First a disclaimer. I don’t follow football or support a team, but I have observed the politics and underhand business operations that have gone hand-in-hand with its operation since researching them in 2001. Back then I was a passionate fan of the national side, but poor performances on the pitch, and unsightly behaviour from fans on the streets, has pretty much turned me off the game entirely.
In fact, it increasingly appears that following the national side is less about patriotism, more the involvement in a marketing exercise undertaken by corporations seeking to take advantage of the public’s unquestionable support for their country. Surely the irony can’t be missed, as Danish brewing companies, Japanese electronics manufacturers and American confectionery corporations seek to brand themselves as English; all whilst backed by jingoistic tabloid newspapers, half of which are owned by a certain Australian.
This pseudo-patriotism has long masked England’s failings, yet I wonder how much longer these companies will wish to associate themselves with a team whose performances are increasingly sub-standard, and a game that is far down the road to financial meltdown.
Many of our domestic clubs now find themselves saddling huge amounts of debt, either since being sold to individuals with questionable business objectives, or simply down to bad financial management. The Football Association, whose governance is out-dated and often susceptible to the whims of the more powerful Premier League, means the tough regulation required is painfully absent. Meanwhile players are so massively overpaid that their financial success has become detrimental to the grassroots of the game.
Our national stadium, once regarded as the ‘church of football’, is now a soulless and uninspiring monument to recent extravagances in the sport. Financed by hosting hundreds of pop concerts and other sporting events, these have left a pitch that is unsuitable for the sport for which it was intended.
Finally, the top division, spurred on by the influx of television money and commercial interests from abroad, has meant investment has gone on players wages rather than grassroots activities and youth development, with imported foreign talent seen as the quickest route to success. Unsurprisingly, we now find ourselves with fewer English players competing in the top leagues and competitions, and an apparent inability to find a suitable English manager to coach them.
Of course, should England be judged to have performed badly at this year’s tournament, it will likely be the manager who is blamed, yet the irony is that Fabio Capello has provided just the sort of leadership the team has needed, imposing strict discipline and forcing players to focus on football rather than their mobile phones.
Now is the time for reform
With both the chairmanship and executive positions at the FA unfilled, and as the country is being asked to prepare for cuts to public services and increased taxes, now is the perfect time to reform the governance of football in this country.
The game needs strong regulation from an organisation willing and able to scrutinise the financial management of clubs, putting the interests of the game above those of a few rich and powerful clubs. Perhaps only possible if The FA, Premier League and Football League finally put aside their differences and came together as one organisation, it’s only reform of this magnitude that will lead to a brighter future and subsequent success internationally. At the same time, clubs need to start paying realistic wages, else players should be prepared to start investing their income back into the sport rather than their own property portfolios. Most importantly, supporters need to be given greater ownership and say over how their clubs are run.
Much like the wider economy, football in this country is an overinflated bubble ready to burst. Two years after failing to qualify for the European Championships, let us see further embarrassment with an early exit from the World Cup. Then let us seize this opportunity to properly scrutinise the national game and its failings, rather than single out the manger or individual members of the squad.
Only by radically reforming the governance and management of the sport, can we ever hope to win the World Cup.