Football on trial: the ugly side of the beautiful game

I have had a lifelong passion for football that started when I was a boy and will no doubt stay with me until my dying day, but I would be lying if I said that there hasn’t been a dark cloud hanging over it in recent years. I’m still as enthralled by the sport, a perfectly synchronised move on the pitch still resonates as fine an art as a Beethoven symphony or a Da Vinci painting, but the industry has become embroiled in controversy and scandal. The three main problems I have identified are values, fair-play and money.

Football on trial

Values

Racism remains a prevalent issue despite the efforts of the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign. Launched as far back as 1997, there were still a number of high-profile examples last year such as the highly publicised case surrounding Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker, Luis Suarez to indicate that this campaign is failing. Of course, a campaign cannot account for the outbursts of individuals in the heat of the moment, but a closer look reveals that racism in football has much deeper roots.

Last year the chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, Peter Herbert, threatened to report Tottenham Hotspurs for racism because their largely Jewish following regularly made anti-Semitic remarks. Mr Herbert’s warning is odd when you consider that the Tottenham Hotspur fans use the chant as an ironic, self-derogatory and defensive measure against opponent supporters who ‘hiss’ for the purpose of recreating the sound made by a holocaust gas chamber. A practice that is utterly deplorable by anyone’s standards.

Further, last December, supporters of the club Zenit St. Petersburg presented a manifesto demanding the exclusion of black and homosexual players from their team. This was particularly embarrassing for FIFA as they have handed hosting duties to Russia for the 2018 World Cup. Considering the advances made in contemporary society towards stamping out discrimination, the fact that there is still not a single professional footballer that is openly gay makes the sport appear a little medieval in its values system.

Fair-Play

One of the most endearing qualities of last summer’s London Olympics was the display of mutual respect exercised by competing athletes. There was barely a swimming event, sprint or boat race where a runner-up didn’t instantaneously offer their hand in congratulations to the winner. What was most striking was that it was never prompted or done out of a mandatory requirement and instead always came from a place of voluntary sincerity, unlike the compulsory team handshakes prior to a football match. It demonstrates a sense of gamesmanship that has become misplaced in football.

One of the most iconic images in football is that classic shot of Bobby Moore and Pele embracing each other with handshakes and smiles. From the facial expressions and body language of the two players, you wouldn’t guess which team had won the game, which was almost irrelevant. That’s what football once was and what it should again aspire to. Unfortunately, unfair play in football has been so prevalent for so many years that it is now institutionalised. Many times you will hear people defend cheating by saying “it’s all part of the game”, but how did we arrive at a place where cheating is justified just because everyone does it?

I don’t think there are any innocent parties here: fans encourage it, players practice it, referees are ill-equipped to control it, the authorities turn a blind eye to it and managers often go to lengths in order to try and justify it. You can point to a number of reasons why it has been allowed to grow: money, pressure, petulance. Whatever the reasons, they need to be undone.

It has long been considered that football is severely lagging behind other sports in utilising technology. Tennis uses it to judge whether a ball was within the parameters of the court and rugby has television match officials to look at contentious decisions for clarification upon the instructions of a referee. Too often the post-match talking points in a football focus not on the gameplay but on the referee’s decisions upon which a result hinges.

You could argue that these controversial and often incorrect decisions may create a feeling of injustice that enflames a bit more passion and provokes a little extra drama. There is a common cliché in football that bad decisions “always balance themselves out over the course of a season”, but I think we are witnessing an era of supporters, players and managers alike who are tired of games being determined by split-second, hairline decisions that a regular human official cannot possibly hope to have an informed decision on in real time. These decisions often rely on guess work which is not the fault of the referee; they can only work within the confines of the regulations imposed upon them. They need help ensuring that a decision they make is the right one and they’re not getting it.

Refereeing inaccuracies aside, there is also a high level of deliberate cheating dominating football which comes in all shapes and sizes. Didier Drogba, as exceptional a talent, as he may be, had a particular interest in feigning injury when the opposition was in possession of the ball in a dangerous area of the pitch. His antics often neutralised the threat because the referee, in cases of injury, would direct the opposing team to put the ball into touch so the injured party could receive treatment.

