People overseas often have preconceived ideas about British society. On moving to the UK I was told that in Britain people will try and place you based on your accent, the school you went to and your job. This does happen, especially in the south, as a way of identifying someone in terms of their class or status or even just to understand where one fits. However, there is one question, one identifier, which I believe takes precedence over all others, that is of course which football team do you support.
Being obsessed with sports is hardly something unique to the Brits, in fact, most nations have a few sports they avidly follow or excel at. But the British love affair with football goes well beyond a passion for this sport. The football team one supports is core to one’s identity and it says where you are from or what your family heritage is. It is the glue that binds communities across the land and as a nation brings people together. It is a critical part of peoples lives and the communities they live in.
It should come as no surprise then, that opposition to the proposed European Super League has been met with widespread condemnation. There are few issues where UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former Labour Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn see eye to eye, yet this proposal has achieved just that. Rarer still to have the Second Heir to the Throne comment on such matters saying it would be “damaging.” Both the Lords and the Commons will likely debate the issue this week, and again opposition to this Super League will likely come from all sides.
This second post in my blog series on what COVID-19 has taught us about British society was not initially going to start with a post about football. Yet this weeks news and the response to it illustrates how much football matters in this country and why to understand British culture and predisposition then football is the obvious place to start.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020 former Conservative Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo was interviewed on Radio Four as part of a panel discussion, in which he argued that British society would not tolerate football matches being cancelled in response to the pandemic. On 13 March the Premier league was halted and did not resume for three months. There were fears that this would be the first British Football season not to be completed since the Second World War. In June the season did resume and Liverpool FC were able to win the league.
During the second and third lockdowns, Football continued to be played throughout Britain, though the teams played in empty stadiums where only a small few spectators were allowed in to watch the games live. Also as part of restrictions on pubs reopening, live screenings of matches were not allowed. Yet despite these restrictions and difficulties, football carried on from professional Premier League sides right through to local clubs. Continuing football has been an absolute lifeline for many during this very difficult year. My local pub has a Fantasy Football league which has run for a few years now. Being able to stay connected, analyse games, give cheeky banter to those who support Arsenal and generally share something as a community in these times has been so important.
The proposal to establish this European Super League is elitism and self-selection at its worst. Britain may not be known for being the most egalitarian of societies, but the magic of football is that even the crappiest low budget team still has a chance. When Leicester won the Premier League in 2016 their fans were absolutely elated and anyone who put money on them at the bookies suddenly was very rich. This was the true rags to riches small-town side taking on the big boys and winning story that people love. It is this that every fan of a struggling side wishes will happen to their team one day. This proposed league takes this magic away. It self selects historically strong and more importantly wealthy teams and creates their own league. Twelve European teams, including six Premier League sides, have signed up to this. Fans of these teams have spoken out against their clubs wanting to join this League, fearing that already expensive tickets to see matches will become completely unaffordable. Further that these few clubs, having made money through this league, will own all the best players and make it even harder for smaller clubs to compete.
The loss of spectators during the COVID-19 pandemic has hit many clubs hard financially. In terms of community clubs encouraging kids to get into football, a recent report claimed that 10% of grassroots clubs did not think they will survive the next 12 months due to lack of membership dues. Outside the Premier League, many local clubs have struggled to maintain their grounds or buy decent players for many years and the pandemic has only made this worse. Rich and poor clubs is nothing new and there is a reason that certain football teams have been more successful than others. In recent years this gap has widened.
Top tier football is big business and it involves big money. Manchester United Midfielder Marcus Rashford had a transfer value of £150 million in January 2021, for many clubs even if they sold their stadiums and all other assets could not afford this player. At the same time many of these big clubs show nothing but contempt for their loyal fans, charging them obscene amounts of money for tickets. Fans will get themselves thousands of pounds in debt to watch their team play both home and away games. Such is the loyalty of many football fans, they literally will spend all their savings to support their team whose players often are reluctant to sign shirts for their loyal follower after games.
Football culture in Britain is not always pretty. In 1985 English football clubs were banned from playing in Europe for five years after hooligans caused the deaths of 32 Juventus fans in Italy due to drunken and violent behaviour. More recently players have been subject to racist chants or abuse from fans from opposing teams, prompting the Show Racism the Red Card to be formed. One should not romanticise British football culture. Football holds a mirror to this society showing both the best and worst of British culture and social attitudes.
There are few things that stir the passion of Brits like football. And it seems in a country so deeply divided in recent years and having in the last 12 month gone through so much, this European Super League proposal has united people in a way that few other things can.
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