Power in Football: Who Are the Real Mugs?

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Soon there won’t be any break at all. It still seems like yesterday that Luke Shaw legged it to the back-post, called furiously for the pass, and then drilled a fine half-volley past Gianluigi Donnarumma and into the memories of half the nation watching on in mesmeric rapture. And now qualifying for the European competitions is back and in full throttle; the Premier League has awoken from the world’s shortest-ever hibernation; and all players everywhere have returned from their beach holidays in countries no-one has heard of.

The football calendar has started over. “We go again.”

It was OK in the very manic midst of COVID-19. Back then there was an excuse — that these are not normal times. But while the pandemic lingers on as if it has no concern for human plans whatsoever, football has caught up. The calendar is back to normal. And yet player holidays are shorter than ever. Increasingly rare are weeks during the season in which there are no games between Saturdays. The supposed return to the traditional footballing calendar is a fallacy. What takes its place is relentless football, stretching on and on into the eternity.

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But why? Football didn’t go from being an amateur sport played by aristocrats in caps to an all-consuming multibillion-pound industry overnight. It happened because people questioned football and tried to improve it. So, let’s do so again. Why, these days, is pre-season closer to a three-week run of pointless fixtures than a well-earned rest for the world’s best players? Why are the Premier League’s top talents playing every three days rather than every seven? Why is there a League Cup? Why is there a Community Shield? Why is there a UEFA Super Cup — and why does it not go straight to penalties after 90 minutes? Why has this happened? Who does it serve?

Only once you ask these questions do you discern where the power in football lies. Why would any top footballer want to play an elite football match every three days from the ages of 17 to 35, beside a fortnight-long holiday once a year? They wouldn’t. Form and class and quality and improvement are not maximised this way. But money is. Money talks.

The case in point to end all case in points is the European Super League. It felt like the final ghastly insult to anyone with even a modicum of fondness for genuine football — for football as entertainment rather than as big business. That these clubs — clubs with character and history and an apparent adoration for their communities — would form a cartel in secrecy showed staggering disregard for those who had made them what they are. That they would alert their most loving with heartless, corporate press releases late enough at night that perhaps the world would be sleeping and simply not notice, well, that showed total moral vacuity.

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Then when they broke free from the torturous shackles of the evil Super League and returned home sniffling with apologies and proclaiming they now knew who their real family was, we let them back in. We might have said something like “We’re pleased you’re back but we’ll never forget what you did,” and we might have been happy with how many likes that tweet got. But in reality, we just opened the door and welcomed them back like nothing had happened; we didn’t even make them sleep on the sofa. We put on a brave face and convinced ourselves that we weren’t in the toxic, tragic, one-way relationship that we probably are in.

Have we ever given a moment’s thought about what it was like for the players? They had the same amount of warning as the fans: none. They woke up, got dressed, and realised on the way into training as they scrolled through their feeds that their football teams had run away from football itself. Their futures stood in thick jeopardy. And then their clubs escaped the ESL, and back into the powerless one-way relationship the players all sprinted too.

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And so as the new season juggernaut gathers momentum, it may be helpful to find some perspective, even if it is quite sobering. We must remember where the power lies. The wonder-goals and thrilling games are just the catharsis. They’re the nice free add-on. Because the product we’re actually all paying into, and the product these shattered footballers are all at the mercy of, is the business of football.

Football is theirs: the businessmen’s, the oligarchs’, the broadcasters’, property of the suited ones we never see. We and the players are simply the unwitting mugs who make it all possible by helping to balance the books. It’s the sort of relationship we all ought to terminate immediately… though it’s never quite that easy to cut ties with a lover.

Perhaps it’s best not to think about it. As you were, football.

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