What Happened to the Soul of Football?

Written by TJ

As FIFA and UEFA quarrel over rights to host tournaments worth billions ($25 bn being what is mooted for the new Club World Cup – read about it here), one particular quote stuck out for me:

“I cannot accept that some people who are blinded by the pursuit of profit are considering to sell the soul of football tournaments….. We are not the owners of football. We are not allowed to sell it” – Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA President.

My gut reaction was along the lines of pot/kettle/black, but it really does demand a deeper consideration.

Football is an enigma. It is beautiful passion and artistry juxtaposed with sleaze and corruption. It wasn’t always that way though. I recently found myself defending Scottish football to a Manchester City fan insistent that Scottish football was terrible. The general thrust of the retorts were that City and PSG were playing Championship Manager with the cheat codes on and still unable to win – with a few song lyrics thrown in by Manchester bands in particular the refrain from Fools Gold and from Cast No Shadow:

“As they took his soul, they stole his pride. And as he faced the sun he cast no shadow”

I’d explained to him that no matter what his team pumped full of middle eastern money went on to achieve in the game, it’ll never measure up to the European achievements of Aberdeen, Dundee Utd, Celtic and Rangers in getting to big European finals – win or lose.  It’ll never even measure up to the 67-68 City team that won the league with names like Summerbee, Ball and Lee.  They took the devils coin and every win will be empty. Deep pockets and no shadow.

I cut him no slack at all and I realised it wasn’t just banter – I meant everything that I said. He’d never know what it means to a team like Falkirk to win something.  God a win over Ross County right now would feel like a cup win!  He’ll never know the gut wrenching disappointment to come close and know it might be a generation before you get there again. To watch your team outplay one of the Glasgow giants for large spells and hit the post before being narrowly pipped 1-0. Never know the pain of watching that one chance fade as the seconds tick down, but look around and feel pride in the sadness. To hug your son and tell him not to worry – next time it’ll be all the more special for it.

That City fan will never feel the anguish it causes to lose the 2008/2009 Scottish Cup final – only to find out that virtually the whole team that achieved that narrow victory including the goalscorer had been built by illegal disguised remuneration schemes breaking the laws of the country never mind sporting regulations. That those people had cheated my 8-year-old son at the game of maybe the only chance he’d see of silverware and almost certainly the last shot at it I’d ever see.  To know that the SFA had been at best hapless bystanders while sporting governance and fairness was dragged through the mud. At worst complicit in subverting the game. To know it could have been the same if people had done things properly, but it also could have been so, so different with a weaker Rangers team on the park but one they could really afford.  Losing a final for City is now just a setback on the way to the next meaningless ornament. For me this was the start of what would become an obsession to get Scottish football onto the right track, where all those proper teams struggling and losing more often than not – but sometimes outperforming and always believing in miracles – don’t have their dreams subverted by greed, self-interest and incompetence.

“The confidence and engagement of fans, who love and fund the game, is critical to achieving real change.” – Simon Barrow Chairman of SFSA

That is just it though.  You can’t feel hurt, pain and anguish in defeat like this unless you are deeply invested in the game.  Not just attracted by the promise of extravagant players with dazzling skills and good odds of success. You can’t pick a team – it picks you. It speaks to you and demands a piece of you that you know you’ll never get back.  It’s like that one special love that never ends.  Often it’ll be difficult, sometimes outright broken and it’ll be painful for you both.  When its good though your heart sings. I once read an article by a Hibs supporting Brazilian (sorry can’t recall where or I’d credit it) saying that he knew Hibs were his team when they lost and he was devastated.  The troubled times forge a deeper bond.  Manchester City had all that. Great supporters that followed them through the lower divisions.  But in the end they sold their souls out and no amount of wins will ever taste as sweet as those elusive wins they lost out on.

Football is roots and tribalism. It is self and collective identity expressed through competition that’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal but always meaningful.  If it stops meaning something then that soul has gone.  And this – it’s why I thought Sunday’s games meant so much to everyone despite it ‘just being the diddy cup’.  Aberdeen and Hearts, two big clubs that deserve long sought after silverware to show they’ve achieved.  Aberdeen have been second best team in Scotland for years but only have consolation prizes.  Hearts have dominated this season so far and had a chance to win something while they are finally on top. Rangers were desperate for any silverware to show that they are back and competitive. Their fans demand it and their spending means not getting it is underachieving.  They need a result.  Celtic – well ordinarily it’d just be another trophy to them but not now.  Their feat in back-to-back trebles is absolutely extraordinary when you consider the nature of cup football and the desire of their opposition.  One bad game and you are out, yet they’ve won them all – 4 cups in a row. If they were to achieve a treble-treble, it’s the sort of achievement that will likely never be matched.  They want this as much as anyone.  Does anyone get that excited about the Karabou cup or whatever it is called? No, they put out reserve teams at the bigger clubs as it’s just a distraction to their money spinning games.

The sleaziness behind the granting of World Cups to Russia and Qatar was exposed. It didn’t cause surprise. It was seen as typical and attitudes of “what more do you expect?” prevailed.

The colours and clubs were an education itself when I grew up pre-internet

When the England manager was filmed advising on how to get around player transfer and third-party ownership rules it seemed to stir up enough appetite within England to demand reform of the FA via a Westminster backbench motion of no confidence. The motion was passed and the FA is facing its funding being cut if it doesn’t reform to set standards of governance.  It inspired us to demand the same in Scotland.  So getting back to Ceferin:

“I cannot accept that some people who are blinded by the pursuit of profit are considering to sell the soul of football tournaments….. We are not the owners of football. We are not allowed to sell it” – Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA President.

