FOOTBALL'S DARKNESS AT NOON
PART 3 of 3
Mickey Blue Eyes
"The moment you think you got it figured............you're wrong."
I daresay this opinion has confirmed all of your worst fears, though there can't be many informed fans who weren't at least aware of the dangers if not the mortal danger facing the game. I do not use the term lightly. None of us can say we haven't been warned. In these circumstances the last thing we need as fans is a further dose of club or personality chauvinism.
The main question for all football supporters is that posed by the opinions of Signor Niccolò Machiavelli: Do the ends justify the means? If you answer yes, in an open democratic society you are obliged to explain what your ends are if they affect a broad mass of people. But of course football club ownership is not open and democratic, it is monopoly capitalist. Even if ownership became collective the same questions would apply: How far do you go to secure football success and profit? After all, Barcelona FC is a collective of sorts and it hasn't been immune to boardroom scandal or doubtful practice. So there are more and deeper questions for the future than relatively straightforward organisational issues. How you answer them depends on what you think most important........The future of the game? ......Your club winning trophies? .......Your selfish satisfaction at the expense of everything and everyone else? .......Your hubris?
At a general philosophical level it is worth quoting respected American liberal economist James K. Galbraith on creation of a "predatory leisure class" since 1980:
"The ecology of predator-prey relationship is one of mutual interdependence. Predators rely on prey for their sustenance, but they also require and must motivate their assistance. The normal function of the clan, tribe, family unit, or company is not to enrich the owner or master at the expense of the underlings, but to enrich him at the expense of surrounding clans, tribes, families, or companies. In this contest, the underlings must naturally enjoy some benefits both to motivate their cooperation and illustrate the success of the collective enterprise. The success of the enterprise depends in turn on keeping the predators sufficiently in check. If in their compulsion to fight, they lay waste to the environment, then neither they nor their prey will survive."
These necessarily cold, academic words clearly go way beyond Karl Marx's old observation that the working-class is always forced into an impecunious condition. If true, they imply a sort of tense cooperation, not class warfare. However, bankruptcy rates amongst football clubs show how predators lay waste to "the environment of football" by direct and indirect action. In short, all too often they are asset-strippers and little else. But supporters too have some serious questions to answer in their search for playing success. Thus the peculiar nature of financial problems facing professional football. The present system forces every individual to choose whether they are predator or prey. Whatever the choice, each individual is responsible for his or her actions.
At detail level it is surely obvious football must address the issue of "leveraged buy-outs" in obtaining ownership of a club. In essence this method uses fans' money to buy a club and then profit from it over the long term. It is insufficient for buyers to pass a "fit and proper person" test if all this does is qualify an individual to work in an unsatisfactory system. What matters is (a) ultimate motivation and (b) ultimate actions. Any changes would have to take both into account if they are to have any meaning at all. This would necessarily limit or abolish personal profit. And for it to be effective it would have to be enshrined in law. If breached, the offence would be as punishable as any other common criminality unearthed by the Serious Fraud Office. The question then becomes: Is football worth all this?
Suppose there was no football for you to use as a hobby. What would you do as an alternative? Is football indispensable? As a preliminary, forget the financial model for a moment and ask yourself, why do I actually support the game? What do you want from it and what do you give to it? For that is at the root of a democratic solution. Extrapolate further and it becomes obvious that organisation and long term determinism is required as a basis for any worthwhile consensual change. Without it, you could become a lonely dog howling at the moon or a frustrated bully-boy who figures everyone else is wrong or apathetic and you the valiant hero. Eventually you could even become an empty-headed paranoid conspiracy theorist twitching at every shadow or communication or personality you didn't like or couldn't understand. However, organisational form - collective or otherwise - is based on its codified morals and ethics.
Plainly, a holistic change of English/British method, thinking and culture is required. Few would deny the extreme right-wing way has been tried since 1979 and has failed as dismally and catastrophically as predicted. The results are at every level of our culture and society. They are unavoidable, and following the recent election they will get a great deal worse. Football fans have had enough, more than enough, of the mess and its inherent dangers. In these circumstances the will to survive might sooner or later be replaced by a new insanity, that the madness is stopped whatever the cost, a sort of footy Gotterdammerung, and with as much credibility. However, cultural memory is probably too fresh for the emergence of a fuehrer or messiah mentality, just as it also recalls gallant failed radicalism of May 1968. Always, it seems, the time has to be "right." But there are viable alternatives, and they are described below. Even the new Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition government has realised things must change in football. Ironically, even they now support (at least nominally, if not actually, all of it to be confirmed by what they do as opposed to what they say) the notion of co-operatives in club ownership. Now is your chance to have your say at a meeting on 12th June. The choice is yours..........When is the time "right"?
