The Irony of Modern Football: Are We Happy? Has Money Destroyed the Game?

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The Irony of Modern Football: Are We Happy? Has Money Destroyed the Game?
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Should you ever take a walk past the Trinity Road stand at Villa Park, you'll note a bronze statue standing tall among the many passersby. It's a monument to the founder of the football league, William McGregor, former president, director and chairman of Aston Villa.

Upon traversing down from Scotland in 1886, he learned of how poor a state the organised game of football was in England. Meaningless, sporadic friendlies were being cancelled on a consistent basis, making it difficult for clubs to attract regular crowds and create a presence for the game we know and love today.

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The William McGregor statue at Villa Park.

McGregor talked Villa and 11 other clubs around to the idea of a competitive league—the original Football League, as we know it—and organised, structured football was born that day in England.

The first stepping stone was laid that day toward the globalised spectacle we adore in 2013. The question, though, is whether or not we are truly happy with the progression, happy with its current stateand whether or not the billion-dollar investments are killing the sport before our very eyes.

 

A MECHANISM FOR CONTROL?

There's an old government theory—at least in England—that spare time makes a man dangerous.

As far as the powers that be are concerned, minimising the spare time a working man has is paramount to minimising disruptions and incidents. Whether you believe in this method is another issue entirely, but football emerged as the perfect way to keep workers happy during their free hours.

On a Saturday, you would work the mines in the morning, have lunch and then go to watch the football until 6 p.m. You'd then go home to eat your dinner, or you'd go to the pub—but to talk about the game, rather than kill time.

Allegiances and tribalism emerged within the sport fairly quickly, no doubt, but the sport was seen as a sort of "cure" for boredom and made for a better place.

Games of football would emerge in every park, and rarely could you take a walk in the early 20th century without witnessing several sporadic kick-offs between mates using jumpers for goalposts.

A nation enraptured.

Football occupied people, and when friendlies were being cancelled on a regular basis—as McGregor found out when setting up a shop in Birmingham with his brother—the mechanism to occupy was disappearing.

No doubt, the government were delighted to see McGregor's bill for the Football League to be actioned.

 

WHAT IS MODERN FOOTBALL?

When asked the question "Are you in favour of modern football?" the smart response is: "Define modern football."

The go-to reaction in 2013 is to label anything bad (or, perceived to be detrimental to the game's standing) as "modern football." Diving, billionaire takeovers, superstar wage packets and preferential law treatment.

"Blame modern football."

Really, modern football is anything and everything that has come since the formulation of the leagues. It's the rule changes in the mid-20th century as much as it's the influx of South American stars into Europe's top leagues. It's as much the positive safety precautions taken as it is the globalisation of the world's most popular sport.

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The Royal Engineers, 1860-1870.

The juxtaposition of how football was played by the founding 12 and how it is today is stark—perhaps incomparable. We've essentially moved from a blue-collar sport that keeps the working man happy to a globalised machine used for entertainment and money-making purposes.

The first hint of money that crept into game saw butchers, barbers and bankers—all playing football for the sheer enjoyment of it—become paid on a part-time basis. Part time became full time. Full time became five times the wage a miner or a carpenter would earn. Then five times became 100 times, 1,000 times, 5,000 times what they would normally earn.

Almost every move "forward" in the game has had the underlying caveat of making it a more enticing, exciting prospect. But with each move we've taken the game away from its origins.

That, arguably, is modern football.

 

THE STATE OF THE GAME

Earlier this year, Goal.com's "Rich List" estimated that David Beckham's empire is worth around £175 million.

Sky News has revealed that the combined wealth of the top 50 in that list—from Beckham down to Alessandro Nesta at £16 million—amasses a total of £1.7 billion, a figure greater than the entire GDP of Liberia.

Players such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Radamel Falcao are all earning more than £200,000 per week, with the latter being excused of any income taxes thanks to the principality of Monaco.

If a player tears his ACL, he'll receive thousands, perhaps even millions of well-wishers on social media. Should the average Englishman fall to the same injury, he'll receive a card from his family and a leaflet from the doctor.

