Is Money Ruining "Our" Beautiful Game of Football?

Paul BenthamContributor ISeptember 16, 2008

Football belongs to the working classes of the world, doesn't it?


Ironic, perhaps, for a game that was codified at Cambridge University in conjunction with England's premier private schools, but all the same, it's true—isn't it.


Certainly, that's the commonly-held belief here in Britain. Football, its history and culture are and always have been indivisible from its blue collar supporter base. Liverpool's Kop, Manchester United's Stretford End, Arsenal's North Bank, and Aston Villa's Holte End are just four of the legendary fan strongholds within the grounds that are almost as famous as the players that graced the stage before them. 


Famous as these places may be, they are only carry such history because of the fans that have crowded them for generations. In almost every European or South American country, a similar list could be compiled.


From Belgrade to Buenos Aires, the working man made the game what it is on at least two continents and as a result, he has always felt entitled to call it his own.


Particularly in England, where we like to dwell in our history. It's a romantic notion, a game for the masses played out for decades before a sea of cloth caps. Of course, without a historical context, such romanticism is almost always misguided. Just as communism eventually perverted the romantic Marxist notions into the state control of Stalin, so this other opiate of the masses was never ever far from the evolving clutches of the filthy lucre. 


With the lessons of history, it is difficult to see how it can be concluded that the corruptive forces of finance are a particularly new phenomenon.  What's new is just the form it takes.


Inevitably, the gravitation of success over the years to the biggest cities' biggest clubs is testament in part to the financial clout provided to the teams with the catchment of the greatest numbers of fans. Market forces have always dictated, even in more innocent times, and Scottish football in particular has forever been little more than a hegemony of the two Glasgow clubs, Celtic and Rangers—not surprising when you consider that nearly half the Scottish population resides in or around the city. 


As more fans generate more money which funds better players, Is it any surprise then that the trophies have always found their way regularly to Madrid, Milan, Munich, or Montevideo for this reason alone?


With glory and money always at stake even in the game's least lucrative years, those who ran football clubs were never slow to see the opportunities to maximise their returns. In more austere times, this was done not by raising prices—the market would not stand that then—but by minimizing costs. 


Perhaps the most famous example of this was the "maximum wage" in England, often making the game's biggest stars little more than hired hands in a sideshow. Tom Finney, one of the finest players ever to pull on an England shirt, first did so while learning another trade to supplement the £14 a week he was alotted. For this reason he became forever known as the "Preston Plumber". 


Finney may not have been ruined by money then, but it's naive to believe that no-one else was. His club, Preston North End, presumably saw no limit to the number of supporters their star player could lure to Deepdale Park and yet were happy to hide behind the rule which saw his renumeration matched to that of players vastly inferior to him. 


The unfairness could not go on forever and the ceiling was finally scrapped in 1961. Club chairmen would have to find other ways to line their pockets, and many did. Many an autobiography of those from the time tells stories where players were bought and sold without consent or under severe coercion from chairmen who turned the transfer business into a cosy cartel. 


In 1962, three players from Sheffield Wednesday would rock the English game by betting on their own side to lose for their own personal gain. While indefensible, the suspicion has always been that the game's serfdom created the conditions that motivated the crime.


With players allowed to be fully professional, a form of free market finally began to emerge for the very best players, despite the efforts of the chairmen to keep the status quo. It seems no coincidence that Jimmy Greaves left Chelsea for AC Milan and returned to Spurs in 1961—either side of the abolition of the maximum wage in England. 


It's also worthy of note that the record transfer fee for his return was deliberately kept below £100,000, as an attempt to reduce the pressure that the press would place upon him.


Herein lies another irony: the game belongs to the working man who supposedly wishes it to remain close to its working class roots, yet the game's followers also feed the press who simultaneously delight and disgust in the hype and increasing prosperity it has brought the players. 


Thus, when in 1962 Denis Law joined Manchester United from Torino for a new record of £115,000, the figure was never far from the story. The same has been true of almost every record fee since then, with the "record signing" status becoming consistently seen as a burden. 


In a free market, the price is whatever the buyer will pay and the seller will accept. In football, major transactions are scrutinised by the press, often with indignation, often one suspects it is feigned indignation with the purpose of shifting more copies by playing to a working-class sense of disconnection from high finance. “Is anyone worth £115,000?” the stories went, high in moral tone, yet low in sincerity. 


The media’s role in football has for many years resulted in creating unease between club and their fans, usually over money, and not usually by accident.


And thus the escalation of the transfer record as a symptom of "money ruining the game" reached its logical conclusion in February 1979 when Trevor Francis became Britain's first £1m footballer. The indignation with which this was greeted by some sections of the British press seems rather quaint today, when David Beckham can reportedly earn that figure in a fortnight. 


It was, however, a sign of much bigger things to come.


Again, irony played a significant part in the story. Mired in the age of hooliganism and recession in the UK, football's powers decided that severe limits had to be put on the televising of games. For years in the 1970's and 80's, the very rare Sunday afternoon game was all the armchair fan could hope to watch live, and thus the exodus of paying fans from the terraces was deemed to have been stemmed. 


The rejection of television was a means of matchday revenue protection and was spectacularly counter-productive.  Without the oxygen of publicity, the game stagnated and the inflationary forces on both fees and wages were relatively modest. In 1981, Bryan Robson moved from West Bromwich Albion to Manchester United for a fee commonly reported as £1.5m, a record for the time. It would be another six years before a bigger deal was done between British clubs, with Peter Beardsley's £1.9m move from Newcastle to Liverpool. 


