FOOTBALL'S DARKNESS AT NOON
PART 1 of 3
Mickey Blue Eyes
"It's been a long time coming
But I know change gonna come, oh yes it will."
SAM COOKE, popular Soul song (1964).
"Corrupt, stupid functionaries will make at least as big a muddle of socialism as stupid, selfish and acquisitive employers can make of capitalism."
Well, it finally happened as most of us knew it would..........An English Premier League club, Portsmouth, went into administration in February this year with bankruptcy debts of about £139 million, though the first figure published was anything between £50 million and £65 million. Incredibly, they had four different owners in the space of a year all of whom appeared to ignore the arithmetic staring them in the face. Ownership was treated no better than a sack of rotting potatoes. In the intervening months the administrators gradually increased the club's estimated total debt. Eventually Portsmouth paid the ultimate football price of relegation to the Football League and sale of all their best players. The truth is, given a twist of fate, it could have been almost any other club in the Premiership. Meanwhile, after eighteen years of this nonsense even the moribund Football Association has wakened reluctantly and slowly to the financial threat facing the entire game, not just Premier League clubs.
Naturally those who own and control the Premier League and Football League (those who have much to hide and profit from) have hunkered down for the coming drawn-out battle. How it will finally work out is a moot point. The first shots have already been fired with the manipulated demise of FA Chair and World Cup bid leader Lord Triesman, its first independent incumbent, after unguarded comments concerning the World Cup bid. Triesman was critical of Premier League and club financing methods right from the beginning of his tenure, though he subsequently praised changes wrought by overall economic depression. But to show the closed nature of the game's administration he was promptly replaced by Geoff Thompson - who was a member of the FIFA executive committee responsible for selecting the winning bid. As we shall see, the administrative structure of national and international football made inevitable this unacceptable and obvious clash of interests. Nor was that the only subsequent development. Former Tottenham Hotspur owner Alan Sugar said he would be interested in replacing Triesman. Sugar says he has "a track record in the game." He can say that again. Not surprising, really, given his profit-making and role in the founding of the Premier League as described by investigative journalists Tom Bower and David Conn.
So in theory the game is up. There can be no more excuses. However, mark my words, there will be. The football establishment will dilute external justifiable outrage in much the same way Franklin Roosevelt helped save capitalism with the cushion of his "New Deal" in the 1930s. Vested interests of any kind will do almost anything to retain control in any given situation. There is little new under the sun in this kind of situation. Only the methods change to suit circumstances. In our society the institutionalised motive is still the same......make as much money as you can. The game is as riddled with it as all Western culture. There is nowhere to hide in any country, except maybe in brick-brained self-delusion. The reality is not one of personalities; it is a failed economic system that affects everything and everybody. Anything else is tilting at windmills. And if you can't grasp that, the football establishment and the banks and other financial institutions will eat you alive.
But the fans are not entirely impotent. Spontaneous resistance has grown. Many articulate and well informed organisations have formed. And this resistance is Europe-wide, though it still requires serious co-ordination. The first battle lines have been drawn however tentative. Even Christian Aid has joined the fray with an excellent report Blowing the Whistle (May 2010) which includes a "Football Secrecy League" purportedly showing which British clubs make most efforts to conceal their financial roots. There is cause for optimism. Now the first questions for all football supporters are: Where does the game go from here as yet another economic depression starts to take its society-wide toll? Is it to continue down a slightly diverted road where benighted conformists and deluded malcontents still believe all you have to do to be a success in football (or indeed in almost anything) is to change owners and pour "investment" into a club and bingo, "success" is assured? Or is it to reach a new level of common sense understanding of what football is and why we spend so much time and money on it? Where should the money go, and why? Who should control it? How transparent should the game be?
In the relative short term, money supply for everyone is in danger from lower national credit ratings. Banks are threatening to constrict it and smother the illusion further. Superficially it looks as though the party is over. But the same things were said on a much more important level, and the same platitudes expressed after Roosevelt's legislation and in every slump since. Eventually, dishonesty, manufactured fear and sleazy profiteering returned - if it ever really went away - in a new guise, still an essential component of capitalism. The corruption and rapacity went on, got worse, and even couched itself in pseudo-"philosophies" and more subtle right-wing economics propaganda. Change, therefore, requires more than amendments to the law. It needs constant awareness and strengthening. It requires a new level of consciousness. For a start, you could usefully examine how major Western banks and their owners and backers ran their institutionalised, mostly legal corrupt scams for years, stole your money............and then through media control managed to blame everything on you and the principle of democratic government. As always - for them - there is "too much government." In the end you will pay for everything. You always have, and, under the present system, you always will.
