The Opium of the Masses?

The FA Cup trophy at Wembley, the spiritual home of English football

What is it about football in particular that makes it so culturally charged? Why does this sport more than any other attract the masses, in most countries around the world, every weekend come match day? The presence of over 40,000 registered football clubs in England puts a fine point on the importance of the game in that country. It makes no sense for people to travel the length of breadth of the windswept British Isles (they come from Scotland and Northern Ireland too), to see their team go down 1-0 in the 93rd minute, and then haul themselves back in time for work in the morning. But plenty do it.

Drawing on personal anecdote, that kind of dogmatic, slightly deranged following was what was most missing from a B.C Lions vs Saskatchewan Roughriders fixture at B.C Place in 2017. Of course, the geography is incomparable, but it would’ve still been nice to see just a handful of hardcore Saskatchewaners, caught up in the moment, shirtless in the autumn chill, swearing hands down that their home province would win against B.C in a fight, any day. Even on the home front, the atmosphere was a bit deflating. B.C Place has a capacity of 54,500, but for years now average attendances for B.C Lion’s games have been significantly lower than that. In 2012, the Lions’ average attendance was 30,366, in a city with a population of 603,502 (2011 census, Wikipedia), going up to 2,463,431 (2016 census, Wikipedia) across the Greater Vancouver area. At the start of the 2013-14 season Wolverhampton Wanderers were getting used to life in the third tier of English football, having suffered successive relegations in the previous two seasons. Despite the anger and frustration amongst the fanbase (I was there for a lot of Wolves’ home games in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, it wasn’t great), in a city with a population of 249,470 (2011 census, Wikipedia) they were still pulling in around 20,000 for most home games.

Netflix limited series The English Game is a good starting point for understanding the cultural context of football

The cultural difference between Wolverhampton Wanderers and B.C Lions, and generally football clubs compared to other sports teams, tends to be historical. The origins of professional football are to be found in the early days of the FA Cup, the world’s first formal nationwide competition, which played its first round of fixtures on 11 November 1871. After a decade of dominance by the London centric, elite public school based teams who helped to create the competition (early winners included Oxford University and Old Etonians, as well as the Royal Engineers), the rapid growth of the game in the industrial heartlands, particularly Lancashire and the Midlands, quickly transformed the sport from an amateur pastime of the upper classes to a formative aspect of the identity of working people. Sport had of course long been a luxury reserved for the ruling classes, with games like rugby and cricket in England being thought of as the perfect expressions of gentlemanly ideals and civility. Traditionally, it had been high society alone who could afford the time and money needed for such pursuits, but by 1883, the industrial northern town of Blackburn had produced a winning FA Cup team, and football had been well and truly adopted by the working class. In 1885 professionalism was legalised, and in 1888 the Football League was formed; of its twelve founding members, 5 were born out of mil towns. The game today couldn’t be further from those humble beginnings, with the Premier League lightyears ahead of its subsidiary divisions further down the English football pyramid. A handful of teams operating at the top of that pyramid now function on budgets larger than the GDP of small nations. But the league system survives, with all its cultural implications and regional rivalries, in spite of those imbalances. Its strength lies in its diversity, and the strength of every single club in the pyramid rests with its community. The history of the FA Cup is scattered with David vs Goliath moments of much smaller clubs upsetting the odds; miniature myths which belong to the collective football community and yet have in a way sustained individual clubs for decades. Not everyone can operate at the upper echelons of society, but we can all leave a mark.

Wigan Athletic celebrate defeating the newly minted Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup final. The last great cup based giant killing?

