It is becoming increasingly common for people to declare themselves “Against Modern Football” (often without spaces and a hashtag attached, twitter being twitter). The case against the contemporary game is indeed a compelling one. We all know the crimes of which it stands accused: spoilt brat players being paid the GDP of a medium-sized African country every month; clubs seemingly more obsessed with their “brand”; the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots; ludicrously expensive tickets to sit in soulless stadia eating ludicrously expensive lukewarm plastic food (seriously, hotdogs at most football grounds now are the Worst Things In The World); John Terry; the growth of twitter and the subsequent extremes of tribalism found within; quite simply the defining influence of money over every aspect of the sport. The list goes on as I’m sure you’re aware. The growing tide of the movement against this is exhibited by the numerous banners in various crowds across the globe (though this article will focus specifically on British elements), and by the growth (or perhaps re-energising) of a more fanzine-type culture around the issue, with this excellent blog (http://supportersnotcustomers.com/2012/10/26/against-modern-football/) illustrating a lot of people’s frustrations, as does the early success of the‘Stand Against Modern Football’ fanzine (http://www.standamf.com/) .
I find that many of the people I follow on twitter, whose opinions I not only respect but frequently agree with, assert that they are Against Modern Football, and although much of the time I find myself mostly concurring with the sentiments expressed, I find the generalisation involved just a little too sweeping to commit to. As outlined above, there are so many reasons to find the sport we follow utterly distasteful, the most personal of these to me being the painful summer rebranding of Cardiff City, most fans happy to cast aside the club’s history and self-respect for the dangling carrot of a few more millions and possible promotion to the Premier League. This episode caused me to walk away from the team I’d supported with a season ticket since the age of 6. Surely this was modern football at its worst? The crazed obsession with money and the supposed utopia of The Best League In The WorldTM leading fans to abandon some of the things they should hold dearest and guard most jealously? Perhaps. And yet I still find myself unable to castigate modern football as a whole despite all of this.
Perhaps the most basic reason behind my reluctance to fully chastise is that I know little else. Born in the early 1990s, though in a football sense I grew up at Ninian Park watching lower league games, regarding the slightly more detached, outside football world my formative viewing years were those of Manchester United’s dominance (which with a Liverpool-born and supporting Father naturally made me inherently suspicious of all things Premier League). Ferguson’s footballing and commercial behemoth were(/are) the defining feature on the football landscape for those growing up in this period. I have known nothing other than the Premier League and the (ever-increasing) untold riches it brings. Perhaps if I had grown up in an earlier decade, before the separation from the football league, I might miss the connection more keenly, but supporting a team who in my early years spent their time in the bottom two rungs of the Football League ladder, the Premier League was something so far removed
from my personal experience that it was hard to really form too much of a personal opinion on it either way and the fact that it always has felt a million miles from reality for me maybe reduces the antagonism I have towards it now.
The match-day experience is an oft-criticised and invoked flaw of modern football. The usual comparison is with the German model - mass supported, fantastic atmospheres with fan-owned clubs and affordable ticket pricing. Of
course, these are indeed things to aspire to and are worthy comparisons to make (though the German experience is somewhat romanticised - a subject for another time) but what this comparison often neglects is that fact that outside of Germany, it becomes hard to name many other well known football leagues where the fan experience is an objectively better one than that experienced here. Problems with hooliganism manifest in places such as Italy and Argentina, while fans are treated by decision-makers in Spain with even more contempt than their British counterparts. Then there is the issue of Eastern Europe – brought to attention again by events involving the England and Serbia U21 teams. There are many ways in which the British experience can and should be improved, and people need to continue to fight for this improvement, but it’s also worth noting that going to a football match now is a considerably safer experience than it was in decades past, as well as being a far more palatable venture for families and those not simply fulfilling the white British male demographic. Recent events clearly show that anyone claiming racism has been eradicated in British football is and always was a head-in-the-sand merchant, but it is still true that progress has been made in this regard compared to a few decades ago.
