For the last year and a half, I’ve been living in a flat in central London with no internet or TV, which means I’ve been listening to a lot of radio. Of that listening, by far the bulk has been BBC Radio 5’s live commentaries of soccer games (from here on I’m going to say “football” instead of “soccer”) and then afterwards the post-match phone-ins, which are one of the opportunities the British public has to sound off about what they like or (more frequently) dislike about the modern game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of callers seem to care more about saying something than saying something good, and by far the two biggest trends to be heard are hyperbolic praise (“X is the best player this country has ever seen”) and demented criticism (“No one has ever ever ever been a worse manager than Y”), often delivered using that peculiarly English style of rhetoric—a mix of shrill sarcasm and outraged common sense. It’s good fun and good radio. But beyond its value as entertainment, there are other, more serious things that can be heard.
This was particularly apparent during the World Cup in South Africa last summer, after a stuttering English campaign was finally put out of its misery with a 4-1 defeat to Germany in the first round of knockout matches. For certain obvious historical reasons, matches between England and Germany carry a frisson that makes victory extra sweet and defeat all the more agonizing for the parties involved. What makes it worse, from an English perspective, is that since England last won the World Cup in 1966 (when they beat West Germany in the final) their record has been one of sustained, dismal and soul-sapping inferiority to German football. Over the last 45 years, German teams have won five major tournaments (two World Cups and three European Championships) and have been runners-up in six, compared to no wins and not one appearance in a final by England. Moreover, in that time, Germany has sent England out of a major tournament on three occasions (including two semifinals), while England has never once ousted Germany. It’s not for nothing that former England striker Gary Lineker described football as “a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
But the 4-1 defeat in Bloemfontein was about more than just the ritual humiliation of English football at the hands (or rather, feet) of the Germans. After several good-but-not-great years under the Swedish coach Sven-Göran Eriksson, and then an embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2008 European Championships under his successor, Steve McClaren, the English Football Association hired Fabio Capello—an Italian, and one of the most successful club managers of the last half-century—to take charge of the international side, on a salary of £6 million a year. Here was the man who would finally sort out the English side, cure them of their chronic and almost hilariously painful underachievement. Now obviously there’s something a bit humiliating about needing a foreigner to “sort out” your national team, especially when you (England) are supposed to have invented the game in question. Eriksson was the first non-Englishman to be appointed England manager, and at the time there was a lot of debate in the sports pages about whether it was appropriate to have anyone foreign at the helm. But the logic in favor of the decision was simple enough: what matters is success, and if there are no English managers who can deliver it then the FA should import someone who can. Eriksson never quite achieved enough to make this argument seem uncontroversially true, but the abject failure of McClaren—who is English—certainly reinforced the feeling that the country wasn’t capable of producing managers who could perform at the highest level. Hence the appointment of Capello: another foreign manager, but (supposedly) a better one; an upgrade.
To be fair, the optimism surrounding Capello’s arrival wasn’t entirely misplaced. England coasted through the World Cup qualifiers with one of the best scoring records in Europe. On paper, the first-choice team could be described, not unreasonably, as one of the most talented sides in the world. So there were reasons to be confident before the tournament began. And yet in the event the campaign was only marginally better than a disaster. In the group stage, an uninspired 1-1 draw with the United States was followed by a 0-0 with Algeria (a match which has to have been one of the most torturous spectacles in World Cup history) and finally a 1-0 win over the less-than-mighty Slovenia, allowing England to stumble through to the knockout stages. The fatal defeat to Germany came next.
At home, afterwards, the callers to BBC Radio 5 were not pleased. One complaint was particularly conspicuous, as it always is when modern footballers disappoint their fans: these players are typically paid more in a week than most of us could ever hope to earn in a year. Yet they failed, terribly. How can it be right that they’re given so much?
Some more background: the reason the English FA is in a position to pay Capello £6 million a year (and the reason his players command such lavish salaries) is that the fortunes of English domestic football have been radically transformed over the last two decades. In 1992 the old First Division was re-launched as the Premier League. The rationale behind this was to give the English top division commercial independence from the rest of the league, thereby allowing it to negotiate its own broadcast and sponsorship agreements, and, as a result, achieve a massive boost in income. The Premier League is now the most watched football league in the world and generates the highest revenues. The wealth pouring through English football as a whole can be attributed, essentially, to the commercial success of its top-level clubs. Football in England is big, big business. In many ways, the Premiership makes an ideal advertisement for the market-led boom of recent British history, a trend that began with the economic liberalization under Thatcher’s government, and which led to two and a half decades of more-or-less sustained prosperity, lasting until the banking crisis and recession of late years. In the Seventies and Eighties English football was a generally grim state of affairs, played out amid crumbling infrastructure and stained by hooliganism. Violence between different sets of fans was a major social issue. Compare that to the lavish stadiums, surging profits, well-policed games and multimedia glamour of the present—it would be hard to argue that domestic football isn’t a much improved product in several very important respects.
