An essay on football

Last month saw the start of the new football season, soccer if you will. Perhaps there’s nothing particularly newsworthy about that in itself, besides like Christmas or Australia Day it happens every year. And OK, maybe Ashley Young scoring a goal from outside the box doesn’t justify the same number of column inches as the recent riots in London or March’s disaster in Japan. But for many it’s just as important, especially in England.  From August to May every year it governs our weekends, that slice of entertainment and drama propelling our life forward, bit by bit, match by match. Every dreary working week pays for that match at the weekend. It’s important because fans put so much of their lives into it.

I adore football for being the most compelling spectacle on television. But it seems like the game is entering a new age. There are now a few problems with the footballing world and the English Premier League to be touched upon.

Firstly, isn’t it becoming more of a business? This was reflected during the summer transfer window madness we’ve just experienced, chaotic bids of nonsensical proportions flying back and forth like a feverish trading floor. The most notable deal of the European summer saw F.C. Barcelona finally seal the services of midfielder Cesc Fàbregas for £33 million amid intense media frenzy. But it slips the minds of those key dealers at the top of the financial ladder that players are people. It seems odd how the owners of football clubs spend money like this…on purchasing a human. To what extent do they own them? Wouldn’t they rather have spent that money on a nice new Rolex? They would own that forever certainly.  Anyway, football as a business simply shifts the focus away from the heart of the beautiful game.

Another problem concerns the major issue of the introduction of video technology and replays to aid the officials and their decisions. This is a matter that the international governing body FIFA have largely ignored, glossing over it by claiming that “it would ruin the flow of the game”. A fair objection you might think, but week after week a goal is erroneously chalked off (England vs. Germany at last year’s World Cup anyone? The pain is as raw now as it was then and probably forever will be), a player is unfairly ruled offside, penalties are mistakenly awarded, a sly centre back is still on the pitch despite sending Didier Drogba to the ground with a subtle elbow jab. I would love to work out the results of last season’s Premier League table had all the correct decisions been made by the referees and their cronies. Maybe poor lowly Blackpool wouldn’t have been relegated to the Championship, who knows. But without the aid of video technology FIFA and the officials are playing by their own rules. (I know Drogba falls over too much but that’s not the point.)

For my third issue, we need to take a team like Arsenal. For their last match Arsène Wenger fielded a starting eleven consisting of not a single Englishman. Even I can admit Arsenal are a fine club with South-East England roots and a lavish history, but in the era of Wenger the emphasis on home-grown footballing talent has been expunged. And doesn’t this miss the point of a football club being to do with its location? In Sydney I see so many people attired in their Manchester United shirts, but what does Manchester really mean to them? It’s the same (but not quite to that extent) with other big clubs, including my dear Chelsea F.C. If Sydneysiders gave more of their support to Sydney F.C by attending their matches the future of A-League would look more promising. Now Manchester United is just a massive worldwide brand, the club badge like ADIDAS or SONY blaring down at you. Globalisation and all those other words. What a shame.

Finally, there is one criticism towards football that I have heard and eventually consented to consider, which is that it’s not much of a competition any more. Always the same teams at the top of the league, the same players with their hands on the silverware, champagne drenched on the podium. Obviously it’s because the best players are at the clubs with the richest owners, history, prestige. It’s the same story with A-League football. But wouldn’t part of you just bloody love it (and remember this is coming from a Chelsea fan), if Norwich City came along and trounced them all to the ground this season, Grant Holt lifting that four stone solid sterling silver trophy come May, tears in his eyes, hardly believing himself. For the people of Norwich this would be a bigger deal than most of us can even imagine.

In a sense the main problem with football is one that will never be remedied: the possibility of your team losing. That’s just not fair. Imagine how the Arsenal fans felt a couple of weeks ago after making the substantial journey to Old Trafford and witnessing United’s 8-2 drubbing of their team. What a way to spend your weekend. And then back to work the next day! Even worse than this, the nil-nil draws. To be fair, some are entertaining, but others; £50 a ticket and you trudge out of the turnstiles feeling like you’ve spent  it on a fancy ribbon-ornamented box, opening it up to find there’s nothing inside.

Incidentally, every time I’ve seen Chelsea play a competitive match it’s been a draw. The first of these occasions was at Stamford Bridge versus Blackburn Rovers, 17th February 1999. Probably not the most eventful match in Chelsea’s history although we did start brightly, Jody Morris (of all players) scoring in the first half. As he reeled off, the 34,000 odd crowd roared and ascended from their seats all around me. My dad turned to me and said, “Well, they’ve scored”.

Six minutes from time however, Blackburn scored and the home fans lost it. A respectable looking man next to me who had been quiet and unobtrusive up to this point suddenly shouted, “WANKER!!!” at the top of his lungs. I wasn’t familiar with that word. At whom it was directed I wasn’t sure, either the referee or the Blackburn centre forward with the audacity to score against us. Another kid a few rows behind me yelped, “C’mon Chels, you’ve got five minutes to score one more”.  I was scared, and confused. Chelsea weren’t losing were they? What was wrong with everyone, why were they so upset?  During that first match the overriding sense in me was fear. Fear of the boisterous fans, the noise, the overcrowded tube on the way home. Additionally, I couldn’t quite grasp how the supporters cared so much.

But gradually I learnt that for some fans football is all they have- that sense of belonging, almost the same reason so many young men joined those right-wing groups after the First World War; to wear a badge on your chest and feel like you’re really part of something important. Although for some it really is just an excuse to shout and swear loudly for two hours.

But now back to the present day. However much fun it is to moan about football and your club, we are lucky that when played well, it is the most blissful and celestial of sports to witness. Four weeks into the new season and it’s clear that we have a new contender for the Premier League title- Manchester City who are looking magical, although Man United are back to their invincible best. Norwich aren’t playing too badly either. And Chelsea’s chances? Silverware would be nice, and it’s a strong possibility under our charismatic new manager. But I would be happy to see Oxford boy Josh McEachran cement a place in the starting line-up. That and for Fernando Torres to score a few more goals.

How about the footballing future I hear you ask? Here are my predictions. Firstly, players become dehumanised from all the buying and selling to the point that they evolve into plastic figurines with half spheres stuck to their feet. Secondly, the referee and his officials become so corrupt with power that the original rulebook manuscript gets crossed out with marker pen and rewritten, the one sole rule now stating “THE OFFICIALS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT”. But most of all, fans scrimp and save every week as the cost of match tickets reaches several hundred for one tiny fifteen minute match, the chairmen cackling insanely with power, rubbing themselves with wads of our fifty-pound notes. I admit I am a cynic. You’d probably say I shouldn’t get so worked up about such problems, football is just a game after all. But I hope you’d understand when I tell you yes, it is a game, but not ‘just’ a game.

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