Thursday, 25 February 2010

Still the people's game?

UEFA report that Premier League clubs are up to their ears in debt. £3.5bn in total. Yep, the ‘b’ is for billion. The 18 clubs in the English league own more than 714 top European clubs put together. 

I am not a big football fan, so I asked my friend Mark Perryman, who is, what to make of it all. Mark is co-founder of Philosophy Football and author ‘Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation’. I found his reply really interesting.

‘Football has always prided itself on being the people's game. But whatever club we support and however successful, or unsuccessful, as fans we've depended on the patronage of local businesses to fund our passion. Some of them were incompetent, crooked, or both but at least they were rooted in the same towns and cities as our club. For the most part they were the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker or something similar. But since the early 1990s almost all of this has changed.’

 TV money in particular has turned football into a corporate plaything. One year these companies invest in Formula One then American Football, and now increasingly our clubs. Birmingham is lucky; the tycoons who have invested in the Blues and Villa seem for the most part benevolent. But elsewhere the warning signs are there. Mounting up huge debt, making money out of the good times, exploiting our loyalty as fans for all we are worth, then when results start going against us, asset stripping and scarpering.

Can it change? The efforts of fans to set up their own clubs, FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon are perhaps the most extreme, and idealistic, response. Supporters Trusts are another, organising collectively a fan- shareholders. But it is something deeper in our sport that is at the core of this problem which we can all play a part in resisting. The moneymen treat our sport as a commodity to be bought and sold as a product. But our passion cannot be bought and sold thank you very much, there’s no transfer on earth that can turn a Blues fan into a Villa fan. This is one part of our game the corporate investors will never understand. They seek to exploit our loyalty of course, flogging us more of their merchandising, and forcing us to pay ever-increasing prices for our tickets. But as the debts mount and the finances spiral out of control it is our loyalty as fans which will determine whether clubs that are deducted points because of the owners' financial mismanagement survive.’