But prosperity has brought new antagonisms and ambiguities with it, conflicts between identity and profit that have become steadily more pronounced as the Premiership has cemented its hold over the national game. In tandem with the rise of the Premier League, football has largely shed its image as a preserve of the working-class, but the sport is still very much entwined with those traditions and audiences. Football clubs, many of which are over a hundred years old, ordinarily have their roots in working-class communities (Manchester United, for example, started life in 1878 as Newton Heath LYR—a railway workers team) and the vast majority of English players are still taken from this stratum. But the modern, multi-billion pound reality of the Premiership could hardly be further removed from poverty. Hence the leading English professionals occupy an ambiguous place in the affections of many of their fans. On the one hand, they are living proof that it’s possible to make it no matter what you started from. But of course the reality is that only a tiny fraction of dreamers ever realize the dream. So on the other hand this lifestyle also acts as a kind of rebuke, a world of lavish excess and adulation sealed off to the masses who ultimately fund it.
The larger irony is that the same commercial vitality and innovation that’s made the English Premiership such a towering success is getting to the point where it’s threatening to eat into the League’s identity—a nice instance of what Deleuze and Guattari, in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, called the “deterritorializing” instinct of capitalism; its tendency to dissolve, override and com- modify every determinate form of life it comes into contact with. Examples abound: it’s long been a complaint that there are too many foreign players in the league (68 percent of top-flight professionals are im- migrants—this fact is often blamed for the relatively poor performance of the English national side) but of course the influx of international talent is one of the primary reasons the Premiership is such an exciting product. You couldn’t remove the foreigners and enjoy the same quality of football. An even more telling case is the recent proposal for a “39th game”—an extra round of Premier League matches to be staged in various international venues such as America, India, the Middle East, South Africa, etc. While the idea undoubtedly makes excellent business sense, and would firmly reinforce the Premiership’s brand overseas, it also undermines the essential balance of the competition (that every team plays every other team twice, home and away) and one of its foundations (that it’s an English League, played in England). The “39th game” was eventually voted down by the clubs, although it’s yet to completely disappear from the League’s executive agenda.
If I had space, I could list numerous stories (all taken from the last few years) of appallingly mercenary player behavior, blood-sucking owners, alienated fans, hostile takeovers and venerable old clubs threatened with closure or crippled by debt after their financial excesses caught up with them. One example is worth a special mention: the already-infamous Wayne Rooney contract dispute, which tyrannized the British sports pages last November. Manchester United’s star player—but a man who had been out of form for his club since March 2009, a nonentity at the World Cup, and afterwards disgraced by tabloid allegations that he had repeatedly cheated on his wife (who is also the mother of his infant son) with a prostitute—Rooney reacted to what was perceived to be a subpar contract offer by insulting the club, questioning the manager’s judgment, and threatening a transfer to their newly wealthy intercity rivals, Manchester City. Manchester United responded by giving him an even better offer: a contract reportedly worth £65 million over five years. Rooney, in turn, made a complete about-face and claimed he had never seriously wanted to leave. However well you think the player and the club handled their sides of the situation respectively, it was all about as far away from dignified as you can get. “Football, as Rooney has shown, is a game where the rich only want to get richer,” noted one report in the Guardian afterwards. “But what price the prestige, the tradition, the glory of pulling on that red shirt? What we have in Rooney … is a player who thinks it fine to pay £200 for a packet of cigarettes and turn up his nose at money that could fund a local NHS service. It’s not good, is it? It’s modern football. And why we hate so many aspects of it.”
But still, it isn’t as simple as saying that money is dissolving the soul of English football. In his essay “Football/Capitalist Realism/Utopia,” the writer Mark Fisher makes an elementary (but vital) point about the hollowness of blaming football’s problems on the greed of individuals:
… the Premiership is often treated as if it were a cause rather than an effect. [Yet in] the lack of a coherent, general critique of capitalism, complaints about the inflation of players’ wages make no sense. After all, it is not public money being redistributed. Players’ spiraling wages are a consequence of the very market dynamics that, until [the] bank crisis, were held to be sacrosanct. You can detect a sour anti-working class resentment—shared by self-hating elements of the working class itself—in the attack on football’s “undeserving” rich. But all of this—the player’s high wages, the exorbitant ticket prices—is an effect of football’s total subsumption into post-Fordist capital.