For a start we can rid ourselves of illusion, personality attacks and wilful ignorance in the same way we liquidated the worst of organised hooliganism and racism. After all, there's nothing new about mass popular delusion and individual hatreds. They have always existed at every level of human behaviour and probably always will. The way it works and is manipulated by vested interests is long understood. It affects everybody, football fans included. You can find populist explanations of it in Tom Wolfe's 1987 Bonfire of the Vanities and Objectivist Alan Greenspan's "irrational exuberance," to say nothing of the vomit exhaled by convicted thugs in the shape of leery football boot-boy tales. But you cannot legislate for individual temperament or default if they are within socially acceptable norms. To counter this all you need is a cool head, common sense, good will and a reasonable measure of applied intelligence. Forget the ale-house and internet blow hards. Ignore the petty spivs and their small time gangster mentality with their shares scams and cheap gossip. Ally this to a perfectly justified mistrust of mainstream media and you have all the basic individual tools required to make a start. From that point on you have nothing to lose but your naiveté. And that helps you to take the next step.
The game's economic magnitude and popularity means wholesale change will only be achieved through political involvement and direct action. And in fact a start has been made, ironically from within the national political establishment by its football-supporting members. Some politicians have already made important moves, including, to his great credit, Evertonian former government minister Andy Burnham. The independent Supporters Direct organisation was established by the government in January 2000 following on from valuable work by its Football Task Force during 1997-1999. Andy Burnham became its first Chair. That delivered an important kick in the behind for the Football Association, so they in turn appointed civil servant Lord Burns in December 2004 to carry out a review, which was duly delivered in August 2005. All of this followed on from a series of football scandals in the 1990s when leading managers were accused of bribery and corruption in the media. Typically, the FA took little or no action on the review recommendations - despite promising implementation by 2006 - and even complained when the government issued a subsequent warning in September 2009. But these tentative, largely disregarded and unrecognised steps prove something can be done, that if fans really wish to change things instead of just whining and moaning the basic administrative tools are waiting to be used. If the tools are not used it is likely they will simply lapse into bureaucratic lip service. If you want to avoid this trap it is well worth reading the history and intentions of Supporters Direct.
With that as initiative the English Football League could scarcely stand by. Its member clubs were already in considerable financial trouble. The situation had long been a matter of survival. Accordingly, The Football League Trust was established in 2007 to try to counter the worst affects. Meanwhile, fans everywhere seek accountability and solvency as they fear for the future of their clubs. Fans trusts have become common even with well established clubs such as Newcastle and Liverpool. England's richest club Manchester United now has several fans organisations, each of them alarmed at the level of debt foisted onto the club by its American owners. But the central problem remains: Could the trusts, even if they succeeded in their immediate laudable aims, be capable of forming a solid front for the betterment of the game, or will they simply become a displacement of greed in another, wider form? If they wrest power - as I hope they do, eventually - will they be capable of pushing on to the next level? Which is, surely, to try to ensure none of this vital basic work goes to waste or is neutralised by succeeding right-wing governments.
However, there is no denying the sport has made great strides. There have been encouraging advances once thought impossible. But almost all of these advances have been made because of democratic action which had virtually nothing to do with capitalist methods. New, safer stadia were built because government legislation (by, irony of ironies, a Tory government) rightly made the old ones obsolete. Changes in the Laws of Football made the spectacle more attractive. Increased revenues were partly ploughed back into the sport only through the efforts of what was left of concerned administrators who still love the game. Profiteering merely attached itself to the backs of this and leeched off its improvements. The number of club bankruptcies demonstrates clearly how useless and inefficient is the capitalist "free market" model. It is the game and its fans which produce the revenues, not the self-styled "risk takers" and agents who have brought the game to its financial knees in the way thugs and boot-boys once did to decent supporters.
The first reality is that football economics cannot be separated from any nation's socio-economic culture. A national association which has long recognised this is Germany's Deutscher Fuβball Bund (DFB). Its Bundesliga is often quoted as an example to follow, though there are variants across Europe. You can find a first-rate detailed description of the DFB and Bundesliga administrative structure in the link in endnote 10, pages 59-85 of the Supporters Direct report. Briefly, this describes how fans own fifty-one percent of their club and can block majority ownership by an outside interest. It also explains how this policy is deeply ingrained in German society's attitude to sport. A recent formal challenge to overturn the ownership rule was overwhelmingly defeated by an organised fans vote. How long this resistance can last is a matter for conjecture, especially when you take into account how Bayern Munich's company executive board chair Karl-Heinz Rummenigge once said it was important to divide the game into four quarters so "investors" could get their money back through extra TV advertising. However, the moderate German corporatist model has produced more and better stadia, high average gates and lower seat prices than the extremist English capitalist model; though the former readily admits it is difficult to compete at the moment with the money flow to players. Yet Germany remains at the forefront of club and international football. In FIFA World Rankings, Germany is sixth, England eighth. This automatically begs the question as to which system is better, or at least more acceptable.
