Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

The recent transfer deadline day brought a dramatic close to the summer’s wheeling and dealing in the marketplace of football. While most back pages have focused on the shock last minute transfers, the most notable trend is the increasingly large amounts of money thrown around as the rich exploit what was once a working class sport.

The recent transfer deadline day brought a dramatic close to the summer’s wheeling and dealing in the marketplace of football. While most back pages have focused on the shock last minute transfers and conjectured endlessly about exactly where on a football pitch the new players will be standing at a given time on a Saturday afternoon, it is worth emphasising the enormous amount of money thrown around by the sport’s biggest clubs at this time of year.

In the English top division alone, a record £835m was spent on players over the summer. If you add to that the £1.035bn spent by Europe’s next four biggest spenders (Spain’s La Liga £425m, Italy’s Serie A £260m, Germany’s Bundesliga £250m and France’s Ligue 1 £100m) and the £78m spent in the biggest after that, the English second-tier Championship, almost £2bn was splashed out on players by Europe’s richest leagues this summer. A figure of this staggering magnitude has become the norm in a sport in which, we are told, clubs must now spend big if they are to have any hope of winning. But where does all of this money come from?

An expensive hobby

Fifteen of the twenty clubs now in English football’s top division, the Premier League, are owned by or have key shareholders who are businessmen with multi-million pound assets outside of the UK. For these financiers, the club they own is a business which should be designed to maximise the amount of profit they can make from it. Any millions spent on players should pay dividends when a return arrives in the form of greater demand for tickets, television rights, sponsoring and merchandise.

It is no surprise that the biggest spending European clubs this summer are also some of the highest valued brands in world football – Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Chelsea. Manchester United, in particular, has gone on a summer spending spree after a poor season in terms of performance has threatened their place at the commercial summit of world football. United’s neighbours Manchester City, on the other hand, have had close to £1bn poured into its squad of players over a number of years by an Abu Dhabi-based multinational owned by the Emirates royal family, intent on making it a brand comparable with the biggest in football.

Rich owners are helped along by television companies who want their own slice of the pie. BSkyB and BT Sport currently share a contract to show Premier League games live in the UK worth £3bn between them. In addition, all manner of reputable companies, from Wonga to dafabet, are queuing up to have their names unmistakably associated with sports brands already squeezing plenty of money out of the average fan.

What Manchester City’s Arab owners and Chelsea’s Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich have bought into has been dubbed “a very expensive hobby”. For the owners of football clubs, however, in context of TV and advertising billions, not to mention often very exploitative global financial operations, whatever money is spent on players is no problem at all. And while Rupert Murdoch may be shelling out billions to keep the Premier League on his beloved Sky, this is only so he can make even more billions through ordinary football fans earnestly following their teams having to subscribe to his pay-monthly channels to watch them.

These ordinary fans, meanwhile, have to shell out much more – an ever-greater percentage of their wages – in order to support their team actively. This year – with hardly any exceptions – has seen a 7% average in the rise of season ticket prices in the Premier League, leaving the average price to watch your team’s home games at around £800. If you want to travel to away games too, that will set you back at best £20 a game, and at worst £123.50. Manchester City fans, outraged by the £62 they were being charged to see their team play at Arsenal last season, threatened to boycott the match en masse, which could be the start of a pattern among fans who regularly attend top division football games. Roy Keane famously accused Manchester United fans at home games of caring more about “prawn sandwiches” than football. It wouldn’t be surprising if only those with a penchant for a prawn sandwich could afford to attend these games; the cheapest ticket to see Manchester United play at home has risen in price (adjusted for inflation) by 785% since 1990! (The Guardian: Figures for Championship clubs now don’t make much better reading.

If fans can’t afford these prices to attend matches, they could always get Sky’s Sports package to watch them on live TV for £35.25 a month, or £423 a year – hardly a cheaper option. Just as working people around the country are having their jobs, wages and living standards attacked, they expected to fork out hundreds more year on year even for this small crumb of comfort.