All of which means this will get a little complicated because it requests you to think and look at references, not just knee-jerk. If you are looking for tabloid, message board or Facebook idiolect or you see everything in black and white, go no further. This relatively lengthy opinion is not for you since it will be posted in three separate parts in six sections with endnote references. Go read tabloid vacuity in the Sun, or watch televised pap like Sky TV, Coronation Street or The X Factor, or join obsessed messageheads in cyber solitude somewhere in bandwidth cloudcuckooland, or just visit the ale-house and get ratted. Hence an overall total of over a hundred endnotes (most of them web links, some in PDF format) as an aid for anyone who wants to read the subject in reasonable additional detail. Even a piece of this length can only touch the fringes. This prospect is unlikely to appeal to mere moaners since it requires a measure of concentrated effort and a frisson of world-weariness. Take it or leave it on that basis.
The six sections are:
- 1. Preamble. (Part 1).
- 2. The manufactured illusion. (Part 1).
- 3. Realities. (Part 1).
- 4. The conflict: Everton Football Club as example. (Part 2).
- 5. The roots of it all. (Part 2)
- 6. Conclusion. (Part 3).
In July 2009, the chairman and majority owner of Everton, Bill Kenwright, stood in front of a shareholders meeting at Goodison Park and said, amongst other things, "It can't go on." He was referring to the economic condition of Everton Football Club, but he could just as well have been talking of the financial and cultural health of the professional game everywhere. And this is no small beer - professional and amateur, the sport involves about 37,500 English clubs and some three million people, participants and spectators, every weekend. Informed supporters know the truth of Kenwright's observation in both the specific and the general. Football clubs are in a dangerously imbalanced economic state, however glamorous their appearance or however well-promoted by the media. Like Nero's Rome, the game has a magnificent new façade built on manipulation of resources and human weakness. Inevitably it will share the same fate if it continues on its present course. This is despite billions if not trillions of pounds, Euros and dollars flowing into the world's most popular sport from its supporters. If anything, increased money flows have made matters worse, not better; the game continues to be haunted by corruption scandals. But of course it applies right across professional sport, even cricket and snooker.
Yet almost everyone continues to hope problems will somehow dissipate in a thin mist of club chauvinism, where supposedly a billionaire white knight on a white horse appears in shining armour and waves a magic lance and everything is "alright." It is a genre in which you can blame almost anybody for all the ills in the game or just the failure of your club to win matches. It has become a sado-masochistic bear pit of gossip, idiocy and mass delusion where any victim will do, and the more obvious the better. Everyone in football is obliged to work in this self-deceptive system if they want their club or their career to survive. As a result, wherever you look on the footy road you see rabbits frozen in headlights. If not frozen, at least biting lumps of fur off each other as they race for the "safety" of a money burrow or the "status" of local hero. Plainly, sooner or later the economic and cultural structure of the sport will collapse like a house of credit cards. So, no, it can't go on. Bill Kenwright was right.
You don't need to look far to find out why and how it came about. Football is as much a mirror of our society as gladiatorial games were a reflection of the selfishness, petty intrigue, corruption and insensate brutality of Ancient Rome. You need only examine the non-sports economic mess around you to understand its evolution.
For, despite everything, despite the international banking implosion of the last two years - little different to all other bank implosions of the last two centuries - and despite the clearest possible demonstration that the global economic system is based on structured illusion and legalised corruption, on artificial machismo, on conmen "risk takers" who risk the wealth you created when they chance it in stock exchange casinos, shares scams and crooked schemes, on "heroes" with feet-of-clay-greed, on manipulation of the many by a few, despite all of this - it still goes on unchecked as explained in Oliver Stone's classic 1987 film Wall Street in an exchange I have quoted before:
"GORDON GEKKO: It's all about bucks, kid. The rest is conversation........It's not a question of 'enough', pal. It's a zero sum game........Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one perception to another......This painting here, I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars. I could sell it today for six hundred thousand. The illusion has become real. And the more real it becomes the more desperate they want it: Capitalism at its finest.
BUD FOX: How much is enough, Gordon?
GEKKO: The richest one per cent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work. Two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating on widows' idiot sons - and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety per cent of the American public out there with little or no nett worth. I create nothing. I OWN. We make the rules, pal, the news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price of paper clips. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody else out there wonders how the hell we did it. Now, you're not naïve enough to think we're living in a democracy are you, Buddy? It's the free market and you're part of it. Yeah, you got that killer instinct. Stick around, pal. I still got a lot to teach you.