The elephant in the previous paragraph is ticket pricing. There is no denying that the cost of going to matches in the modern game is almost criminally high, making a standard day out at a top tier game a luxury many simply cannot afford. During these straightened times, the most popular football clubs seem to be doing the best to make the idea of all being “in it together” even more laughable than their Tory politician contemporaries are currently
doing. The justification lies in revenue streams and commercial viability, but frankly that this is seen as a logical defence counts as another strike against the current game. Herein lies the key to a lot of what is wrong with Modern Football - not the modernity itself, but the ends to which this modernity becomes a means. In the last two decades, football stadia in Britain have become safer, more welcoming places for those wishing to watch football. This should have been the result in itself, the goal that was aimed for. Instead, football’s voracious appetite for money means that these new stadia, instead of simply improving experiences for fans, are a means by which to make (yet more) colossal sums of money - whilst simultaneously disenfranchising many for whom the improvements should have been made. No club is more prominent in using its fans as a marketing tool than Liverpool: the famed Kop culture never far away from the club’s self-projected image. And yet this fabled atmosphere was largely born from the massed ranks of young, working-class Liverpudlians able to stand on the Kop each week. Their equivalents in the current generation cannot gain such access - not because of the ‘day-trippers’ who receive so much criticism, but because the cheapest tickets for a league game at Anfield are £39, a reality many simply cannot afford. Liverpool are, of course, far from the only example, the same process is going on across the country, though it is normally felt most keenly at self-styled ‘bigger’ clubs. When analysing modern stadia, it is clear that the modernity in this sense is positive but the motivations behind the use of this modernity are far less so.
The global juggernaut that football has become is also a source of a guilty defence from me. I realise that the utterly relentless, 24/7 coverage of football with matches shown almost every day of the year is probably a bad
thing, yet as someone pathetically obsessed with the sport, I can’t help but indulge in it. There is always something to read, something to watch, something to discuss. Now of course, football was always discussed at huge length by those who followed it, but the phenomena of twitter and blogging, for all their manifest faults, make constantly consuming football possible for those like me in need of (but unwilling to commit to) getting more of a life. I like that you can watch three or four live Premier League matches a weekend on TV, that internet streaming makes seemingly every top division game available at the click of a mouse. It is thanks to the oh-so-unpleasant-in-many-ways commercialism of the modern game that we are able to watch every game the majestic Barcelona side play -and that due to changing emphasis on rules, they are able to play their spell-binding football without having the shit kicked out of them, matches involving Pepe aside.
Which brings me to another area of unease with being Against Modern Football -the implication therein that you are For Whatever-Came-Before-Modern Football. Harking back to some sort of halcyon past, where Pele was legally(ish) kicked out of the 1966 World Cup; football clubs were owned by the local crook made good rather than the foreign crook made very, very good; and bigots in the stands were free to throw bananas at players. As mentioned above, my personal experience may taint this view somewhat, but I find this over-indulgence in nostalgia misleading. Were the players as fit or technically adept then? Objectively, probably not. Were fans safer? Certainly not. Was going to a game on terracing infinitely better than sitting? Well, there may have been better atmospheres but also a greatly increased chance of having a stranger piss on you, so let’s call that one even. The pitches were shit too. Another element of this search for an alternative is to look down, rather than back. There is a
growing idea that lower-league or non-league football now constitutes “real” football. I’m not sure what real football is. Taken most literally, is it perhaps the suggestion that the Premier League has moved so far beyond normality that it has now reached a philosophical plane of hyperbole beyond physical reality? Either that or it’s just patronising teams that aren’t as good. One of the two, anyway. I grew up watching lower league football, I enjoyed it, but to claim it is in some way superior is something I find baffling. Moving down the leagues essentially brings the same things but on an ever-smaller scales: the talent decreases (bad), the crowds decrease (bad), the prices decrease (good) and the richer teams generally still win until they move up high enough to no longer be considered rich, where they generally stop winning. It’s not a more authentic experience; it’s just an easier one to
And this, really, is why despite all the misgivings I have, I can’t embrace the notion of being “Against Modern Football” without being hypocritical. Football is now almost more social phenomenon than sport, growing due the never-ending consumption of those who follow it, me included. This article is not one claiming that Modern Football is basically fine, or one that is going to end with the phrase“but I wouldn’t have it any other way”. There are lots of things wrong with football, and fans should never stop fighting for improvements. Ticketing should be cheaper, clubs less financially driven and more socially conscious, fans themselves more willing to look past blind support and question the actions of their own clubs. You can embrace some aspects of football whilst railing against others -you can support Liverpool and love You’ll Never Walk Alone whilst despising the adding of #ynwa to yet another tweet defending the club’s deplorable stance over one of its employees charged with racism. You can want Manchester United to win without thinking it justifies everything the club does commercially or therefore supporting the Glazer’s money-stripping regime. You can be happy that Manchester City won the league or Chelsea the Champions League without necessarily thinking the fact they have to have morally questionable (to say the least) owners spend squillions to do it is the sign of a healthy system.
There is an awful lot wrong with football at the moment, an awful lot I hope can and will be changed. But there is also plenty about it that makes me feel quite fortunate that I and many others are able to indulge our obsession to
the extent that we are (and if anything was an example of the opportunity to self-indulge, this blog is it). I don’t think I’m against Modern Football, but I am against a modern society obsessed with money, of which football, sadly, is symptomatic.
Joe Harrison is a former Cardiff City supporter and a current miserablist.