Manchester United’s history is infused with mythical figures. The most scholarly fan will still celebrate the signing of Billy Meredith, who helped deliver the club’s first Football League title in 1907/08. Sir Matt Busby’s successes, first with his fabled title winning “Busby Babes,” and then his rebuild following the tragic loss of life of much of his playing squad in the Munich Air Disaster, is the stuff of legend. To come back from the brink, and then build the first English side to win the European Cup in 1968, immortalised his name forever along with the stars of that team, Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best and Dennis Law. Sir Alex Ferguson is a god to all on the red side of Manchester, and many of the players he brought through at Old Trafford will never be forgotten, including a certain David Beckham. The brilliant Eric Cantona had the one liners to match his mystique on the pitch. A working man’s club from the outset, Manchester United came into being in 1878, and initially went by the name of Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway). Like any good story, the history of United seems to be wrapped up in fate. The same railway line that produced Newton Heath formed one other club, Horwich RMI, whose future in the non professional leagues could easily have been shared by United. In these days of sportswashing and all round gentrification of the people’s game, history and pride of place within the sport is still everything to football fans. And it still means something to say that we came first (I’m looking at you, Manchester City).

A big part of being a football fan is accepting your lot, praying for better days and enjoying the good times when they come. Some of us are luckier than others. My second team (due to family ties) Wolverhampton Wanderers can claim to be one of the twelve founding members of the Football League, enjoyed a couple of early FA Cup triumphs, conquered the heights of English football in the 1950s, threatened to disappear into obscurity in the mid 80s and again in the 2010s, and are currently enjoying a renaissance (with the help of some not insignificant Chinese investment) with one of the most exciting squads in English football. Its a mixed bag, and the fans want more, but its an undeniably proud history. Each and every club can argue theirs in their own way.

The Old Gold: Molineux Stadium exists physically and figuratively at the heart of the city of Wolverhampton

It is this history which keeps clubs rooted in their community, and which is just as important as any events on the field. Investors from abroad have for some time now attempted to revamp, or in their eyes innovate, an industry far more steeped in culture and tradition than perhaps they first realised. Given the widespread discontent surrounding the recurring concept of a 39th fixture played overseas, adopting the North American practice of moving “franchises” around the country as and when deemed financially necessary would likely push the doomsday clock forward at least a couple of notches. It’s hard to forget the furor that descended upon Cardiff City when the club’s new Malaysian owner Vincent Tan proposed highly controversial changes to the teams shirt colour and crest, with the idea to make Cardiff more attractive to an Asian market. In June 2012 the changes went ahead, and after an uneasy two and a half years, on 9 January 2015 Tan reversed his decision in the name of “togetherness, unity and happiness.” We all love a happy ending.

The most egregious assault yet on the footballing institution is surely the attempt in April 2021 by executives of Europe’s leading clubs to form the breakaway European Super League. It’s hard to say whether the closed shop, oligarchic, tv revenue based driving force behind the proposal, or that the bombshell was dropped on an unsuspecting public still gripped in the midst of varying degrees of covid-19 trauma, was the most cynical aspect of the affair. At the time supporters were still not permitted to attend live matches, and it is incomprehensible to believe that the Super League’s instigators would have felt empowered to act as they did if this weren’t the case. Fortunately, the combined efforts of football’s various governing bodies, as well as leading football commentators, players and coaches past and present, supporters, and even politicians put an end to the League before it had so much as blinked. This united front taken against the ESL, though filled with caveats, was a thing to behold. As a society still coming to terms with post Brexit realities (for which it’s worth remembering half the voting public did not sign up), having already seen communities decimated for over a decade by harsh austerity measures, as well as the recent push via the BLM movement for a wider appreciation of race relations, the UK knows a thing or two about polarisation. The pandemic prompted talk, not just in the UK, of opportunities to reshape entire sectors of economic and social activity. This has of course not happened, and it remains to be seen how much material effect the push to reshape the structure of elite level football will have. Majority fan ownership of clubs, via the German 50 plus one model, and the presence of supporter’s trusts in club boardrooms, both seem possible to achieve. The Liverpool supporter’s union Spirit Of Shankly are showing the way how by seeking cooperation with supporters trusts from other clubs, as well as the Football Supporters Association. Manchester United Supporters Trust has involved itself with government petitions. Any potential progress will not be straightforward, and the idea of capitalism eating itself is nothing new, but when greed pushes generally unassuming people toward action, new possibilities are sometimes given the light of day.

Public enemy #1: will Florentino Pérez and his co-conspiritors eventually achieve their aims?

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