The second and harsher reality is that day-to-day existence is the real name of the contemporary English game, never better demonstrated than the current plight of Crystal Palace. There are extraordinary commercial risks in football and these are hugely magnified if it is thrown open to profiteering, unscrupulous opportunists. Such opportunists can only make large profits if they have undisputed majority control of a club, though the game is often bedevilled by a barrow boy mentality at low levels too. Yet huge revenues can be lost if a player misses a penalty in an important match or a series of injuries affects club fortunes. Team success is heavily dependent on the uncertainty of human relationship and its "chemistry." Player transfers in and out make it even riskier for team-building. Anything can go right and wrong at any time and often does. Carefully laid plans years in the making can fall to pieces overnight, even when prepared with the purest of motives. Football is not a production line or a factory industry however much some people would wish it. Football fortunes are capricious. We have seen what catastrophes can happen when things go wrong. This means ownership of any kind can be hazardous, capitalist or socialist, individual or collective. It requires strong nerves and stubborn determination. There are no guarantees.
This means the sale value of any football club (or indeed anything) is only what someone will pay; precise calculation of football club value is impossible because of it. In economics jargon this is called the "price mechanism." Purchase takes a form of barter informed by law and accountancy. The bottom line is what both sides will settle for. It really is that crude whatever bullshit comes from the mouths of lawyers and accountants. And it is that which has for the moment seen off a self-styled fans takeover bid of - of all clubs - Manchester United. The fans group call themselves the "Red Knights," but they were still constrained and then defeated by the current system. They were simply unwilling and probably unable to raise enough finance to meet the Glazer family's asking price. Whether they would have been any better or worse as owners than the Glazers is now merely a matter for conjecture. In cold historical terms, they failed. Meantime, if another bidder meets the Glazers' price, they will sell. It is as straight forward as that.
But it is important not to confuse exchange, trade and barter with capitalism (particularly the Anglo Saxon version) which is merely a system of monopoly profiteering, as shown by the current banking collapse. Once profits diminish or a loss is incurred you are expected to pay the invoices. Hence prevailing attacks on socially-important spending of governments. Suddenly, self-styled "risk-takers" lose their brio and shift risk onto the national economy. Government spending is "excessive" while the original rip-off is hastily covered up. Somebody has to pay, and under capitalism that somebody is always you, never those who caused the loss. A classic example is the scam of so-called Private Finance Initiative (PFI) introduced by a Tory government in 1992 and continued by New Labour from 1997 to date.
So now we have arrived at some inevitable, uncomfortable democratic questions:
- What part should profit play in the game, if any?
- If allowed, where should profit go?
- What do you want from football and how do you get it with majority support?
- How do you decide who should own the club you support?
- How do you prevent "Little Hitlers" getting control whichever collective or individual system you opt for?
- Are you willing to make a commitment beyond match attendance?
- Do you have the necessary patience and determination to cause change?
- Are you bothered enough even to try?
As a socialist, I believe a collective system is the fairest and best. However, it won't change the fundamental peculiarities of football activity and its affect on finance. These are perpetual. Moreover, for change to be truly effective it has to be Europe-wide, probably even global. Financial administration and ownership of the game must be from a common code acknowledged by everyone. If it isn't, there will be countries where capital will continue to accumulate to just a few clubs who can attract and pay the best players at the expense of everyone else, which is the contemporary English condition. For a time it is possible to delude yourself you have manufactured a magic bullet, only to find it is made of lead like all other bullets. Start firing them and sooner or later you get hit or caught by a ricochet. A good example can be found in the fortunes of Celtic Football Club in Scotland. Despite a transformation of ownership, despite an admirable Social Charter, Celtic's current playing fortunes are poor even in a two-club monopoly position. And this is why I warn there are no utopias in any system. The basic challenge is how you deal with ambition and winning and losing, as well as how you deal with the profit motive.
However, you have to begin somewhere.
At present I think the German model is a good place to start. It is far from perfect but at least it helps prevent the kind of brutal financial anarchy and rampant greed we currently endure in England. And some improvements would be required, principally to help prevent money avarice and concentration of individual power. Initial changes could be effected in England with a view to a common system overseen by UEFA in Europe, then global expansion via FIFA. For it to be democratic there would have to be more-than-nominal fans representation at UEFA and FIFA. This would of course take some time to establish. How long it would take is anyone's guess. If this method is to gain Continent-wide traction it would have to be processed through European law. Already there are UEFA proposals for financial fair-play. The European Commission has already recognised the "specificity" and social and economic importance of football. So the strategic, enabling legal precedent is already there; now further expansion and consolidation is required. In England it would help too if football clubs were made a legal "public authority" subject to the Freedom of Information Act. If this is combined with government steps already taken (described above) it can be seen that fans have the necessary tools at their disposal. What is now required is long term organisation and action.
