Football’s cold war

Football used to be a sport. A great one. Exciting, all-consuming – heck, we played, talked, lived and breathed it. Now it’s another commodity, traded among the super-rich. And, laments Jon Hughes, the Yanks have bought ‘my’ club

I’m a red. Have been ever since watching Liverpool win their first FA cup in 1965. Aged four. Apparently. In our house, the legendary manager Bill Shankly – the first man after Mao to have a little red book – had more influence than God. Cut me and... well, you get the meaning. Morning, noon and night, I played football. Any time, any place, anywhere. I was OK.

At primary and junior school we obsessed about football. Live games on television were a rarity, so the only information we had came from Dad, or someone else’s, whose own knowledge came from going – or, more often than not, the match report in the (now sadly demised) pink ’un (a Saturday evening footie supplement published by local papers). Talk revolved not around players’ pay packets and transfers, but who played well and who was a player. Your first match was a rite of passage.

The only way to really connect with the club was to go – by public transport – then, for the majority, stand for two hours singing and shouting your head off, before heading home, the same laborious way, by bus. Communing. In 1971, 9d – or 15 new P, as it was called then (a precursor to decimalisation) – would get you into the boys’ pen. It was what it said on the tin. Not that you stayed there. You scaled the fence to be with the ‘men’ on the Kop.

A really big adventure involved coming all over wobbly, when you’d be sympathetically tossed over the heads of the crowd and out onto the edge of the pitch. As a teenager, football took me across the country, to see places and meet people I otherwise wouldn’t have.

The country wasn’t so homogenised then. There were clear differences between Burnley and Bolton that belied their proximity to each other and boasted their heritage, sometimes in a rough-hewn manner. Same in the North- East and Midlands. London was another country. I recall getting off the bus one night and a woman asking the result. She was glad of the draw because it meant ‘I won’t get beaten tonight’. It was a bit of a catchphrase then. Not the family game they try to pretend it is today.

Throughout the tumultuous Seventies and Eighties, as the City was left staggering by unemployment, and the nation was stunned by the deaths of fans at Heysel, Belgium (in 1985) and Hillsborough, Sheffield (1989), this family-run club (along with Everton) did more than anything else to hold it together, in a way not yet fully recognised.

Yet, with one Yank, all that has gone.

Like Manchester United, Aston Villa and (soon to be) Arsenal, Liverpool FC has been bought by American sports entrepreneurs. These guys – they always play the regular guy – have come across the pond, banging on about how they’ve always loved soccer (a giveaway, that, calling football ‘soccer’), love and respect the traditions of the club. You can always smell a rat when you have to tell some- one that Shanks ain’t a urinal but a legend.
The only things these guys love are green- backs and kudos. Both are interrelated in the world of sports branding. It’s all about being fittest, being first, being the best. Ever since the Olympics, sport has been used to symbolise a country’s virility and status, and as such is a significant political symbol.

What we are witnessing now is the chestbeating that emerged over the space race. The premiership has become the Apollo mission; the Cold War is being played out on the pitches of England. It is no simple coincidence that the Yanks have started to colonise football since Roman Abramovic landed at Chelsea – if he wasn’t Putin’s man he’d have been banged up or poloniumed by now. To see the pesky Rusky using his bottomless pockets with the aim of building the greatest team in Europe must have stuck in the American craw. You can imagine Bush saying, ‘We can’t have this; a Russian building a world-beating team!’ So the seventh cavalry rides over the white cliffs. Let battle commence.
This is the thin end of the wedge. Funding local football clubs to win hearts and minds is a tactic used by Tesco to win planning permission. Now, because of football’s worldwide marketing potential, English clubs are being used to win hearts and minds on a grander scale.

The new owners will spend whatever is necessary to be top dog. And they aren’t going to hang around for long playing minnow teams or developing young players. We might appreciate Liverpool v Reading, Man Utd v Sheffield out of tradition, but it don’t have the reach or penetration these guys are looking for. These guys – Glazer, Hicks, Gillett, Lerner et al - come from a culture where they brand their rounders league the world series although no one else, anywhere in the world plays.

So as night follows day they will start to agitate for a European super-league and our current league system, starved of cash, will be left floundering. With this foreign ownership, money will haemorrhage away from the sport, the locale and the country. The premiership will become even more of a procession than it is already, with the top four places being fought over by the top four clubs and the rest playing for fifth or survival.

This selling of the sporting equivalent of our crown jewels will leave us all the poorer. Along with everything else, foreign ownership reduces the tax take. So the love affair is over for me. I’m taking my ball and my cherished memories and going home. Which is exactly what these guys will do when the going gets tough. 

Jon Hughes is Deputy editor of the Ecologist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist August 2007

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