John Humphrys - Victory for Soccer Fans : Lessons for the Rest of Us?

April 23, 2021, 6:37 PM GMT+0

Rarely can the power of money have been routed so comprehensively and so quickly. It took only a few days for the idea of a European football Super League, which would have made a few already very rich people even richer, bite the dust. Everyone else who has anything to do with football, from Prince William, the president of the Football Association, down to the thousands of fans already priced out of season tickets (and taking in the Prime Minister, who can spot where votes lie, on the way) was vehemently against it. And the root of their objections was that this just wasn’t cricket, so to speak. The plan offended the most basic values of sport, values that make football fans so passionate about their game. But it’s not often that money bows to values. The basic rule of money is to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Yet this time values won. So is there scope for repeating the victory elsewhere?

I won’t pretend to you that I’m a football fan myself or that I know the first thing about how the game should be played, what makes a team great or why a football legend is a legend. I’m a Welshman so rugby’s my bag. And I won’t bore you (and myself) with all the nitty-gritty of the super-deal that never was. Suffice it to say that the owners of some of Europe’s top clubs (and note it was the owners and not the managers, the players or the fans) thought they could make even more money for their clubs and themselves in cahoots with investment banks and football-crazy media, by setting up a Super League. The chosen teams would play each other and the ‘founder members’ would not only be handed a ‘welcoming’ bonus of hundreds of millions of euros up front, but would be guaranteed permanent residence in this new Valhalla of football no matter how badly they ended up playing. Very cosy.

Opposition came on many grounds - not least from those among the football authorities who believe it is they who should keep hold of the purse-strings. But what seems to have caused the greatest offence on the part of the fans themselves was the harm it would cause to the very essence of the game. Under Super League rules no team, however woeful their display on the pitch, would ever be turfed out of the league. It would be great wodges of cash that would earn them their place in the league and great wodges of cash that kept them there. And that, for the real fans of football, is the negation of what the game is all about.

Over the years, football fans have had to put up with a great deal of compromise between their own values and the might of money. It’s more than 130 years since association football was an amateur game played between local teams. Even after the game went professional local teams employed only local lads. To play for

Manchester United you needed to be a Mancunian. Now you don’t even need to be British – something that’s said to have had a seriously detrimental effect on the national team. But what’s utterly transformed the game over the last thirty years or more is the way the money of television rights has done all the talking. It has dominated the revenues of the top clubs, pushed the salaries of top players into the stratosphere and raised the cost of season tickets beyond the pockets of many of the teams’ most loyal fans. Now they have to take out subscriptions to television channels or online streaming services, or else go down the pub, to follow their teams.

Rather than a game aimed at the fans it has become a lucrative business for the money men – American, Russian, Arab – to buy up, each time shedding a value that used to give identity to the sport. The grotesque climax of this process was the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a super-rich Gulf state with little history in the game and a climate utterly unsuited to playing it. Money decided that one and with money, inevitably, came more than a suspicion of corruption. There is an inquiry into it all, of course, as there always is. There may be umpteen as far as I know. But so far I have seen neither prosecutions nor any hint that the decision is going to revoked and the tournament transferred to somewhere suitable.

So this week is a bit of a milestone, a marker that says ‘so far but no further’ in compromising the values of the game. It’s a case of people’s power, of fans saying we’ll put up with a lot but there are some values we’ll really fight to defend. This is heartening even for people like me who have not the slightest interest in the game itself. In the wider world beyond the turnstiles we are all ‘fans’. We are citizens of a democracy attached to a set of values that define who we are and what sort of society we want to live in, but who feel those values are being assailed daily by money and power, and who would like to put up resistance. The victory of the soccer fans gives hope that it may not be as impossible as we thought.

So what are the values that this wider community of ‘fans’ tacitly adhere to but feel are constantly under threat? Notoriously, it’s difficult for any modern democracy to generalise and to define precisely the values that we know instinctively lie at the core of our culture. The French had their revolution and came up with ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. Ours are rather woollier and harder to pin down but I think we might sum them up as: freedom, fairness and decency.

British freedom does not march defiantly behind a flag as liberty does in France. Most libertarians will ruefully admit that we seem more willing than the French to be told what to do by the authorities. Just look at our reaction to the Covid rules and think Oliver Twist: “Please, Sir, I want some more…!”

Fairness does not have the dramatic ring of France’s equality. Any card-carrying egalitarian on the left of the debate will tell you we are a bit tepid at best. Think how many boys go to Eton and how many end up in the Cabinet or Number Ten and you get the picture. But we know it when we see it and spot it when it’s missing.