Players are entertainers on the world stage, and with football now open to almost every single country on the planet, they are actors in front of billions.

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Anyone even remotely tech-savvy can find a stream to watch overseas games, and you can plan your day to take in the Russian Premier League, La Liga, Premier League, Serie A and the Eredivisie if you so wish. Five games in one day, from the comfort of your own home.

The globalisation of the game—a recurring theme in this piece—has built stout fanbases for the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United in faraway lands. Go on holiday to Egypt and there's every chance your taxi driver is wearing a Ronaldo shirt.

Fabrizio Ravanelli was once the talk of the Premier League due to his exotic nature, but now Jack Wilshere is due to the very fact he's a rare English player in the English game.

The reach of football is unhindered, and for many countries who are relatively new to the sport (in Asia, for example), they take every opportunity to lap up every second. Football is everywhere, and it is everything for some people. We have Hollywood, we have Bollywood and now, arguably, we have "Footywood."

 

THE GREAT IRONY OF "MODERN" FOOTBALL

Every progression made in the sport is an attempt to grow its brand, make it more exciting and expand its influence in the world.

Whether it's the change in the offside rule to allow more goals, or the extremely questionable awarding of the FIFA 2022 World Cup to Qatar, we have created an animal that now feeds itself with its own star power.

We go back to the question raised earlier: Are we happy with how it's turned out? For all the worldwide adulation of the game and the broadening of its audience, we—as fans and spectators—are now firmly under the thumb of the companies who control the broadcasting rights.

Decisions taken inside the boardrooms of football clubs concern TV companies' interests, not fans, and the pull of the crowd has been entirely demolished.

Games can be moved at the request of Sky Sports, and clubs will oblige, blindly ignoring the fact that their fans will travel great lengths to watch that particular match and book hotels well in advance to save money. Their pleas are later ignored.

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Some clubs stand by their youth academies and praise the production of strong, fresh talent; others are enjoying the highlights of their club waltzing toward titles on the back of millions and millions invested.

On October 24, 2012, Ajax beat Manchester City 3-1 in the UEFA Champions League. The fans at the Amsterdam Arena held a banner aloft that stated "against modern football," and the team their side fielded that day had been accumulated for an estimated £3.5 million.

City's starting XI was estimated to have cost £185 million in transfer fees alone, with £25 million man Carlos Tevez and £22 million man Mario Balotelli coming off the bench to no avail. Ajax can achieve domestic success in the Dutch Eredivisie without spending much money at all, and in their own domestic division they are financial powerhouses.

The disconnect across Europe is staggering, and the method your club is using is usually a big factor in your view on modern football. City fans aren't complaining about the billions Sheikh Mansour has piled onto their club, as pipping bitter rivals Manchester United tastes far too sweet.

The inverse of that is a club like Bolton Wanderers—one of the founding 12—who will now find it extremely difficult to return to "the big time" given the financial gap between the Premier League and the Championship.

As fans we are confused, torn on how to feel—for some things and against others. If anything, modern football has rendered the world entirely confused as to what they want or don't want for their beloved clubs.

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The very embodiment of this Aston Villa, the club who played a major role in forming the Football League—the basis of what we enjoy on a daily basis today—and who've played a formative role in most forward-thinking decisions since.

Fans of the storied club, whose one and only European Cup win occurred 31 years ago in Rotterdam, are unhappy with the lack of success their club is enduring, yet unwilling to get behind the single method required to catch up: spend, spend, spend.

The only other option is to complain and make do, while at the very least steer clear of relegation and avoid what Bolton are battling.

Should you ever take a walk past the Trinity Road stand at Villa Park, you'll note a bronze statue standing tall among the many passersby. It's a monument to the founder of the football league, William McGregor, and it's positively remarkable how much the same game of football has changed since his footprints paved the way for progression in 1886.

From a mechanism of control for the working man to the first thing on many children's lips when they wake up in the morning, football has snowballed into an overpowering entity that has largely abandoned its founding principles.

No longer a sport, no longer a game: It's a business, a brand, a stage and a source of economic gain.

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