A den of thieves

As well as simply watching football matches, ordinary fans are bombarded from all sides with adverts encouraging them to place bets on them. A study by LGiU found that the number of betting shops in the UK increased by 600 between 2005 and 2013, with a further 300 new shops planned for the twelve months following the study. They claim that this is only part of the story, the real change being “the relocation of tertiary shops to high streets that is compounding the problem for local authorities whose powers to curb their proliferation are restricted.” According to the London Assembly, even though high street vacancies are now at 14% in the capital, while the number of betting shops in London town centres increased by 13% between 2010 and 2012.

But betting shops are only the tip of the iceberg. The propagation of online betting in recent years has been tapped into aggressively by football’s money-makers. Punters can now bet on anything, from straightforward results to miniscule details such as the number of yellow cards in a match or the minute in which a goal is scored, with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a smartphone.
Online sports betting has seen an astronomical rise in the past fifteen years, with one expert estimating its annual worth at $1trn late last year, with football accounting for 70% of that. As mind-blowing as these figures seem, they are easier to understand given the amount of coverage betting companies receive through football. Betting pervades every outlet of the game: Sky has its own betting company which is plastered all over its coverage of matches, its own sports website and others; betting companies are unavoidable at matchdays, afforded advertising hoardings all over the place and full-page spreads in matchday programmes; four Premier League teams even have betting agents on their shirts.

The result of this proliferation that media sources like to focus on is the apparent threat of corruption and match-fixing created by a global market of instantaneous online betting. What is less talked about, however, is the real effect it is having on football fans. The number of young people contacting the gambling helpline GamCare is set to increase for a fourth consecutive year at the end of 2014. Last year the BBC reported an 8.1% increase in the number of 18-35 year-olds asking for help between 2012 and 2013. It is no coincidence that those within this age bracket are also the most vulnerable to unemployment and loss of benefits. The NHS claims that in all there are now up to 450,000 problem gamblers in the UK. No doubt the rise of football betting has a lot to do with these figures. Betting agencies are essentially preying on desperate, underemployed or unemployed members of the working class. And what better way to do this than through the one thing people use to distract themselves from the horrible reality of life under austerity? And if football clubs and broadcasters make money out of this practice, why should they care about the welfare of the viewing public?

Football: the working class sport?

Football has traditionally been seen as the sport of the working classes across the world, and it continues to take pride of place as such amongst working people in Britain. To become a professional footballer has always been an archetypal aspiration of youngsters, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. Professional footballers, by and large, have always come from working class backgrounds and realised the dream of entertaining their local communities, or their nations, every weekend. In Britain they have their own trade union, the Professional Footballers Association, which was founded in 1907 as the Players’ Union, making it the oldest trade union in sport. In 1909, the union threatened a players’ strike over lack of recognition from football’s governing body, the FA, and in 1961 it won a campaign to scrap the maximum salary (£20 at that time), meaning that footballers could live well without taking a second job to supplement their playing wages.

A striking story from those days is that of Jackie Blanchflower, a member of the famous Manchester United side of the late 1950s nicknamed the ‘Busby Babes’ and regarded as one of the best teams in Europe. Blanchflower was injured in the Munich Air Disaster which destroyed the team; he was so badly injured he was told he would never play football again. At the time, he and his young family were living in a house owned by the club. After the news that he could no longer play, they were told to leave; Blanchflower worked a succession of odd jobs but within a year of the crash was on the dole.

Nowadays this scenario is unthinkable. On transfer deadline day, Manchester United signed Radamel Falcao on a one-year deal, agreeing to pay him a wage of £350,000 a week, which in itself would have gone a long way to sustaining Jackie Blanchflower and his family for life. Today, the PFA is a trade union in name alone, notably only for its annual awards gala. While players still hail from working class backgrounds, most are comfortably removed from their roots by obscene wages and the accompanying life inside a bubble. Meanwhile, British clubs can find fewer and fewer young aspirants to fill their academies, to the extent that even top-level youth teams are now filled with often-expensive foreign imports. British football is becoming increasingly disengaged from its roots in local working class communities.

