Football – more than a game?

It may not have been the cause of the decline and fall of the Roman empire (explained by many as the result of complex unsustainable systems) but the dominance of the Games in their culture is arguably symptomatic of their loss of focus on the core issues that made them successful (like winning wars). Emperors spent lavish amounts on satisfying the baser instincts of their society thus accelerating a distortion of its values of nobility, citizenship and contribution.

We have a similar growing national obsession that is absorbing a disproportinate amount of our resources and attention – football.

Playing football is an excellent sport (if not encouraged to excess by over-enthusiastic parents) and its principles of team work, accepting the discipline of its rules and getting out in the fresh air to exercise are a positive contribution to society.

It is in the professional game that the major issues reside.

Supporting your favourite team is intrinsically a good influence since it is based on the concept of community. But the less productive influences are manifest when supporters think they have actually achieved something through their encouragement of the players. Yes, the influence of the crowd is a real psychological factor in performance but that is all and it is a dangerous sublimation that can echo in other aspects of life.

Much has been made by commentators of the role models of some players having bad influence on behaviour in the amateur game. That is a well-served debate so a mere reference is adequate.

The principal reason that football has enjoyed the wealth of recent years has been the desire of Sky television to gain market share. The prospect of exclusive coverage over a decent length of contract meant a lock-in of subscribers and consumer inertia would predictably keep them paying big-time for the other channels.

It was a bidding chance that had to be won and when first announced the sums on offer were of shocking proportions. Others have tried to enter the fray including ITV’s OnDigital and proved unequal to the task.

That and the declaration of independence by the top flight club to form the Premier League totally distorted the foundations of the professional game. From a millionaire’s indulgence in backing his local side for as long as he was minded or could afford it, the transformation was to owning a football franchise and with the further complexity of becoming corporations quoted on the stock market. The results have been serious.

Suddenly we have situations where clubs are essentially going bust and have lots of points deducted from their playing performance – a really good disincentive to any would-be rescuer.

Thanks to the incredibly complex workings of corporate finance, the purchase of Manchester United, for example, resulted in a massive debt being raised against the club rather than it being an investment of new money.

Never mind, youngsters with more skill in their bodies than perhaps their intellects (but not all players are thus) still have a dream of playing for a top side. Or do they? The serious money, freedom of worker movement within the EEC and generous rules about other nationalities being able to play mean that the nearest many aspiring players will come to their dream side is learning the pronunciations of the current line-up.

Entertainment is an important part of life and development of society but how much is enough? The hours that are spent in discussion of football in print, speech and electronic media constitute a significant slice of any national appetite for debate on more important issues.

It nay sound amusing but the late Bill Shakly’s remarks when asked if football was a matter of life and death to him – “it’s far more serious” – reveals a greater and more worrying truth.

We need to decide how to put more of football back in the box.