Drogba isn’t the only guilty party; Luis Suarez, another exceptional talent, comes with baggage due to a catalogue of indiscretions, most notably his handball in injury time that prevented Ghana from progressing against Uruguay in the World Cup. Speaking of handballs in World Cups, Maradona, one of the most prodigious talents to ever step onto a football pitch is remembered as much in frustration at his infamous “hand of god” as he is for his mercurial dribbling skills.

You have to be realistic and accept that sometimes cheating is down to the personal values of the individual which is in no means limited to football; take cyclist Lance Armstrong, for example. However, that isn’t to say that a culture of unfair play has crept into football and grown into the very fabric of the sport which needs to be kneaded back out again.

Money

Money has become a problem in football on two fronts: transfer fees and player salaries. The big English clubs of yesteryear built an identity through a history of success such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United. That was changed in the early 90s by Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers, two clubs who followed a model of attempting to buy success by outbidding every other club on the transfer market for the best players. The problem was that this model put the clubs in huge amounts of debt and the bubble burst when the creditors started asking questions.

It was a practice that set a precedent for Manchester City to follow, the difference being that Manchester City was bought by an owner with unlimited funds meaning that they could crash the club into as much debt as was required and then simply buy it off from their own pocket.

This new threat to the established order forced the traditional clubs into action. Arsenal took the economically prudent approach which won them plaudits but lost them trophies whereas Manchester United decided to fight fire with fire and competed on the transfer market with equally large bids to attract top talent.

There appears to be a misunderstanding among football fans that Manchester United was always a big spender, but that isn’t the case.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s early success at Manchester United was forged from a mixture of existing squad talent in the shape of Paul McGrath and Bryan Robson, youth team players such as Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, and from shrewd transfer market investment which saw Old Trafford legends Eric Cantona, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince and Peter Schmeichel arrive at the club for less than £1 million each.

Manchester United only started spending big on the transfer market when money thrown around by other clubs forced them into it. During that era, it was Newcastle United breaking the transfer record fees with signings such as £15 million for Alan Shearer.

Since then money in the game has escalated to astronomical levels with private owners happy to bankroll the sort of financial outlay that would sink a club trying to operate on revenue generated purely from football-related activity such as gate receipts, sponsorship and merchandise. The model was established in England but has since gone global. Clubs in China and America are attracting big-name players with by promising bumper salaries while Paris Saint Germaine has hit the headlines regularly in recent years for using money as a magnet to draw on football stars. It will be interesting to see if there is an exodus following the proposed 75% tax rate by Francois Hollande.

Just last week Russian big spenders Anzhi Makhachkala said that they wept when Queens Park Rangers agreed to Christopher Samba’s wage demands, reported to be in the region of £100,000 per week. This comes only weeks after new manager Harry Redknapp lambasted the high ceiling pay structures of the squad he inherited. These are the sort of long-term, high figure contracts that can cripple a club if they fall out of top-tier football and with Queens Park Rangers languishing at the foot of the table, this deal smacks of risk and recklessness.

Last week it was also reported that Lionel Messi’s new contract at Barcelona would be worth a whopping £600,000 per week not including sponsorship endorsements or bonuses. I am a firm believer that Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer to ever grace a football pitch but even so, the sustainability of the figures being touted must surely be put into question.

Footballers are under closer scrutiny than ever due in part to their exorbitant wages in an era of austerity and stories such as the one surrounding Michael Johnson are becoming more commonplace. Once tipped as an England international, the youngster was released from his £40,000 a week contract by Manchester City earlier this year after a picture emerged showing him as bloated and unfit. The youngster had not made a first team appearance since October 2009 but was still living a life of luxury on the back of a fat pay cheque.

With salaries going through the roof and putting clubs at risk of bankruptcy, it probably doesn’t help that ticket prices are going the same way and leading to a stadium exodus. Arsenal, despite not having won a trophy for eight years, now charge £995 for their lowest price band season ticket. The current situation is toxic, with salaries going past the point of being sustainable and inflated ticket prices that alienate supporters during a time of economic crisis. It makes you wonder how much longer the bubble can swell before it bursts.

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