At the beginning of this opinion I quoted the late Walter Lippmann, who became established as an American right-wing "liberal" intellectual and writer after an early commitment to socialism. Despite his later political views - almost diametrically opposed to my own - he had some important insights into the conduct of human affairs. Chiefly he had no illusions of how power systems work, be they left- or right-wing persuasion. According to him some aspects of human political and organisational behaviour are universal whatever belief you hold, an old observation it is hard to dispute. It certainly applies to the peculiar world of football. This is obvious at all levels of the game from owners to fans en masse. Fans and owners hypocrisy can be equally reprehensible, opportunist and deluded, a subject I have dealt with in another essay. And a switch from very limited ownership to wider fans ownership of itself would not eliminate greed, corruption and stupidity, though it would help greatly in damage limitation and improved "balance" of interests. If this balance is not achieved the game may go into reverse and fans can look forward to, for instance, future instigation of some extreme totalitarian measures such as fingerprinting.
I believe it is of paramount importance to prevent control and profiteering through individual block ownership of shares. I believe football clubs should be membership-owned and run on the basis of one man, one vote, and subject to a common constitution, nothing more or less. Any dilution of this principle leads automatically to variations of autocratic control and the profit motive. But of course none of this can guarantee playing success, as Celtic have discovered even in limited competition in the Scottish Premier League. Meanwhile, their main rivals, champions Rangers, have discovered what the capitalist system can do to a club whatever its historic status in the game. Last season Celtic's average gate was 45,582, while Rangers' was 47,564. Plainly, something is badly wrong, though both clubs have always dominated Scottish football and always will. Despite their gates revenue they are still unable to pay enough for leading players to join them. Their main motivation is the increased TV money available in England. This is why, absurdly, they have attempted to join the English Premier League, a move fortunately rejected last November.
Therefore there should be more equitable distribution of TV revenues too, which I believe could be better achieved if the clubs owned and ran their own TV and radio channels and dumped the useless middle men of terrestrial, cable and satellite TV companies. (That this would probably also result in the demise of Murdoch-owned satellite TV channels gives this fan a great deal of unrestrained satisfaction.) An added bonus is the ability of clubs to decide fairer distribution of TV revenues, individual clubs TV exposure and greater rationalisation of fixtures as opposed to current spread over Saturday, Sunday and Monday. If club ownership is constituted in the manner I have described previously this would be decided by the fans and not by TV companies, a few club owners and financial institutions concerned only with their own profitability.
So, as we have seen, there are tools in place for fans to use to change the game. Many important preparatory steps have already been taken. You can either take part or you can sit on the sidelines and moan yourself into the grave. We already know the main points at issue, and we already know most of the options. The rest is up to you.
Where football tribalism is concerned, in closing one is inclined to ask if the future will take its cue from a famous scene in the 1979 satirical film Life of Brian:
"......Brian running up hill and down dale pursued by a fervent, feverish mob howling, "MASTER! MASTER! THE MESSIAH! THE MESSIAH!"
Brian takes refuge in a hole in the ground occupied by a hermit.
The worshipping mob gather around the edge of the hole bowing and scraping while begging Brian to be their Messiah.
MOB LEADER: Hail Messiah!
BRIAN: (exasperated) I'm NOT the Messiah!
MOB LEADER: I say you are, Lord, and I should know I've followed a few!
MOB: HAIL MESSIAH!
BRIAN (desperate): I'm NOT the Messiah! Will you PLEASE listen, I'm not the Messiah, do you UNDERSTAND!?......HONESTLY!
Crowd pause, uncertain.
WOMAN: (exalted) Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!
BRIAN: WHAT!? Well, what sort of chance does that give me?.......(even more desperate, despairing, gives up)....... Alright, I AM the Messiah!
MOB: (falling to their knees, foreheads in the earth) HE IS THE MESSIAH! HE IS!
BRIAN: Now....... FUCK OFF!
Stunned silence. The mob stays with its foreheads buried in the earth. Until their leader raises his head, exchanges bewildered glances with his neighbour, then......
MOB LEADER: How shall we Fuck Off, O Lord?"
 "The Predator State" by James K. Galbraith (Free Press) (2008), page 127.
 "Broken Dreams" by Tom Bower (Simon and Schuster) (2003), pages 137-140.
 "Life of Brian" © 1979 Python (Monty) Pictures Ltd.