Internationally, we can see similar trends manifested in different ways. We published articles this summer about the disgraceful way the Brazilian authorities, under the direction of FIFA, treated their own people. Poor people were actively excluded from the World Cup with high ticket prices, while the government prioritised the event over workers’ safety, healthcare and public transport. In big cities, poverty-stricken families were forcibly evicted from their homes in favelas and made refugees as cosmetic renovations were made to present Brazil as a nice, prosperous country without social problems. These actions had the opposite effect: a large proportion of the Brazilian working class turned its back on the country’s so-called “religion”; millions marched in protests over successive years, which continued into the World Cup itself. The Brazilian people had reached their limit: for the majority Neymar and co. were nothing to aspire to when they couldn’t even afford to travel to their low-paid work, their healthcare was getting cut and the poorest of them were getting cleansed from the cities while construction workers were being killed, not least in the name of a corrupt governing body acting solely in the interests of multinational sponsors. This side of football has nothing to do with the working class, the Brazilian people and many, many more could see this.

No escape for football

With every new football season, it becomes clearer that wealth and power in the game are concentrated in the hands of a few businessmen who have little interest in the sport itself. More and more smaller clubs, for so long centres of communities around the country, have been plunged into financial difficulty. Since 2001, fifty three professional football clubs in Great Britain have entered administration, five of them eventually being dissolved. This number is far beyond any period in the twentieth century, and demonstrates that the tendency for capital to concentrate in the hands of a few superclubs, specifically a few very rich businessmen, results in the opposite happening to the many smaller clubs still fighting for their existence in the lower divisions.

Alongside the increasingly concentrated wealth in the game we have seen the rise of the football agent. Almost all players now have agents, many of whom actively encourage players to push for pay rises and unnecessary transfers because they earn money out of it. On average, agents have earned 10% out of all player fees for wages and transfers in the Premier League over the past five seasons. In 2006, Premier League manager Sam Allardyce was implicated in an exposé on corruption involving football agents, in which it was alleged he was bribed by agents in order to sign certain players. Ostensibly, agents are there to manage players’ affairs; in fact, they primarily seem to make money out of engineering situations in which they can make more money. As the gravy train heads towards footballs top clubs, they are more than happy to get on board and take as much as they can.

Fans and well-meaning sports journalists are inclined to blame particular people and bodies for the state football is in: the Premier League and Sky for fostering an extreme imbalance of financial resources in favour of the top teams; bad owners who use clubs as their own business enterprises or playthings to the detriment of football as a whole; parasitic agents who encourage overflow of money for their own financial gains; spoilt players who now play more for money than for the love of the game. But really such actions are simply a response to the natural laws of capitalism; we cannot pretend that football should somehow be immune from these.

To save sport, smash capitalism

Football has seemingly gone from being a weekly antidote to the ills of capitalism to being the very embodiment of this competitive system. Fans see owners, agents, managers, even players, acting solely in the interests of profit and making supposedly uninformed decisions about football matters which spoil the enjoyment of those who pay to come and support their team.

In recent years, we have seen many fans protests over the policies of club owners, which range from simply calling unremittingly for them to leave, to threatening an organised boycott of matches. The most famous examples were the mass protests by Manchester United and Liverpool fans against their clubs’ respective takeovers by American businessmen. In the case of Manchester United, highlighted as persistent offenders in this article, a group of fans boycotted the club in 2005 and set up their own “democratically run community football club”. This has done little to change the original club, which under those same American owners has announced record annual revenue almost every year since the takeover, expanded its reaches in ripping off football fans worldwide, and likely still attracts most of the original 2005 protesters to watch its players every week.