So, time for an update on football and its affairs. Throughout, we should remember sports activities manufacture nothing. Economically, all modern professional sports operate almost exactly as described by fictitious Gordon Gekko. Their only "product" is a game which intensifies human feelings and illusion, from which stems everything else including its surplus "value." But of course that is not all. There is a sports economics and cultural paradox, and it is this:
The game of professional football in England and elsewhere has never been a more open and attractive spectacle. So far as we know the game is played honestly here. Players fitness has never been better, their average abilities never higher. The English game has never been more cosmopolitan nor had more superbly talented foreign players. Racism is in retreat, though still hiding under rocks. So is organised hooliganism. The dark days of 1970s and 80s outright defensive football, blatant offside tactics and dominant brutal tackling have virtually evaporated. Stadia are all-seated and much better and safer places to visit than previous disgusting and outdated grounds which reinforced low expectation and minority thug mentalities. Playing surfaces are now prepared with all the loving attention lavished on a professional billiard table. The days of playing on a winter mud heap have long gone. The English Premier League is popular across the world through its sale of broadcast TV rights for well-nigh incredible sums. Attendances and revenues have been only partially compromised despite global economic recession. Internationally the game has become so important even the United Nations has something to say on the subject. But the first inevitable economic-regulation warning clouds have appeared on the horizon.
If you want to change things you are obliged to resolve the type of regulation, and where and how it will be applied. Will it just consolidate the status quo or will it reform the game root and branch? Or will it indulge well-meaning but ineffectual legislative tinkering? Whatever it is, it will contain elements of the eternal conflict between individual greed and "reciprocal altruism." Politically, this will be the continuing clash between socialism and capitalism. Beware simple answers. There are no utopias.
2. The manufactured Illusion.
As noted above, superficially it is partly noonday sunshine in the history of the game. However, informed fans who have followed the game for a generation or more have always known matters went very badly wrong with establishment of the breakaway Premier League in 1992, which brought with it a predictable tsunami of inflationary greed and bankruptcy of Football League clubs. A game in dire need of reform was taken down the wrong road by a small group of opportunists encouraged by extreme right-wing politicians who actually hated the most working-class of sports. The later irony of course is that fourteen of the original twenty-two clubs in the Premier League disappeared into relegation and have had severe financial problems ever since. But most fans know instinctively (if not actively) that much of the spectacle is an illusory front for a desperate economic system tainted by institutionalised deception. It has become what psychologists term a self-reinforcing delusion. Gradually, clubs themselves are coming round to a similar realisation as they struggle with day-to-day realities and the iron rule of capitalism. But that control is being challenged at fundamental populist levels even in the USA, that cockpit of ultra-right extremism.
So the apparently hypnotic circle must be broken if the game is to achieve a sense of decent financial existence and fairness. But how, and is this the moment for revolutionary change? For if all sports are little more than a reflection of the kind of society we have they are not, and can never be, independent of the rest of social existence. Which means anybody who tries to separate sports from politics is doomed to failure, which also means any attempt to change the game will automatically challenge received socio-economic practice. Therefore, the task is huge because ultimately its challenge is to the establishment who own and run the country, not just football. As we shall see, it has been that way since the founding of professional football.
Meanwhile, clouds continue to gather over the game and Western economic life. Rightly, many thoughtful fans of English football continue to be unhappy with its condition and the notion that clubs should be treated as commercial "brands" by accountants. In my experience most fans simply do not think that way, though a compliant minority has emerged during the last generation. For English fans, spectating costs are close to being prohibitive however good attendance figures may look. Players have become a new social class in conflict with some of the game's origins and the living conditions of those who pay their wages at the stadium gates. There is now a distinctly uneasy general feeling the inflationary bubble has burst or will slowly deflate in line with the global economy, that even another Premier League club will go bankrupt. No club anywhere is safe from this reality, not even Real Madrid with almost a third of a billion pounds in debts. In the lower Football League many clubs have already suffered this fate. Many fans also feel the chances of sporting glory are rigged in favour of a few clubs, that fair competition has been replaced by a financial monopoly by those same clubs. In short, the game has become too predictable, thus denying its supporters one of its great charms. This finally prodded UEFA into belated if anaemic action in 2008 and 2010, though it took them several years to summon the will to produce even that.
