Monday, 25 January 2010

Money in football – does the game belong to the fans anymore?

Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 transfer fees, wages, ticket prices and television revenues have increased to previously unthinkable proportions. Whether or not the quality of football has similarly improved is debatable, however it is certainly the case that in the last twenty years the proportion of overseas players in the Premier League has augmented immeasurably. This, along with the final and perhaps most important change at the pinnacle of English football, can be explained by the aforementioned factors. That is the very recent phenomenon of Premier League clubs being purchased by exceedingly wealthy billionaires from across the world, which has even begun to filter down into the Championship, and most recently to Notts County of League 1. Since Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003, rescuing it from probable bankruptcy, the Blues have won the Premier League title twice in succession, the FA and League Cups twice and reached the Champions League final. I doubt any Chelsea fan would even attempt to claim that such triumphs would have been possible without Abramovich’s investment, which is rumoured to have topped £500 million since he took over the club. Manchester City are the latest billionaire’s plaything in the Premier League, having been purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group in August 2008, and if the club’s recent spending is anything to go by, City may well surpass Chelsea’s aforementioned outlay. With such dramatic changes characterising the pinnacle of English football, many fans, myself included, are deeply concerned at the potential future for the game. For even if the financial bubble in which the Premier League operates fails to burst, the combination of rising season ticket prices and greater concern amongst club owners for the number of fans in the Far East or Africa than their local communities is certainly a worrying sign.

Although it may appear as such, the trends exhibited by the Premier League are slowly but surely filtering down to the lower divisions, as the recent takeover of Notts County and its predictable subsequent collapse illustrates. Even my own side, Queens Park Rangers, have sadly fallen victim to foreign billionaires, and the selfishness, arrogance and disregard for fans they have unfortunately become associated with. Since the club was purchased by Formula One magnates Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore in 2007, season ticket prices have risen to astronomical heights, attendances have fallen to embarrassingly low levels, morale and camaraderie have disappeared amongst the fans, and a series of thoroughly inadequate and occasionally inept players have been afforded lengthy and generously paid contracts. Despite lavish, and frankly laughable promises of turning QPR into a ‘boutique’ club, and a ‘five year plan’ to achieve Premier League football, which may invite unfavourable comparisons with those of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, the reality is it very little has changed. The sum total of billionaire ownership at Queens Park Rangers F.C. has been a succession of managers sacked without being afforded sufficient time in the job, a demoralised and alienated fan-base, an over-indulged playing staff and the club’s reputation being brought into disrepute. For a significant proportion of those able to afford the outrageous £600 the owners insist on charging fans for the privilege of supporting their team, the dark days of administration, the struggle to survive in the Championship, buckets outside the ground and the glorious triumph of Hillsborough, achieved in spite of the club’s financial situation, seem intensely favourable to the current malaise.

It would be difficult to deny that since its inception, the Premier League has been anything other than an attempt to monetise, commercialise and internationalise the foremost level of English football for the aggrandisement of a select group of clubs. The Premier League in its current incarnation couldn’t have less to do with the values still prevalent, although likely to disappear in the coming years, in the lower leagues. The decline of the FA Cup, once a magnificent spectacle and a meaningful tournament for the vast majority of teams, has been one of the most obvious symptoms of the advent of money in English football. From being a predominantly working-class sport not thirty years ago football has become an incredibly expensive habit, open to those able, not to mention willing, to swallow continual rises in season ticket prices in order to support players who couldn’t be further removed from ordinary fans, and the exorbitant spending and shocking mismanagement of clubs run by foreign billionaires. Sadly it appears football has accepted its fate, renounced its traditions and embraced the pervasive and all-conquering influence of money. Manchester City may be the latest club to fall into the hands of foreign billionaires unaware and unconcerned of its traditions, but they most certainly will not be the last. Whilst teams in the lower leagues struggle to avoid financial meltdown, with many still recovering from the cataclysmic collapse of ITV Digital eight years ago, the Premier League will continue to be overrun by foreign billionaires, some of whom will be more generous with funds than others, and receive vast revenues from television companies primarily concerned with audiences in Beijing rather than attendances at Blackburn. Meanwhile the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in English football can only increase, whilst fans will forever be known as consumers of a global game, rather than supporters of their local teams. Therefore, although it pains me to say it, I see no future for a game that has rejected integrity, its fans, grassroots development, its collective history and ultimately its soul, in favour of astronomical wages and transfer fees, attracting football-illiterate billionaires from abroad, marketing itself around the world and extortionate ticket prices.

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