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Kick the Money out of Football
It's time to abandon the corporate clubs
By George Monbiot, from the Guardian 8th May 2001
It was only a matter of time before Wembley stadium sought to change its strip. When the banks blew the whistle on the rebuilding programme and the government refused to move the goalposts, the project was left with nothing to sell but its name.
The stadium's identity, it seems, is worth some pounds120 million. Though this represents just one fifth of the cost of the reconstruction, the company which bought it would, in effect, acquire cultural ownership of our most famous arena. The Sunday Telegraph helpfully suggested that it might be called the "Coca-Cola National Stadium".
This would not be the first such deal. Drive past the Bolton Wanderers stadium at night, and all you'll see is a gigantic Reebok logo. The Wanderers' own badge is attached to the wall, but it isn't illuminated. "Football", the club's website boasts, "has become the ideal medium in which to project your company image to the mass market. A captive audience of thousands come to the Reebok Stadium every matchday."
It has taken centuries to reduce football, and its audience, to captivity. As the anarchist journal Do or Die records, the authorities first sought to restrain the game in 1314. Edward II's court complained of "a great noise in the city caused by Hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arise". It forbade football on pain of imprisonment.
But no one seemed to take much notice. In those days football was played by hundreds of men, striving to propel the ball from parish to parish by almost any means possible. Anyone who sought to stop them would have been kicked into touch.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, vast numbers of men would come together on newly enclosed land to play political football. Soon after kick-off, the ball would be abandoned, and the players would start ripping up the dykes and hedges erected by the landlords.
Unsurprisingly, the game was condemned in 1796 as "disgraceful to humanity and civilisation, subversive of good order and Government and destructive of the Morals, Properties and very lives of our Inhabitants."
But as the great open spaces the traditional game required were fenced off and privatised, the sport of the peasantry and proletariat became ripe for acquisition. In 1848, the year of revolution, football succumbed to the forces of reaction: a group of undergraduates drew up the "Cambridge rules", forbidding the riotous assembly which was, for many players, the entire purpose of the game.
The rowdy carnival moved to the terraces: between 1894 and 1914, Do or Die notes, there were 4,000 recorded instances of football "hooliganism".
But even the polite and formal 11-a-side game has proved too sprawling and too free for modern proprietorship. Soon after it took office, the Thatcher government changed the law to allow schools and local authorities to sell their assets. Playing fields were seized by developers to build superstores and executive estates.
This government promised to bring these sales to an end: in 1998 it granted special powers to the Department of Education to defend school grounds. But in the two years following their introduction, the secretary of state approved 115 applications to destroy school playing fields, and rejected just four.
Fans as well as players have now been shut out of the game. Until 1981, the Football Association sought to ensure that the clubs belonged in spirit to their supporters, not their proprietors. Then, however, in the name of stimulating investment, it relaxed the rule which forbade the owners from issuing a dividend greater than five per cent of the nominal value of the shares. From that point on, as the football writer David Conn has documented, the game was offered for sale to the highest bidder.
Martin Edwards spent pounds600,000 building up his stake in Manchester United, then sold most of it a few years later for some pounds100 million. John Hall bought Newcastle for pounds3m, later selling just ten per cent of the club for pounds16m. Ken Bates bought Chelsea in 1982 for pounds1. The 18% he retains is now worth some pounds10m.
As football began to be kicked around between its proprietors, the turnstiles gave way to television as its principle source of income. At first the money from the broadcasting rights was distributed evenly between all the clubs in the football league.
But in 1991, with the Football Association's backing, the most lucrative teams broke away to form the FA Carling Premiership, whose principal purpose was to capture almost all the broadcast fees. The league sold exclusive rights, now worth pounds1.1bn, to Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. The top clubs and their owners were massively enriched. The rest were left with sweet FA.
Ninety per cent of the clubs outside the premiership are now losing money. School leagues are collapsing, semi-professional teams are going bust. The premiership has picked up the ball and walked off the pitch.
While the fans remain loyal to the corporations which have usurped their clubs, the new owners appear to believe that they have no obligation to reciprocate. The average cost of a ticket to a premiership football match is now 10% higher than the average cost of a ticket to the Royal Opera House. Two hundred years ago, anyone could play football.
Twenty years ago anyone could turn up and cheer. Today even watching their team on television is beyond the means of some fans.
A full team strip, which some of the clubs contrive to change every few months in order to wring more money from their supporters, now costs up to pounds100. And the strips are, of course, little more than mobile hoardings. Anyone can see that Michael Owen represents Carlsberg and Reebok. But you'd need binoculars to notice that he also plays for Liverpool.
If the Wembley stadium is to become just another corporate acquisition from which all but corporate VIPs are excluded, then it makes no difference to most of us whether it is rebuilt or not. Indeed, a new national stadium in London would merely consolidate the enclosure of the game, sustaining the capital's cultural and economic sovereignty.
So what's to be done? I suspect that Do or Die's prescription of three-sided psychogeographic football will be slow to catch on. But it seems to me that the undying loyalty which makes the big clubs' fans so vulnerable to exploitation is now gravely misplaced. Perhaps we need to abandon the existing clubs and form new teams (drawing their players only from the places they are supposed to represent) and a new football association, controlled and financed entirely by the fans and ploughing any money it makes back into community sports.
It's time we kicked the money out of football. Let's leave the proprietors to play economic handball in front of the hospitality boxes, and reclaim the game in the streets and fields in which it first arose.