The weekend’s Premier League games saw yet more controversy. Diving players, racist taunts, pitch invasions and a bloodied Rio Ferdinand reeling from a missile impact which, had it landed a centimetre below the eyebrow it struck, could well have blinded him. Yet this type of behaviour is nothing new. Fully four years before the birth of Ferdinand, on 24th August 1974, at the rear of Blackpool Football Club’s Spion Kop, a young man named Kevin Olsson was stabbed in the stomach during an altercation with rival fans. As the seventeen year old lay bleeding on the stepped terraces amongst the discarded pie wrappers, glowing cigarette butts and freshly expelled urine, he might briefly have wondered what would become of the game that he followed.
Kevin, you were the first person to be murdered inside a British football ground. And I’m sorry to have to report that, along with you, football died that day in 1974.
Since that time, our national game has flattered to deceive with successive makeovers designed to make it more palatable and appealing to successive generations. Yet the game has been so full of short-term greed and lacking in long-term visionaries that it has consistently failed to right its wrongs. As a leopard never changes its spots, this animal will always revert to its natural state – a wild and ugly beast that symbolises all that is wrong in our spoiled and petulant society. A game riddled with racism amongst many of its supporters, a preternatural propensity to cheat amongst its players and a singular lack of respect for authority from significant sections of the baying masses that gather to participate and support at almost every level of its existence.
Disasters of every type have come and gone since Kevin Olsson’s death. At Hillsborough and Bradford, hundreds perished in terrible tragedies at substandard stadia where supporters were treated like cattle. The Taylor Report that followed revolutionised ground safety with fans ensconced in all-seater comfort within brand new hospitality-suited pleasure domes. For a short while, it seemed as if progress was being made.
An Australian media mogul named Rupert decided football was the sport on which he would build his television empire and with that decision came an injection of previously undreamed of wealth. Soon, clubs were fighting for their share of the millions in a spectacular and unseemly display of greed. The Football League was fragmented, with the FA Premier League formed to house the elite. Football once again demonstrated an all too familiar ability to reflect the society it serves to entertain. The rich would get richer, the poor could take their chances.
Murdoch’s millions inflated player salaries to ludicrous levels, with clubs living wildly beyond their means. In the past twenty years, the average national UK wage has risen by 186%. The average wage of a UK footballer has risen by over 1,500%. Top players earn more than £1 million per month and the wage bill alone of several clubs outstrips their total turnover. Yet this profligacy and excess, this mercenary milking of a club’s resources has become the norm. “Who can blame him”, are the words most often heard when yet another player jumps ship to secure a further ten grand a month on an already unimaginable salary. And that is symptomatic of the problem. There is no blame in football, simply a resigned shrug and a bow to what is perceived as market forces. The last time we had such a collective bout of sticking our heads in the sand to avoid confronting such a problem, the banks crashed around us and the repercussions swept around the world like a giant tsunami. Whilst the demise of football as we know it will never be as cataclysmic, it will surely come unless we acknowledge that some form of root and branch review of the way the game conducts itself is required.
The sport has become a plaything of the rich and famous, stripping once local clubs of their identities as more and more overpaid outsiders (from within and without the UK) are parachuted in to clubs - clubs that once relied on talent scouted from within thirty miles of their grounds – to chase yet more financial rewards in the form of European competition. The end result has been to leave many of those who follow their team to fashion a revised identity through a reversion to obscene chanting, racist gestures and random, missile-throwing, violence.
For, if it is about nothing else, football is about identity. It is a raw, tribal force – a gathering of young men to prove their virility and manhood. It is about geography, a kind of sawn-off nationalism that demands respect for, and defence of, one’s ‘turf’ - both on and off the field of play. That’s all well and good in modern times as long as that with it comes an understanding of the role of our own and other communities within a broader society. But, as a moral beacon to those following, football’s light is barely a flickering Swan Vesta. The financial stakes have relentlessly increased and the rewards have become too great for those participating to ignore. Cheating has become the norm. Cheating off the pitch by way of running companies based almost entirely on debt or the ‘false’ income of sugar daddy owners. Cheating on the pitch by way of diving, referee abuse, feigning injury, the wagging of imaginary cards and all manner of other, so called ‘professional’ actions. How surprised should we be then, that many fans, like children spoiled by indulgent parents with no sense of fiscal value, have become recalcitrant and unpleasant, unable to contain the bile and vitriol that comfy seating and stainless steel pie ovens have carefully plastered over for the past two decades.
Behind the family friendly façade of Sunday afternoon kick-offs and worldwide television audiences lies a world of avarice, fiscal irresponsibility and a lack of respect and authority. The lunatics, on and off the pitch, are firmly in charge of the asylum. The good and decent majority are, once again, silent.
I suspect, if Kevin Olsson were alive today and had been able to see the blood flowing down Rio Ferdinand’s face, he might have opined that the game that exists as we go into 2013 is, despite its shiny packaging, in many ways more cynical, more unpleasant and more deeply rooted in the unedifying values of greed, desperation and a desire to win at all costs than the one he so tragically left behind on the concrete of the Blackpool kop on that warm and balmy August day in 1974.