Football in 2023: An Essay

In terms of football, the end of 2022 had a certain romance to it. Against a backdrop of corruption, bribery, and mistreatment of migrant workers, Lionel Messi and Argentina won the World Cup. They beat the odds, they beat the machine of France, and gave us a reminder that there is still a place for the individual in football, that the beauty of attacking football can still win major honours, and although it’s not the greatest side to ever win the World Cup, they, and Messi especially, will forever be remembered.

He was the winner we all wanted to see. But even the most romantic of outcomes has its downsides. The World Cup will still be remembered for all the wrong reasons, regardless of how good the football was. Messi himself is now the face of Saudi tourism, providing legitimacy to a country currently imposing a blockade on the people of Yemen. And the fact we’re talking about a World Cup hosted in November and December, in one of the smallest countries on Earth in a series of makeshift stadia, remains absurd.

What lies at the root of these issues is one thing: money. It has become clear that the age of capitalism has morally bankrupted our beautiful game.

Wherever you look, money and profit have become front and centre of our society today, and in many ways football has become reflective of that fact. Sponsorship deals are everywhere you look, with clubs now even adopting ‘back of shorts sponsors’. Most of these deals are with shady gambling or cryptocurrency firms, and many others are in part to serve the needs of an autocratic state that needs to sell a good image of itself. Such states are even allowed to buy Premier League clubs and host World Cups against all logic, practicality, and moral arguments, and fans celebrate by dressing up in the attire of that specific state.

That is, fans who can even afford to go to a football game in England anymore. With inflation spiralling and football inevitably becoming more and more profitable, ordinary fans, who the game was made by and for, are being constantly priced out of games. A Premier League ticket will probably cost you about £50 per game on average (excluding any travel, food, and accommodation costs), a Championship ticket will cost you around £25-30, and even an adult wanting to go and see Kidderminster Harriers in the National League North will have shell out £17 if they want to see the team in action.

Even if the ordinary fan, now priced out of seeing their team play live, wanted to compromise and watch them play at home, it doesn’t get much better. Prices from BT and Sky keep becoming unsustainable for the average viewer; a Sky customer wanting to only watch football will have to pay £18 per month, while the cheapest BT deal is currently £8.50 per month, before going up to £17 per month. And even then they’re New Years’ deals, without even considering the extra costs of an Amazon package to have access to all Premier League football.

Of course, this all serves to give these companies ever-growing profits. Despite a drop in revenue, Sky still reported its revenue for 2022 at $4.3billion. BT, whose workers are currently striking, posted its revenue at $5.23billion. Amazon, as we all know, is swimming in profits as is. Collectively, these three companies, along with the BBC, will pay £5.1billion up to the end of the 2024/25 season, exclusively to keep Premier League games on their channels. Meanwhile, the workers who make these profits happen, and the fans who they are designed to deliver to, continually aren’t allowed to share in these profits. It’s how we ended up with BT offering £14.95 to watch Fulham vs. Sheffield United at the height of the COVID pandemic.

Year on year, everything surrounding the world of football seems to become not only more expensive, but more elitist as well. The clubs with the most money always seem the most entitled to say they deserve success; Manchester United are in ‘crisis’ because they haven’t won the Premier League in ten years. The lowest they’ve finished since 2013 is seventh. Imagine being in crisis for being the seventh best team out of thousands within the most competitive league system in world football. Juventus are in crisis because after winning the league for nine straight years they’ve finished fourth in the previous two seasons. Bayern Munich were in crisis earlier this season, because after ten consecutive league titles, they were fifth in the league. They are now comfortably top after six straight wins.

Even clubs like Barcelona, who it could be argued are in an actual financial crisis, will be absolutely fine. They currently sit top of La Liga having been able to skirt around any financial fair play rules and spend a total of €158million on new players. Lower league clubs, be it Derby County, Portsmouth, Bury or Macclesfield, have been actively punished for their financial problems. The latter two ended up going out of existence. Some Chelsea fans, when the club’s future was uncertain when Roman Abramovich, were worried of the same thing happening to their club. Instead they were bought by another billionaire.

That’s the problem with ‘super’ clubs who have that taste of success; the challenge after achieving success is to consolidate their position as ‘the best’. Bayern Munich don’t want anyone catching them at the top of the Bundesliga, so they’ve spent the last few years buying their rivals’ best players. Manchester City want to be the only club who can win the Premier League, so now they have two XIs good enough to win it. PSG, Juventus, Real Madrid, etc., are all able to buy pretty much whoever they want without any repercussions.

You’ll notice that all these clubs, barring Bayern Munich, were clubs looking to breakaway from their domestic leagues to form the European Super League. If the Champions League is already more of a reflection of who has the most money rather than who is the best, then under the system we currently live under, it’s the inevitable progression. Much like how Apple, Disney, Amazon, etc. look to control their respective industries, a small number of clubs look to control the game of football.

