In many ways, this year’s January transfer window wasn’t much different from previous years. Eye-watering sums were spent on talent by the biggest clubs. An estimated £230 million was paid out by Premier League clubs alone. Such splashing of the cash has been a regular occurrence for over two decades.
This January brought many more controversies, however, with debates centring around the extreme commercialisation at the top of the ‘beautiful game’.
[Note: This article was written before the recent announcement that Manchester City are to be banned by UEFA from the Champions League for the next two seasons, as a result of breeching financial fair play rules. But this latest scandal only confirms the analysis and conclusions presented by the author.]
A total VARce
At many Premier League grounds this season, the chant ‘this is not football’ has been regularly heard. One might expect this to be directed at teams playing poorly. But it has actually been directed at the controversial use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.
The discussion and controversy around the use of VAR have been ongoing since the start of the season. But the disallowing of several goals over the Christmas and New Year period - for players being offside by only a matter of millimetres - has prompted many fans to ask serious questions.
If you ask many football fans (the author of this article included) about their favourite moment at a match, they will probably describe the celebration that follows an important goal. The VAR system takes this away. Instead, fans often do not celebrate goals for fear that they will be disallowed for offences that couldn’t be spotted by the naked eye.
Premier League fans therefore feel that the constant delays introduced by VAR have removed most of the entertainment value. So why has this happened?
This article is not the time or place to debate whether technology should have any place in sports, in terms of decision-making by referees. But there is little dispute that its current use in football is due to the enormous financial implications of success or failure for those in the sport’s upper echelons.
Finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League can be worth well over £50 million for a club. The difference between survival and relegation to the Championship, meanwhile, is at least £60 million.
With such vast sums potentially at stake, even during a single game, there is no room for error when it comes to refereeing decisions - particularly for the super-rich club owners who are profiting from the sport.
UEFA are finished... look how many lawyers Man City have strolled up to court with 😂🤣 they have more lawyers than actual fans 😭😂😭 pic.twitter.com/TujSdv4bra— Footy Humour (@FootyHumour) February 17, 2020
The FA Cup
With such vast rewards at stake for the largest clubs in the Premier League and Champions League, it is little surprise that the FA Cup has become the latest target.
Over the last month, controversy reigned around the ‘devaluing’ of the competition by bigger clubs. The main target has been Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who refused to manage the team - and refused to send the first team - to a replay against Shrewsbury Town.
This also led to a debate around whether ‘replays’ should be scrapped. Top teams claim there are already too many games in the calendar for Premier League clubs. This is despite the fact that average League One and League Two clubs play more games each season, with very few complaints heard from such teams.
Klopp has faced criticism from across the sport for both disrespecting Shrewsbury and costing them vital revenue (with Liverpool fielding a reserve team, fewer fans attended, so the gate money was far less than it would have otherwise been). But the take home point is a much wider one.
The majority of fans value the FA Cup due to its history. It provides an opportunity to see the biggest clubs in English football play the very smallest ones. But this matters not one bit to the wealthy owners of top football clubs, who are purely focused on ensuring that the team is successful in the most lucrative competitions.
Should replays be scrapped, it would cause serious financial problems for lower league clubs. This could even result in some of them going bust. But again, with clubs seen as profit-making machines for their billionaire owners, such considerations are meaningless.
Wayne Rooney and the gambling industry
The signing that raised the most eyebrows in the recent January transfer window was that of former England captain Wayne Rooney, who joined Championship team Derby County. Derby have already been set to face punishment for breaching Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. Many were therefore left questioning how they could afford Rooney’s wages - allegedly six-figures per week, when bonuses are included.
When Rooney was revealed to be wearing 32 as his shirt number, all became clear. Derby’s main sponsor this season is the online casino and bookmaker, 32Red. As part of the sponsorship deal, 32Red will pay a large percentage of Rooney’s wages, in exchange for the publicity gained by him wearing the number 32.
The deal provoked anger and controversy across the football world. Concerns have been raised about football ‘normalising’ and giving big publicity to an industry that profits from those addicted to gambling. Many ordinary fans face large debts; some have even committed suicide as a result of the industry.
So Derby are sponsored by a gambling company called 32Red and they've suddenly found enough money to sign and pay Wayne Rooney, and by some magical piece of luck he's picked shirt number 32 to wear? Forgive me for being slightly sceptical— Chris Broom (@CB100991) August 7, 2019
Some have even gone as far as saying that Wayne Rooney has ‘sold his soul’ by agreeing to the deal. Discussing the moral aspect of the transfer is almost beside the point, however. Sponsorship by gambling companies is already widespread. Football has gone well beyond the point of what is morally right.
In a socialist society, where profit was no longer the main motive, such promotion and sponsorship deals would be totally unacceptable and wouldn’t be allowed to exist. Indeed, the entire gambling industry would not exist. But, under capitalism, the source of income for privately-owned football clubs is not seen as important - just as long as the money keeps rolling in.
Macclesfield and the lower league crisis
Outside of the glamour of the major transfers, we can see the other major impact of football’s commercialisation: rampant inequality - a reflection of the extreme economic polarisation that exists throughout capitalism.
Already this season, Bury FC have ceased to exist. Bolton Wanderers only avoided a similar fate due to a last-minute takeover. And many other clubs have reported serious financial difficulties. Over 75% of English Football League (EFL) clubs have reported losses in their most recent accounts.
The focus for the last couple of months, however, has been Macclesfield Town, where there have been player strikes, points deducted, fan protests, and unpaid wages.
In January, Macclesfield had a winding up order adjourned until 25 March, as owner Amar Alkadhi claims he is close to selling the club. This may prove to be impossible though. Prospective owners are pulling out over claims that Alkadhi is asking for too much money and is constantly moving the goalposts (figuratively speaking).
Should a second EFL club go bust within a year, it would demonstrate the extent of the crisis.
Lower-league club owners are increasingly intent on ‘chasing the dream’ - spending large sums of money to gain promotion and sell at a large profit. As a result, football insiders have been claiming that: “It is not outlandish to worry that 75 percent of clubs in the bottom two divisions have zero long-term future in their current form.”
This shows that the commercialisation of football has not simply destroyed the game as a spectacle for many supporters - it is on the brink of destroying the game as a whole.
Reclaim the game
Many fans have begun to talk about ‘reclaiming the game’. Protest movements and groups have sprung up. These include ‘Against Modern Football’, ‘Fans against VAR’ and ‘Twenty’s Plenty’. Some fans are also forming ‘protest’ clubs, such as FC United and City of Liverpool FC.
These movements often recognise that it is the outright commercialisation of football that is the cause of the problems seen in modern football. But we cannot simply look back nostalgically at the pre-Premier League era.
The only way to truly ‘reclaim the game’ is to kick the profiteers and private owners out of football, and to fight for all clubs to be owned and run by supporters’ organisations and local working-class communities.
The beautiful game is not simply going through a bad spell. Many at both the bottom and the top are fighting for their entire survival. Under capitalism, the entire future of the sport is under threat.