It’s pretty much the same with decency: ‘fraternity’ could never be a British rallying cry.

But the fact that our core values are hard to pin down does not mean we don’t take them seriously. The question is what challenges they need to face before we, like football fans, say enough is enough.

In recent history we first faced this issue in the 1980s with Thatcherism. Her radical shake-up of the economy, intended to make it more efficient and more profitable and to make the country as a whole more prosperous, was seen by those who were victims of its creative destruction, as an assault on the core values of their way of life. That’s certainly how they saw it in the coal-mining and steel-making communities where they sought to resist. They failed, the communities were decimated and many of the values those communities engendered melted gradually into thin air.

It doesn’t much matter in the context of this article whether, forty years on, you think hindsight has proved her right or whether it would have been better if we’d gone on sending hundreds of thousands of men down the pits, kept it all going even if it was ‘uneconomic’ and so managed to preserve the communities and the values. My point is that it was a battle between money and values in which money won and values have had to be rethought.

There is a sort of mirror image on the left, less to do with money and more to do with power. Socialists want a radical transformation of the capitalist system, leaving ‘money’ less in control. But democratic socialists have to pay heed to the values of voters whose support they need just to get going on this transformation. The problem is that the values of those voters are very often not the same as those of the radicals and may even be more compatible with a moderate version of capitalism. This is why it’s been said that a successful Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. Methodism, or rather our Christian inheritance more generally, has probably been more responsible than anything else for building up this set of intrinsic, hard-to-define values that can be summarised as decency, fairness and freedom, and which always seem to be under threat from money and power.

Looking around us now, just at recent bits of news, where are those values being assaulted? Well, the lobbying scandal, which I wrote about last week, is an obvious first port of call. What David Cameron may or may not have been up to, on the face of it, doesn’t look ‘above board’: it offends our sense of decency. And also, I’d suggest, our sense of fairness. Most of us are not offended as egalitarians might be by his seeming ambition to make himself very rich: we’re not offended when individuals earn vast fortunes by working tirelessly over a lifetime building up

businesses and creating jobs (or even if they do so by being football geniuses). Our response tends to be: ‘good luck to ‘em!’ But if such a fortune is made super-quickly on the back of some questionable phone calls, some unreported text-messages, or some lobbying of unsavoury foreign leaders, all made possible because of a job we gave him ten years ago, then we’re likely to feel it offends against our sense of what is fair as well as what is decent.

It was the offence to our set of values that that wise old Tory backbencher, Sir Bernard Jenkin, was referring to when he warned the Prime Minister that if he didn’t do something convincing about it, he’d risk forfeiting the support of newly-won ex-Labour voters in the North. There’s a lot of Methodism still up there even as the chapels are closing, and they won’t like it in Hartlepool that Boris Johnson is spending more on redecorating his Downing Street flat than they’d need to buy a row of terraced houses. Nor will they like the fact that no one knows who’s actually paying for it. The top Whitehall mandarin himself has now announced an inquiry.

Or take a much less prominent recent story. There are more gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles sold in two top London boroughs, where they are of no use at all, than are sold in the rural shires where they might be. For many it offends the basic values of how we should all live together for the rich and powerful to be driving around London’s streets in tanks and effectively putting two fingers up to global-warming as they do. Many people have real reservations about the highly disruptive protests mounted by Extinction Rebellion in the past but they might be more sympathetic to protesters who used the cover of darkness to let down the tyres of such monstrous vehicles or plastered their front windscreens with large, hard-to-remove posters telling the owners what antisocial idiots they were buying them in the first place. The inconvenience this would cause the owners, together with the social ostracism they would soon start to feel, might well change behaviour pretty quickly. People power, on behalf of values we hold, might put an end to the ‘Super League’ of SUVs just as soccer’s fans have done to the actual one.

You can think of your own examples of how we all might take heart from the football fans’ example of resisting power and money. Take social media, for example. Consider what this innovation, immensely lucrative to those who run it, has done to the values of decency, fairness and freedom: of dealing with disagreement by hearing the other person out rather than instantly shouting them down and sending everyone off to occupy extreme positions because nothing considered and nuanced is allowed any more. Should we, like the soccer fans, be taking a stand?

I don’t pretend to know how we might do this. But I do take heart from what has happened this week. Do you? And, if so, how can we build on it?

Let us know what you think.

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