify a family trip to the football.

    Meanwhile, in Brazil, there is a deep-seated concern about the money being spent on hosting the Confederations Cup, the World Cup and the Olympic Games. Never in my lifetime would I have suspected that Brazilians would be protesting against hosting a football tournament, but the level of discontentment is so great that the fight for better public services seems to have overshadowed even joga bonito.

    Dave Zirin once wrote, “The building of publicly funded stadiums has become a substitute for anything resembling urban policy.” The Brazilians are right to protest. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski outline in their book Soccernomics, hosting international sporting events doesn’t necessarily lead to greater national prosperity.

    If anything, Kuper and Szymanski found that “hosting [a World Cup] doesn’t make you rich, but it does make you happy.” We Australians are keenly aware of this disconnect after hosting the Olympic Games in 2000.

    However, at this rate, the authors may need to adjust their thesis. Plenty of Brazilians are neither richer nor happier, and the World Cup is still a year away.

    Still, the sad truth is that ticket prices in England are unlikely to be lowered significantly, while it’ll be far easier for FIFA to simply whisk the World Cup away to a less troublesome country than engage in the nation’s political process.

    Why? Because they can. It’s become unfashionable to talk about the reserve army of labour that strangles workers demands, but the same concept could readily be applied to the world game.

    While the unhappy few will hold up banners that read ‘the game is nothing without the fans’, the inverse also holds true. There will always be a country waiting in the wings for the World Cup should the violence continue in Brazil, just as their will always be someone who’ll be able to afford ridiculous ticket prices in England. The enormous reserve army of fans makes real change in football an elusive dream.

    In the case of the World Cup, the majority of the converging football pilgrims will likely view protesting Brazilians as a nuisance. And even for fans sympathetic to their demands, only a fraction will actually stay at home.

    Sadly, deep-seated national and club loyalties usually squash or distort any growing seeds of solidarity. If anything, football fans themselves perpetuate the divide and rule mentality, and as a result, few groups of people are so readily and happily exploited.

    The democratic deficit has well and truly enveloped football, and the soul of the game is gradually being eroded. The professional game is a business that nonchalantly sucks its participants dry.

    The fish rots from the head. FIFA is like a Trotskyist nightmare, in which the football revolution has well and truly conquered the globe, but the ideals of mass representation and mass democracy have been lost in murky personality politics and sectarian infighting. Changing FIFA now seems as daunting and difficult as reforming Stalinist Russia.

    Promises of Financial Fair Play and greater political transparency will only be the start of the corrective process, but they can’t come soon enough. Watch this space.

    With repressive Russia and Qatar preparing to host the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, and Rupert Murdoch planning his oligarchic international summer league cartel, politics will never stray far from the game we love.

    Joe Gorman
    Joe Gorman

    Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.