RABBIL SIKDAR looks back at the roots of football and how it has abandoned them for money
When workers in Britain lost control of the industries and their labour rights, it was about the time they lost control of something else: football. The beautiful game that had been the workers’ game was no longer that but fought on pitches by millionaires. So much has changed.
Footballers today earn hundreds of thousands in a week, often playing in communities rooted in poverty and grotesque inequality. English football feels increasingly stripped of its roots in society.
The game has become colder and more corporate, a shift imposed by the explosion of wealth that came with the TV rights deal at the inception of the Premier League. Football changed during the ’90s, at a time when deindustrialisation left mass poverty and unemployment, breeding social unrest.
But football, once a bonding point for communities, had been an escape route for working-class supporters. That feverish, communal feel of togetherness and solidarity, in the lashing rain and wind, the working-class fire, spirit and edge. It couldn’t be replaced. And it hasn’t been replaced. It remains lost.
There’s something missing in football. It’s unsurprising that where fans tend to be passionate, it’s those still clinging somewhat to working-class roots, like fans of Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Stoke, Newcastle and West Ham United.
But then that is a situation forced on them by the social reality of austerity that has often hit these areas brutally.
As inequality grew and ticket prices climbed, the working-class were phased out by the middle-class. English football changed. Fans of different clubs have protested against the soaring ticket prices, but to little avail.
There is a feeling that supporters no longer wield control over their clubs.
Rootless the football clubs have become, obsessed with profiting from expanding markets, hooked on the financial incentives of sponsorship deals.
Historically, football was tied in with social factors. It was inseparable often. Take the East End rivalry between West Ham and Millwall.
They met a few years ago and there was a brutal eruption of violence that brought back memories of darker times. But the genesis of the rivalry lay in the local docklands.
The two clubs were essentially born of two sets of dock workers who were fighting each other for jobs and opportunities.
Similarly, the cities of Liverpool and Manchester were port rivals and industry lay at the heart of their early rivalry.
Today history lends little weight to rivalries, increasingly shaped by fortunes on the pitch rather than the history off it, but the foundations for powerful stories in football lay in working-class struggles.
It’s one of the reasons Thatcher despised football, she saw it as a fort of the working class, something eerily reminiscent perhaps to trade unions, where the working class come together in an organised fashion, albeit behind something else.
She attempted to stamp out hooliganism through ID cards and the potential banning of away fans, something which would have completely sapped the competitive edge supplied by fans to a game.
It’s also tempting to wonder whether she would have taken the disaster of Hillsborough more seriously had the victims not been from a working-class city that resisted and defied the whip of her laws so resiliently.
But it wasn’t just football in the crowds that had been different. On the pitch and the touchlines, they were different. Bill Shankly based his football philosophy on a socialist spirit, regarding team-orientated principles of selflessness and industriousness to be pivotal, remarking that the socialism he subscribed to was one where there is “everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards.”
Another legendary manager with left-wing ideals was Brian Clough. Then there was Gordon McQueen who played for Leeds and Manchester United and during the ’70s and ’80s was an open Labour supporter, once explaining why in the Daily Mirror.
Yet today Wayne Rooney earns £350,000 a week. It is a mind-boggling sum for a player who isn’t even beyond the ordinary except for his ability to convince some people that he is world-class.
The huge sums in the game have diminished its communal spirit and turned players into natural Tories.
Karl Henry gave a glimpse into the bubble many footballers are wrapped in when he essentially implied before the election that poor people are lazy and the rich work hard.
It prompted Stan Collymore to slam him, criticising him as a “class traitor” for forgetting his roots.
It seems English football has forgotten its roots. West Ham borrowed £40 million from the council of an impoverished borough to finance their loan bid for the Olympic Stadium. These clubs are now rootless.
It’s strange that elsewhere, such as in Spain, history still provides huge context and shape to the identity of clubs. There however, football’s roots lie more in political organisation rather than an expression of working-class solidarity.
Barcelona, for example, have defined themselves through a political prism of them being the Republicans’ freedom fighters versus Real Madrid, club endorsed by the fascist Establishment.
Then there is Athletic Bilbao, for whom their Basque heritage is integral.
Atletico Madrid are one of the few exceptions. They portray themselves as the working-class neighbourhoods of Madrid, the rough, unclean areas of the steel workers, taxi drivers, brick layers and carpenters against the slick and polished Real Madrid, bourgeoisie in their approach and history.
Yet in England, it is a game that has departed from its origins and become simply like tennis, something the middle class come to see, cheer with mild enthusiasm, and then go home and forget about.
For the working class, it used to mean something more and so much more.