The pace of wage rises was even slower—not surprisingly perhaps, given that at least transfer fees went from one club (chairman) to another.  By the mid 1980's, the very top players in England were commanding wages of £2,000 per week, similar in scale with many big business leaders of the time, but hardly stratospheric.


Still, there was consternation, and all the usual complaints about football's brave new world were aired. It was at this stage that some voices began to argue that footballers were entertainers and as such, £100,000-a-year for top players hardly compared to the rewards with the best-paid stars of music and film, as sportsmen like Michael Jordan were beginning to in the US. Michael Jackson's Bad tour at the time grossed over $125m (roughly £70m at the time). 


Even Diego Maradona could only look on at that figure with envy.


It took the twin imposters of triumph and disaster to bring about the conditions that allowed English football's most overt move towards commercialism—the Premier League. 


In 1989, the Hillsborough disaster brought about long overdue stadium development that forced the clubs to spend money on seating and facilities, expenses that required them to think beyond the market they had taken for granted for so long and embrace such radical concepts as appealing to women and children, and treating all fans as customers. 


Then, just over a year after Hillsborough, England's glorious but ultimately unsuccessful passage through to the World Cup semifinals (all on live TV) allowed the whole country as one to rediscover the pride and joy of the game. The growth of satellite TV here was just the final ingredient.


And so, in 1992, armed with a 5-year TV deal of £191m from BSkyB, a figure far beyond anything seen in the game before, the breakaway Premier League was formed. 


If the old sensibilities were offended by the end of the old Football League monopoly, they were to become further affronted when the nouveau riche Blackburn Rovers, bankrolled by steel magnate Jack Walker, smashed the transfer record by spending £3.6m on a young Alan Shearer. Once again money was "ruining the game" and Blackburn Rovers eventually won the Premier League, albeit by committing the supposedly cardinal sin of "buying success".


The game exploded in popularity, allowed to flourish by its rejection of the old negative thinking. TV exposure raised interest and appeal which increased satellite subscriptions which raised money. It was a virtuous circle and yet still there was a small but vocal faction who felt uncomfortable with the new more money-driven ethos, despite the fact that this money was responsible for the addition of players like Cantona and Klinsmann to the English game. 


Previously, our best players had been lured to Germany, Spain, and Italy. Now the tables were beginning to turn. How those critics would welcome a return to such tame capitalism today!


Like any boom, football in the Premier League era has not been without its casualties.  Leeds United's implosion still counts as the gravest warning first against courting the money markets and then ultimately, financial over-extension.


Perhaps the very different conventions and terminology associated with companies listed on the stock exchange was an enduring reminder of how far from their roots these clubs had come but the bigger threat was still to come.  As we were so often reminded, being a listed company is merely the state of being permanently for sale—for better or for worse.


Countless managers have suffered at the hands of deluded chairmen over the years, but in recent times the cult of the indulgent and interfering owner has added a new element of risk to those they employ to lead the team. 


Telegenic as he was, Brian Clough was not especially remarkable in the 1970's for running the club top to bottom. Today, Alex Ferguson is seen as the last of that breed, a manager whose parameters are set far beyond that of the European-style "Head Coach", with limited powers to sign players or even pick the team. 


Yes this is a symptom of money changing the game, not necessarily for the better, but is it particularly new or was it ever thus? Spanish football in particular has been run this way for decades, with tyrannical owners like Atlético Madrid's Jesús Gil infamously replacing his manager 17 times over 15 years.


Furthermore, the notion of the foreign owner is for some the final straw. The fissure in the ranks of Manchester United fans over the transfer of ownership to the Glazer family is perhaps the best example of the divisiveness it brings. 


So far, it seems that the club has not suffocated in debt, priced itself extravagantly or emasculated the manager or the team, so it's tempting to conclude that the breakaway fans who formed their own FC United in lower reaches of the game did so from misguided pessimism. 


This would be an inaccurate reading. Many of these disaffected fans had for many years felt alienated by the creeping commercialisation and gentrification of their club, the league and the wider game. They would often explain that by once again standing to watch a game, they felt they had returned to an experience of "real" football that the Premier League had long forgotten.


In fact, the terraces had been outlawed since the early 90’s, over a decade before anyone had heard of Malcolm Glazer. 


Obviously, their discontentment had simmered for many years and the arrival of the Glazers was simply the final betrayal of their principles. In a nutshell, in football as in politics as in life, there are those who support the right of the powerful to exert their power and those who insist that the whole community is diminished if it is unbalanced.  Yes this is evidence that the arrival of overseas investment has disaffected many, but is that the same thing as ruining the game?


Football today is not perfect and it is not without is obscene excesses, but with all its faults, nor is it ruined.  Nostalgia is an illusory force. It reassures us that prices were low, things were safe, players played for the shirt and managers ran the club. It glosses over the prehistoric stadium facilities, the threat of the terrace surge, imagined or real, the dirty deals and the talent drain. 


Today, it’s almost impossible to think of a top English player playing for a foreign club, young fans can watch a game in seated safety and Wembley Stadium has more toilets than any building in the world.  Sky, the Glazers, Abramovich, Gillett & Hicks, and the latest regime at Manchester City may have taken the game yet further from its origins, from its fans’ values, but they have also taken it further from the darker aspects of its history.


Like it or not, the game progresses, as the rest of the world does.  As in life, we’re always faced with the need to adapt to the changes, delighting in the improvements and bemoaning the disappointments. 


It’s not perfect now, but it never was. All that seems to have changed are the imperfections.


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