What was once cherished in a sport for the working class is being lost to a corporate culture, says RABBIL SIKDAR
Football has never felt so impoverished even as it soaks in the greatest amount of wealth it has ever enjoyed. The soulless feel of it, the hire-and-fire culture, the extortionate ticket prices, the sheer millions; it’s been swallowed by the market.
But watching Exeter welcome Liverpool for their FA Cup tie, there was the sense of a piece of the old times chugging away, refusing to be washed away in the changing tides that have swept through the game.
The FA Cup and its lingering romance, the underdog sensing blood, small cramped stadiums beating with noise, muddy torn pitches that felt like a battlefield.
If the money and corporate culture has taken away much from the game, the spirit of the FA Cup has refused to die. At least for the small clubs.
It’s a tournament that feels like it’s going to be dismissed as an afterthought for the big clubs much in the way the League Cup is derided as an unnecessary clogging of fixtures.
Listen to Jurgen Klopp and Sam Allardyce bemoan the fixture pile-up and it’s easy to see them identify these tournaments as pointless exercises.
Liverpool’s fate after that 2-2 draw remains unclear but Klopp is unlikely to field his strongest team. If he even has one.
What is to explain this dearth of romance in the game? The old working-class fire in it is missing.
The dynamics of those filling up the stadiums have altered radically. As TV deals entered the game, money became a determining factor for many clubs and ticket prices have soared.
The infinite, relentless need to compete for survival and success has led to the exclusion of working-class fans from stadiums by ridiculous ticket prices.
Think of clubs like Liverpool, West Ham, Leeds, Newcastle and it’s almost impossible to imagine them separate from the old working-class base that formed their support. These are the roots that money has chipped away and hacked at.
But it’s more than just working-class fans swiftly disappearing. A fear of impotency and being left behind has cut through swathes of the game’s culture.
As money has come in, expectations have risen dramatically. When Chelsea emerged in 2004 with a Russian oligarch for an owner, there was the realisation that the game could easily be dominated by them. Clubs around them were forced to spend.
Ironically none of these, clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United sacked their managers but that has been the trend elsewhere.
The hire-and-fire culture, the short-term view that now dominates where impatience is high and slow progress is seen as no progress at all, has ruined football arguably and rid it of any stability.
In Spain, where the power struggle between Barcelona and Real Madrid shifts like tectonic plates, falling behind the other by even a hairline is regarded as a cataclysmic failure.
Real Madrid have continuously lagged behind Barcelona since the turn of the century, or well since Ronaldinho joined in the summer of 2003, and sought solutions in spending well over a billion pounds.
That has created suffocating pressure on managers and led to failure. Which has led to more spending and higher expectations. Money has built managers up now simply to fail, holding them at knifepoint.
Clubs have lost their local identity with it too. Managers are now driven by the need to deliver instant success will rarely bother with youth development. It’s an unnecessary risk that can be fatal.
Spending brings expectations but it can insulate oneself from fierce media criticism.
It’s seen as the tried and tested, the safe means of success. No-one embodies that more than Jose Mourinho.
He does not aim to entertain or delight people with some moralistic approach to the game.
Attacking football and youth development? Leave that to Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger.
He needs to win because in a cutthroat industry, where changes are fast and constant, the risk is not worth it for him. Very few clubs will now persist or stay faithful to a struggling manager. The money will simply not allow it.
The whirlwind of changes, the relentless intensity of the pressure and the media focus, means that football clubs identify league progress and performances in Europe as the only thing that matters.
For that, they need to find money from everywhere. It means high ticket prices, it means not caring about domestic cups until you stumble with a youth team close to the final (where you immediately dismiss those young players that got you so close and instead go back to the experienced ones).
So that’s why maybe it’s important we appreciate the FA Cup and its brilliance. It’s soaked in romance, history and nostalgia.
It hits you with a blast of emotions when you see the hobbits of English football taking on the giants, when they turn their weaknesses of small stadiums and awful torn-up pitches into axes to chop the big and mighty down with.
But you suspect money will completely cripple it. It doesn’t have a lucrative worth. For most managers it feels like a gamble.
This is conditioned by the fixture congestion which in turn is conditioned by TV demands. It’s why we won’t have a winter break like the Spanish and Germans do, for precisely that very reason.
Because the Spanish and Germans have a break. It means they’re not playing in front of cameras, which can therefore be focused on England.
So even as we mourn the loss of something special in the formerly beautiful game, hail the dogged survival of the FA Cup. Much like its tale of underdog triumphs, it too is the underdog refusing to succumb to the giant market ruling the game.