FIFABlatterBesides, club owners now have to go through a fit and proper person test conducted by British football’s governing bodies, while UEFA, European football’s governing body, imposes financial fair play regulations on any club that wishes to enter its competitions. So if a big club happens to have a billionaire owner who has saddled it with debts and betrays the interests of the fans with high ticket prices and dubious sponsorship deals, it will continue to happen as long as football’s governing bodies have sanctioned it. And ultimately, their role is to pay lip service to reforms, for example with financial regulations, and to bend these regulations for the big clubs on whom the business of football depends. The leniency with which FC Barcelona was treated after it was revealed senior figures in the club had misappropriated almost thirty million euros of a transfer fee last summer demonstrates that FIFA and UEFA are more than willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to big clubs breaking the rules. The figures already mentioned show that football is a trillion dollar business; if it’s valuable enough for construction workers to be murdered in the building of World Cup stadia; then it’s certainly too valuable for the £1.5bn valued FC Barcelona to lose its status as one of Europe’s top clubs and not keep all of its best players, legally acquired or not.

For the fans, there is little value in the regulations laid down by these authorities. It is clear that they have no moral authority in the eyes of world football fans; contrary to being able to curb the unwieldy powers of big business in football, they are deeply embedded in the business itself. But nor can the actions of fans, from demonstrations to boycotts stop the rot. All the power which fans have is derived on a class basis, and they can only really exercise this power through the labour movement.

The degenerate and sick elements in football must be attacked at their root: the capitalist system. The same trends run through all sports, and are becoming more obvious to sports fans who are finding them harder to take. Rugby union is experiencing a similar phenomenon to football’s superclubs on a smaller scale, as players from around the world move in droves to French clubs for their high wages. Cricket’s Indian Premier League is a finance capitalist’s dream: all of the world’s best players in a room together, each auctioned off to an Indian-based team for millions of dollars, with more millions in sponsorship, advertising and TV rights then spinning off a barely recognisable, garish exhibition version of the game.

Along with the concentration of capital in sport, the corruption endemic in it is no longer concealable beneath the surface, with a new scandal breaking every month. Alongside the saga of Neymar’s transfer, fellow Barcelona star and arguably the most famous and talented footballer on the planet, Lionel Messi, and his father are being investigated for tax evasion. In 2010, three Pakistani cricketers were found guilty of taking six-figure bribes in the “spot-fixing scandal”. Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire mogul in charge of Formula 1 Racing, had a $44m bribery charge against him dropped this year – because he bribed the prosecutors $100m! In tennis, meanwhile, it is widely suspected that match-fixing is rife: this July six men were arrested in Melbourne in connection with the fixing of international tennis matches, while last year an expert from the Tennis Integrity Unit admitted, “There are a lot of cheats out there.” These are only a few of the scandals to hit the back-pages recently; it is plain to see that sport, and in particular football, as we see it now is only a part of a wider system in decay.

Once the deadline day hysteria whipped up in the media has died down and new signings are bedded in, it’ll be time to think about the cost of away tickets (not to mention privatised train fares), the extortionate price of a replica shirt and the Sky Sports subscription which go towards their obscene transfer fees, and more importantly, towards lining the pockets of a few people sitting in club’s executive box almost even more thickly. Surely then, it’s also time to fight for the end of capitalism, this system which necessitates the exploitation of working people in their leisure time in this way, as if the huge numbers of hours workers are forced to labour away isn’t bad enough already?

Just as Falcao joined Manchester United, Danny Welbeck, the last Manchester-born-and-raised player in their squad, departed. Mike Phelan, United’s former assistant manager, later observed that now, because of this, the club’s “identity is broken”. In reality, capitalism cares nothing for any “identity” or “spirit”; in fact, the longer it is allowed to continue, the more it alienates people and communities from any sense of identity. The only way for working people to reclaim fully an identity they may have found through football, or any other sport, is through socialism. Only in a truly free and democratic society – under the control of working people – in which wealth is shared among the many and not funnelled to the few can any healthy competition played in a communal spirit be restored.


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