Tuesday, April 14, 2009

This is the modern world

Football can be a very positive social force. In modern western societies, people's identities have become increasingly attached to ephemeral and transitory things: income, occupation, social status, possessions. Following a local football club, and especially one that reflects an identifiable set of values, is an extremely important mechanism for a lot of men to experience identity as part of a community - a reprieve from the often-alienating demands of life in a society where getting ahead as an individual is everything.

Like the black and white cookie in the Seinfeld episode, football is a great leveller. It connects people across countries, cultures, religions, political beliefs, social classes, and income levels. Supporters bond to one another over a shared love of the game or the club. You can always strike up a meaningful conversation with a fellow fan, whether he's a university professor or a cleaner of public toilets.

Playing football, and sport in general, is obviously also important for kids' development into well-rounded adults. Values of teamwork, sportsmanship, humility in victory and grace in defeat are vital to counter the prevailing forces that encourage individual success - academically, socially, and as an adult monetarily.

At the highest levels of football, though, these values have been utterly perverted. The English Premier League has been disconnected from reality to the point where, especially for the top clubs, success is simply a question of purchasing power. England goalkeeper David James has written a very thought-provoking article for the Guardian highlighting the questionable ethics employed by EPL clubs (bravely including his own club, Portsmouth) in casting their nets wide and buying up huge numbers of promising junior players. This is usually a preemptive move designed to ensure that the players do not end up at rival clubs.

The effects of this are quite significant. It means that 'youth development' becomes a numbers game rather than a meaningful exercise in providing juniors with a solid football education. In the example of Portsmouth, the club has 180 under-nines on the books. Of these, maybe one will end up playing senior first-team football. The rest get loaned out to lower leagues in England and abroad, and end up being discarded when they are proven to be sub-standard.

These kids grow up believing that they are special, that they will become superstars, the next Wayne Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo. Their well-meaning parents contribute to these pressures, as do the forces of society through things like reality television and a celebrity culture that fosters the notion that fame and fortune are quickly and easily obtained. Psychologically, it must be devastating when these young players finally realise that they will never 'make it'.

And, of course, the hegemony of the big clubs in the big leagues is reinforced by this practice. Buy up all the best young players and success is pretty much guaranteed. Actual youth development and the promotion of the club as a community focal point takes a back seat.

Leagues like the A-League, outside the top European tier, suffer in terms of their football development. The wealth of big European clubs, as well as the status of playing in Europe, is a huge carrot for young Australians. There are hundreds currently playing overseas, with only a few of them playing at a level higher than what they could experience in Australia.

Meanwhile, the big clubs are now little more than brands for fans to attach themselves to. Teenagers in Sydney or Singapore will declare their undying loyalty to Manchester United, Liverpool or Real Madrid, clubs from cities that they have never been to and to which they have no connection, on the basis of a well-marketed concept of the 'history' and 'traditions' of the club.

It's not hard to see how this sort of attitude to football as a branded commodity undermines its significance as a force for community identity. Success and image is everything (witness how many people jump off the bandwagon as soon as a club starts doing poorly - Sydney FC is a prime example). It must be slightly depressing for a lifelong supporter of an English side to see what has become of their club during the big-money Premier League era.

I don't really know what can be done to fix these trends in the long term, but I think Sepp Blatter's '6 + 5' rule, limiting the number of foreign players that a club can sign, is a good start. A cap on the total number of players a club can have on its books would also put an end to some of the extreme practices highlighted in David James' article. Ultimately, a salary cap of some sort would be a good thing for European football, but as long as the big clubs call the shots I can't see that happening.

Anyway, I guess the point of my rant is that here in Australia we have the opportunity to make sure that the mistakes of European football (mostly stemming from unregulated greed by the clubs) are not repeated. Frankly, I don't care if the A-League continues to leak its best players to Europe and Asia - as long as Adelaide United continues to represent the city, develops and gives opportunities to young local players, and provides an outlet for me to go and yell my lungs out every second weekend during the season, I'll be happy.


Chris Paraskevas said...

Bill, an outstanding piece that cuts to the heart of the matter. Grassroots may indeed be the last refuge for football as a social tool for the human being, the last place where the pursuit of excellence through sport is undisturbed.

I can't agree on the 6+5 rule though. The conversation came up at dinner the other day and concepts of the 'free market' and 'free movement of labour' were thrown about the table in denouncing Blatter; one can't but help feel that the Premier League is merely becoming a victim of its own success when key figures are so keen to topple it.

The problems that you speak of, such as bloated recruitment and motives not necessarily of benefit to an entire generation of young players and humans, is one that as you rightly pointed out appears to be borne out of the direction wider society is headed in.

Limiting the movement of 'foreigners' would merely be a placebo for the disease...

Bill said...

There are two reasons I think 6+5 is a good thing:
1. It forces clubs to put more emphasis in properly identifying and developing domestic players, rather than just importing large numbers of ready-made stars from countries with better development systems;
2. It keeps smaller leagues with a 'development' focus from being pillaged of all their best players.

I don't know much about EU labour laws, but I understand that there could be issues relating to freedom of economic opportunity within the Union. For me, though, it's quite concerning that the game is so beholden to the interests of the wealthy clubs to the (potential) expense of the rest.

A Football Story said...

Nice article Bill.

john said...

Can Sepp 'tell us what's right or wrong' Bill?

There is a long history to the 6 + 5 battle - see 'Foul'. Under the cover of looking after Africa it is about Europe's interests. Either way it is very unlikely that even FIFA will be able to break European law and force free trade out of the EPL. Too bad for England. They need as many players as possible playing in the top league to build up their national squad.

Great article today in the Syd Morning Herald on the 20th anniversary of the Hillsbrough disaster, linking the all seater stadiums to the commercial re-birth of the EPL.

Restraint of trade isn't going to work. But perhaps the GFC will. Man U, West Ham and others are all looking for new backers to keep their arms race going...

This is, this is the modern world.