Sunday, April 21, 2024

I know you got soul

Football’s loss of soul in the face of corporatisation is not a new concern. It is as old as the game itself. In the transition between the 19th and 20th centuries, many football clubs realised that they could not survive as an amateur interest. Some compromised their principles and battled the authorities to throw off the manacles of amateurism. Some clubs didn’t and ultimately, sunk without trace.

This was a moral grapple that was exemplified nowhere more distinctively than at Arsenal. Royal Arsenal’s shareholders took a vote on whether the club should turn professional at the 1891 AGM, a motion which was carried. In 1893, our co-founder David Danskin left the club, for a number of reasons, but chiefly because he opposed the move to professionalism.

However, co-founder Jack Humble rejected the notion that a limited liability company be formed. “The club has been carried by working men and it is my ambition to see it carried on by them.” Humble’s ambition obviously didn’t last. In 1893, Royal Arsenal did become a limited liability company and changed their name to Woolwich Arsenal.

Humble’s vision of Arsenal’s identity was rather taken to the cleaners in 1913, when a property magnate, freemason, knight of the realm and Tory MP named Sir Henry George Norris repatriated the club to the other side of the capital. Had Norris not undertaken this daring geographical and political coup, it is very doubtful that Arsenal would be the Premier and Champions League behemoth we see today.

If we’d have survived at all, it would likely have been as an ailing football league club. Arsenal’s appreciation of the identity versus progress is acute; it’s planted into the soil of our history. I recall Chelsea fans unfurling a banner at Stamford Bridge in a game against Arsenal that said, “One name, one ground, one club” as a riposte to our “no history” jibes (I think they rather proved our point myself) and as a badge of honour.

Of course you can’t really wear that badge quite so haughtily when your football club has lifted its skirt for somebody like Abramovic. But then I suppose I’m asking Chelsea fans to exhibit intelligence and self-awareness. Which, let’s face it, is a bit like asking a bear to shit into a toilet. Yet Arsenal and Chelsea have used controversial entrepreneurs to survive and thrive.

It brings to mind the interesting question of when does the tradeoff between selling one’s soul and success become too much? What is the tipping point? Like most personal questions, it’s an uncomfortable one. Not least because there are no right or wrong answers. Nobody likes to consider the point at which they would be prepared to walk away something that they love.

At the crux of the quandary is that all football fans want success for their teams. In the modern day, chances of success are inextricably tied with money. Whilst this concern existed for Arsenal and every other club a century ago, the levels of corporatisation in the game have accelerated to the point that the game is scarcely recognisable compared to even twenty years ago.

Again, localising the concern to Arsenal, we have built a corporately sponsored stadium with the help of bank loans whilst oil rich oligarchs have wrestled us from title contention. All the while, the ownership of Arsenal has been fought over by an Uzbeki steel magnate and a Missouri based American real estate tycoon. For most of us, if we’ve stuck with Arsenal and football to this point, we have done so with philosophical anxiety.

Many of course have already reached their high water mark. Wimbledon’s relocation and rebranding as the MK Dons spawned breakaway club AFC Wimbledon (AFC in this case literally stands for ‘A Fans’ Club’). When the Glazers executed a leveraged takeover of Manchester United, a hardy band of rebel souls formed FC United. Then you have the moral quandary of Cardiff supporters.

Their club crest and shirt colour were altered by owner Vincent Tan very nakedly for marketing reasons. Yet his investment saw them promoted to the Premier League. Was that a worthwhile trade off? Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here, it just depends on your personal viewpoint. It’s certainly uncomfortable though. Others have met the threshold of their patience in more private and isolated circumstances.

David Conn explores the theme very succinctly in his book ‘Richer than God’ principally based upon the takeovers of Manchester City by Franny Lee in the early 90s and ADUG in 2008. Conn fell out of love with City in the genuine sense when he investigated the Lee takeover as a journalist. It was when he realised that his childhood striking hero was just another businessman and football was a trough for the snouts of profiteers.

My brother in law is a Birmingham City fan and he stopped going to St. Andrews when the ground became all seater. To him, watching football seated just wasn’t much fun and he couldn’t see the justification in spending money on something he had stopped enjoying. In quieter moments, I reluctantly reflect on what my breaking point would be.

I recall some years ago blustering that I would give up on going to Arsenal matches if Alisher Usmanov became our majority shareholder. I was younger and a little more naïve then. I know of course that an Usmanov takeover wouldn’t have stopped me, if I felt that strongly about it, his owning a single share ought to be enough to pique my protestor streak. I wouldn’t have liked it, I’m not sure I particularly “like” Kroenke as an owner.

Yet I have stayed with it. I’ve stayed with the corporately sponsored stadium, with the colonial, monetising pre season tours. Many of us crack a smile and remark on how nice it is for our overseas fans to be able to see the team. What most of us really mean is “how nice it is for our overseas fans to take some pressure off of our pockets.” We’re at a stage where football’s commercialism is so consumptive that fans characterise one another as revenue streams. Humble’s ambition to see the club “carried by working men” is alive and well, just not in the way he envisaged.

I’m making sacrifices to keep up with ticket price inflation and have always thought I’ll hang on for as long as I can. I have previously reflected that my own breaking point would be seeing domestic games taken to neutral overseas territories. I’d be unlikely to be able to afford to go. My relationship with the club is built on attendance, if I lost that; I could see my interest dissolving. In that scenario, I could see myself becoming a passionate observer of football in general, but not as a ‘fan’ in the sense that I understand it. Maybe I would try and settle into football journalism, covering matches across the spectrum, as Conn did.

Many misunderstand that when I complain about an away match being moved to a Monday evening, my first thought isn’t “well that will give the players an extra 48 hours rest after a Champions League away fixture.” My first thought is “shit, I won’t be able to get a train home after full time.” Maybe my first thought should be the players, I don’t know. I just know away matches aren’t nearly as much fun on a Sunday or a Monday evening when you live a humdrum 9 to 5 existence.

Domestic matches being held outside of Europe will happen in my lifetime too, I’m sure. There’s simply too much money in the Premier League for the ‘39th game’ question not to be revisited and, ultimately, shoved through. It’s a natural progression from shirt sponsorship, to stadium sponsorship, to inflation busting ticket prices, to secondary commercial partners, to ‘rebranding’ a club’s name, location and club crest.

I’ve reluctantly accepted these to this point, in the name of ‘progress’ because, basically, I’m still able to go to matches. I’ve preserved my utmost selfish interest in the game. Really I know that, if I were a man of leisure and very rich and could afford to go to a competitive game in Bangkok, I probably would. Though I do object to the idea of “the 39th game” or similar, my stance wouldn’t be a principled one, but a fiscal one. So, much like football, my moral breaking point would be my financial one. As Mos Def sagely observed in his song ‘Mathematics’,

“Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings
but you push too hard, even numbers got limits
Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret:
the million other straws underneath it – it’s all mathematics.”

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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