Because they have known little else it is the current adolescent generation of supporters who should be reminded of the reality of professional football and why it need not be tolerated for a second longer than necessary. Furthermore, it is desirable to avoid the worst extremes of Monsieur François-Marie Arouet's Herr Doktor Pangloss and the opinions of Signor Niccolò Machiavelli. Common sense is required, not absurd optimism or deathly pessimism. Or mere meddling. Most of all it is necessary to avoid John Kampfner's "anaesthetic of the brain." When things go wrong there is no point in just stamping your foot or whingeing. Something a good deal better is needed, something like a clear head and rational thought and ideas beyond the thick-headedness of tribal chauvinism, or internet gossip, or tenth rate wannabe "owners" who couldn't run a market barrow in Great Homer Street.
What is not required is more of the same since 1992.
Let's try to dispose of some football illusions.
Professional football is not, never has been, and never will be "democratic" in the true sense of the word. No sport is. There never was a "democratic golden age of football" and there never will be. Majority shareholders always dictate the course of events, as John Moores and Peter Johnson demonstrated during their ownership of Everton and Bill Kenwright demonstrates now. But that doesn't mean the game is impervious to change, as the sudden swing to extreme right wing economics proved in the 1980s and at the founding of the Premier League and its "removal" of your money. What swung one way can swing another. However, if football doesn't alter its ways the future may comprise a type of "stagflation" or worse. Though unlikely, the game could drown in its own anarchistic greed and worst dystopian nightmares. It is important also to try to separate the actual playing spectacle from strategic issues, even though, generally speaking, the spectacle too will be a reflection of football administrative decisions, which in turn are dictated by our socio-economic culture.
This state of affairs automatically places football fans in a difficult situation: To a sensible individual, they want to improve their club's standing.........but how to do it in current circumstances without abandoning at least some cherished feelings or traditions or long established habits? How to do it in the face of virtually unanimous extremist media propaganda and concentrated, enormous financial power? Every revolutionary change has posed this dilemma. The long road of change is never easy. The moment has to be right or everything could be set back by years. For football fans this becomes a question of where and when to draw the line and what they are prepared to sacrifice. I have yet to meet any football fan ready to sacrifice the club he or she supports to ensure the game survives with a healthy future.
But the current paradox is that in fact and theory English football (and most others) is virtually bankrupt despite the incredible amounts of money flowing through it. So where has all the money gone? Cui bono? Club ownership is limited to a minuscule minority, as it always was, and almost always separated from supporters' powers except for the latter's ability to stop paying for entrance. All Premier League club owners (except, apparently, Roman Abramovich of Chelsea and the Al Nahyan family of Manchester City) have acquired their stake by borrowing and repaying loans from club revenue until they can sell the club for a profit. If they stick at it long enough eventually they own the club for nothing. Potential profits are enormous. There is nothing complicated about the method. It is the oldest capitalist trick in the Gekko Manual. Complication is in how the illusion is presented. The process is usually concealed behind a curtain of club debt, a near-impenetrable skein of offshore companies and sleight-of-hand accountancy. The Portsmouth débacle demonstrated how easily the true figures can be hidden. The truth can even be hidden in plain sight, which is an old trick employed by "intelligence" services.
When the system falters or goes badly wrong you get the kind of football disasters that have overtaken Leeds United, Newcastle United, Portsmouth and Southampton, to name just a few. Any club who tries to exist outside the system usually suffers bankruptcy after the manner of Football League clubs, where fifty-six have gone under in twenty-two years. There is even a low level American grid iron league which folded for the same reason. In Spain, Real Madrid - fascist General Franco's club - could only avoid economic humiliation through use of a crooked property deal and European social funding, together with the support of the Spanish right-wing establishment. Manchester United debt is a staggering £667 million. Liverpool owes almost £300 million. And that assumes the published figures are true records. The debt figures are climbing all the time. Despite this, many fans still entertain the absurd notion of "safety nets" and "billionaire benefactors" of "Plan Bs" and even "Plan Cs." Of course capitalism can never deliver this because it recognises only profit. Economic efficiency and fairness are irrelevant except where they produce profit. But there are claims that English football is three billion sterling in debt, which is scarcely efficient. The result has been an increase in foreign ownership through the inability of local businessmen to guarantee or raise loans or service club debt. Transnational business has long overtaken local business, as it has in all forms of late-capitalist economics.
This will not change until enough people want it to change and act accordingly.
To be continued in Part 2.
 "Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler (Macmillan, 1941).
 "Broken Dreams" by Tom Bower (Simon and Schuster) (2003), pages 30-7 passim, 48-61 passim, 66-7, 77, 78, 80-1, 91, 146-7, 232.
 "The Football Business" by David Conn (Mainstream Publishing 1997), pages 15-22 passim, 32.