As an aside, at a time of global financial crisis, let’s have a look at some transfer fees that were paid out over the summer of 2022 by the six English breakaway clubs. Gabriel Jesus to Arsenal for £45million. Wesley Fofana to Chelsea for £69.5million. Darwin Núñez to Liverpool for £65million. Kalvin Phillips to Manchester City for £42million. Casemiro to Manchester United for £60million. Richarlison to Tottenham Hotspur for £51million. So six players, bought for little other purpose than to improve the quality of the richest football clubs in the country, cost a combined total of £331,500,000. Six people. And we talk about these figures as if they’re normal.

In the midst of a cost of living crisis, I don’t think this is something that is being talked about enough. The closest we got to it was at the height of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, when football players were essentially guilt-tripped into taking a pay cut. Now, its’s true that most professional footballers earn in a week what the average worker earns in a year, but in this world the players are not the problem. They are people living out their dream, who just so happen to be in a profession that reaps financial reward due to its popularity. But the owners, those at the top of football, what did they give up during that dark period? What government calls were there for them to give up some of their income? They’re still the ones hoarding all the cash. If footballers earn a ‘ridiculous’ amount, the owners have more than pretty much every fan, who the game is made for, could ever imagine.

This has all seemed rather bleak so far, and I have a feeling that things will only get worse before they get better. The way things are headed, in football at least, seem to be towards a resurrection of the European Super League, unmatchable transfer fees set by the super wealthy, and the game increasingly becoming a playground for billionaires than for the average fan on the street. Fans seem to be being held more and more to the wills of those in charge of scheduling games, and will often be made to pay ludicrous prices at the cost of work to se their team play halfway across the country on a weeknight.

And that’s ignoring the ever-worsening situation regarding the climate, international politics, societal issues, and pretty much every direction the world seems to be heading in right now. Football is still just a lens through which to view these crises, but at the brunt of it things in general just seem to be getting worse.

However, I maintain there is hope. I maintain that 2023 will be the year things start to get better. It won’t be an immediate fix by any means, but what keeps me going is the belief that things will start improving this year.

From my, admittedly very limited, point of view, people are starting to wake up to the absurdity and injustices of the system in which we live in. Where profit is put above people, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, where we seem to be becoming so detached from all the things that make life worth living in order to prioritise our financial wellbeing, before that is inevitably taken away from us as well.

It’s the same with football. The sport has now become a commodity for generating profit, for ensuring that dominance within the game stays with a few self-appointed ‘elite’ clubs, who will seek to hoard everything for themselves and leave the average fan with nothing.

The Super League fiasco pretty much epitomised this. The boards of these teams, arrogant and entitled and blinded by the success that money has bought them over the past thirty years or so, propagating this deluded fantasy that they are ‘saving football’ by ‘giving the fans what they want’. The fans stepped in and shut it down. Nobody wants this.

What we want, from an Anglo-centric perspective, is being able to afford to see our favourite teams play. To not have our lives dictated by a TV schedule that can change without notice. For travel to be reasonable. To not destroy the planet for wanting to watch a football match. For fairness on and off the pitch. For equality. For the ability to have a day out with the family.

I may be speaking as a romantic, an idealist, but I can only dream of the days I’ve read about, when clubs won trophies not because they were owned by tycoons and despots, but because they played the best. Their managers innovated, their players may not have been the best individually but, collectively, they were great.

I don’t see a lot of evidence that many of today’s successful club teams, who have essentially bought their way to success, will go down in history as some of the greats. People will point to Leicester City in 2015/16, but that was an isolated affair that seemed to defy all logic and reasoning at the time. Since their success, it’s pretty much just been a straight shoot-out between Manchester City and Liverpool for top billing, with City usually winning.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Outside of football the trade unions are making a comeback, the Tories finally seem to be on their way out, and people are waking up to the possibilities of change – that we don’t have to spend our lives in a soul-sucking, 9-to-5 environment and being priced out of any individualism or leisure because we have to focus on surviving instead.

There are still a multitude of problems, but at least we have hope. And in 2023, I think things will start to change.

It is time to reclaim the game. It’s time for the fans to take back control, and provide football for who it was meant for. Not Rupert Murdoch or the Saudi government, the fans. The ordinary fan. It’s time to do away with the era of the elite and give everyone a fair chance of success. It’s time to create a game that’s good for the planet, that doesn’t rely on short-haul flights from London to Norwich or pointless, continent-spanning tournaments. It’s time to put the fans first, to give them control, and to not be herded around at the behest of rich individuals. It’s time we based our game not on profits for corporations and shareholders, but on the basis of fairness and sportsmanship for fans to attend as they wish.

It’s time for change.

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