As Fisher says, without criticizing the market system as a whole, it’s incoherent to criticize one of its natural consequences. For the English Premier League—qua product—the price of success just is the ballooning wages, the de-nationalization, the conspicuous consumption of the top-class players and the dog-eat-dog ruthlessness of clubs where loyalty counts for little, or nothing, if it doesn’t pay. Hence, amid the clamor about what a rotten and greedy state English football is in (ubiquitous in all those BBC call-ins), there is an extremely political silence: the absence of any systematic critique of the conditions which make this greed and excess possible.
You don’t have to be some kind of leftist radical to find this silence striking. What exists in England is a strange state of affairs where everybody with an interest seems to know that something is awry inside football, and that this something has to do with money, but at the same time this knowledge remains somehow half-realized, impotent, stuck. The root problem, or at least what I would suggest is the root problem, is that to seriously engage with football’s ills requires something more than most of us think is possible: a viable alternative to capitalism. “Systematic critiques” amount to nothing if they don’t lead us anywhere—but where exactly would we go, in this case? At the risk of stating the obvious, capitalism is the only game in town; it is how the world works. Given this, the relative inarticulacy of the fans’ grievances could be read as an expression of a much deeper cognitive impasse. Certainly it’s hard sometimes not to feel the force of Fredric Jameson’s thought that capitalism has come to occupy the entire horizon of the thinkable in the twenty-first century. The name Fisher gives this phenomenon is “capitalist realism”—a sensation that it’s no longer possible to even imagine a coherent alternative to the present system; consciously or unconsciously, we don’t believe there’s any other realistic way of organizing society.
Needless to say, this (if it’s true) is something that reaches far beyond professional football, but there’s an interesting question mixed up with it about how financial success and sporting success are related. Ask yourself this: Would anyone have complained about overpaid English players and their overpaid Italian coach if England had beaten Germany, and then gone on to win the Cup? Most likely, no. Success is a tremendous palliative. It’s really only in failure that people become “overpaid” instead of “well rewarded.” But that doesn’t mean the fans’ moaning after the game was nothing more than bad-loser- sour-grapes resentment. There are genuine reasons for thinking that the financial largesse of the Premiership has a malign effect on English international football. One of these is that the England players (almost all of whom are highest-caliber performers for their respective clubs) inevitably remain millionaires, icons and profitable brands no matter how badly they play for England.
The “value” of the 2010 team, in terms of accumulated transfer-fees and club wages, far outstripped that of their relatively young and inexperienced German opponents, and—as noted—the English were under the direction of allegedly the best manager money could buy. But they functioned more like a very expensive set of parts than a unit. “The way the England team is now is ridiculous,” commented The Fall singer Mark E. Smith in a newspaper article after the tournament. “A team of superstars is like a supergroup. It’s like picking the best guitarist in Britain, the best drummer and the best singer, and expecting them to produce something that isn’t prog-rock mush. It doesn’t work: this England team will never work at the highest level.” Ex-England midfielder John Barnes was even more explicit: “Football is a socialist sport … Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end. The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful.”
A socialist sport under a capitalist ethos—it’s a fair summary of football in England today: a hugely prosperous, confused and misshapen business if ever there was one. I wonder, though, whether the Premiership and its discontent isn’t in fact just a particularly vivid example of a much more general principle, namely that money and sports are never quite in sync with one another. True, top modern athletes can reap massive financial rewards for their success, and money will buy the best coaching staff and equipment—all the material stuff that makes winning that much easier. Nevertheless, the fact remains that sport is one of the few areas in popular culture where a clear distinction between financial success and vocational success can be drawn. Winning and getting rich are not the same things, although they might often coincide. The commercialization of football has yielded immense benefits for fans, in terms of infrastructure, quality of play and global coverage. Yet for all that it remains the case that football (like any sport) is not, essentially, about money. People love sports—which is what makes them so profitable. But people don’t love sports because they’re profitable. The truth is that capitalism is parasitic at its very core; it always survives off the energies of other things. In sports, these other things are passion and the deeper attachments passion builds. And the reason people get jittery about business meddling with their teams is nothing more complicated than fear that their attachments will be adulterated, exploited, perhaps taken away from them (Seattle basketball fans will know what I’m talking about).
It’s easy to make fun of how over-invested British men get when it comes to football—and I dearly hope I’m not the only person horrified by the roaring trade in football-themed tombstones that’s going on over here—but the fact of it is that, for many, it is also one of the few available channels for expressions of collective identity and enthusiasm. If the fallout of England’s 2010 World Cup campaign demonstrated anything, it’s how much difficulty we now have—not only in the UK, but all over the West—talking about collective good in anything other than economic terms. And this is something which bears thinking about, even if you hate sports.