UEFA has been as guilty of this as anyone.  It was so terrified of a breakaway Super League of the big European Clubs from the Big 4 leagues that it capitulated and reformed the Champions League to guarantee them more big games and more revenue.  Those clubs already had the advantage of massive TV deals thanks to geographic coincidence.  The Ajaxs, Steau Bucharests, Red Star Belgrades, Celtics, Feyenoords, etc lost out.  Proud clubs that have won it before and already facing uphill fights against TV revenue, but that were about to be shut out for good by the European game regulator.  The last 8 of the Champions league is now a lock-in for the big teams in big leagues and the gap is only getting bigger.  The top 6 in England (‘the most competitive league in the world’) is a dead cert.  The order barely matters as long as everyone’s nose stays in the trough.  I listened to the Ray Ranson interview recently on the Are You Not Entertained Podcast (@EntertainedAre).  He told the story of Leeds desperate efforts to crack into that elite group before the drawbridge was lifted and how it ultimately cost them everything.  Now they just sail off into the distance.  If Cerefin is sincere in his words, then he’s simply got to bring those poles in European football back together. If he doesn’t then football seems destined to torn apart into the glitz and razmatazz of a US-style franchise system at the top where no-one else but the mega-clubs gets a look in, and everyone else playing effectively a different game outside of that.  When FIFA looked at this they didn’t see a problem, but an opportunity to get those clubs onside and make some money for them rather than UEFA.

“Money does not rule — and the European sports model must be respected. Football is not for sale. I will not let anyone sacrifice its structures on the altar of a highly cynical and ruthless mercantilism.” – Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA President.

All this has led to UEFA being caught in a three-way tug for the very soul of the game. If it brings it in the direction Cerefin promised, FIFA will court the big clubs into a breakaway.  If it gives more to the big clubs they compromise what football means to the many and appear hypocritical. I struggle to see how Cerefin can deliver what he promises, but I want to believe he means it. Whatever way it goes it looks like what Roger Mitchell refers to as the ‘Brutal Polarisation’ will continue for the short-term.  I believe, however, if you look longer term than this such a breakaway itself would be unsustainable.

Why? Because I believe the ‘football consumer’ as they’d look at it won’t accept it. Who that ‘consumer’ is cuts to the heart of it.  Some will, but I don’t believe that what most fans want is the lurid flamboyance and pretentiousness of a mega-elite any more than basketball seen the Harlem Globetrotters as its future. It’ll become a side-show from the real football close to home that the masses want to see.  That so many would be left behind that they’d lose interest in those clubs chasing greed, bragging rights among Arab nation states and investor returns.  I believe this partly because the alternative is too awful to believe about where the game is going. There’s hope for that in other recent counter-culture phenomenon’s. The craft beer brewing scene for example.  The sketches on Soccer AM of football hipsters wearing retro shirts of unfashionable teams shows it’s already happening in football.  I loved seeing the Red Star Belgrade’s appear in European tournaments and find everything I could out about who they really were. It was a cacophony of colours and exotic names from every imaginable background. Consumer football will become soulless football that embodies all the things we’d like to see driven out the game.  I’d want to believe that en masse fans will reject consumerism for realism and truly feeling the whole spectrum the way football is meant to be experienced.

To me it’s about roots. Football is a connection back to when it was a working mans game and our fathers and grandfathers stood on those terraces. It’s not about the match-day showmanship, disco lights or PA system pumping out tunes.  It’s about being there among friends sharing something that goes back generations and feeling a part of it because you’ve given a piece of yourself to it to make it bigger and better. The pre-match beers, the walk to the stadium are always heart pumping.  The football often lets it down, but every once in a while you leave saying “I was there when it happened”.  Its knowing that wherever you go and whatever you do, there’s a piece of you anchored there that’ll have you desperately trying to find scores or a feed in disparate places.  That is not hopeless nostalgia, it’s an ongoing journey. One that transcends generations and has nothing to do with club riches.

My favoured spot on the terracing to the right and the infamous kitchen windae

The intrusion of silly money is in a way symbolic of football fans own shift from working class to middle classes. A stadium doesn’t feel right to me until its scuffed up and lived in. I miss the old Brockville stadium – its coal bunker toilets, antiquated terracing, the fact you could climb in from my mate’s brothers kitchen window if money was tight.  I don’t want it back, but that connection to the past makes football special. Why else would a team like Rangers cling on to continuation so tightly as they do? I’ll return to this connection with the past next time I write, but for now its suffice to say those things connect me not just with my childhood, but with the deeds and actions of all the family, heroes and comrades that passed through that way loving it as much as I did and leaving a bit of themselves behind.

More than anything, I want to be right because if I’m wrong we’ll all be shut out of the dream of climbing to the top against the odds again. But that’s still better than it not meaning something. Everyone who loves football should be keeping an eye on this FIFA proposal, UEFA’s response and thinking about what it means for the beautiful game. I used to watch El Classico and the likes and see it as something anyone could aspire to. The scintillating players, tactical revolutions and free-flowing way of the game.  They all started somewhere and grew into success. European football has been a closed shop for a while but it’s about to get locked up tight.

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