Football fans are idiots (The Return of the Apes!)

A rejoinder to Sean Ingle’s Football fans are idiots, published in last Thursday’s Guardian newspaper.

This is obviously another version of the ‘money-has-ruined-football’ threnody voiced by people who think the world should stand still. Without a doubt, Mr Ingle makes a valid point with regard to the cost of the game to the average fan in England. But, apart from the fact that such a point can be overstated, it is one thing to question the cost of the game to fans and another to disparage their love of football as a game based on selective indices. Mr Ingle may protest that he’s done no such thing as disparage the fans for loving the game, but when you call punters idiots for seemingly paying over the odds to watch their beloved team or urge them to go out and enjoy other sports as some form of protest, all you’re doing is exhibiting a lack of understanding about the relationship between football and the fans who really love it. Mr Ingle does not have to be cynical about religion to prove the apparent unreason of it all; but if he really wants to change the world, he can do better than looking at football injustice.

Frankly, his wide-eyed idealism stands no chance in the reality of today’s football business not only because he would never hear of people going on hunger strike because the cost of food’s gone up, but also because no one wants to return to the drudgery of the Middle Ages simply because things were cheaper then. Mr Ingle has to make his choices: does he prefer the hooliganism-infested grounds (because of their “atmosphere”?) to the better sanitized environment of today? Yes, once upon a time, football was a working-class sport, but today the components of the working-class as a class itself have changed. They are not all noisy, whisky-swigging, beer-guzzling geezers who like their football atmosphere “hardcore”?; rather, more and more of them are choosing to soberly enjoy the game in a more respectable manner. Now football atmosphere can be enjoyed by the whole family, not only by stubbled men with crumpled noses, yelling in gravel voices, with a smattering of the worldly wise boys in between. The atmosphere today is not a consequence of money coming into the game, but a consequence of the demographic change in those who now enjoy football and their new outlook.

Really, the best place to start this deconstruction is to understand exactly what we have today, far from the monolithic/neo-monopolistic picture Mr Ingle seeks to paint. One thing that is obvious is that technology has made it quite possible for us to enjoy our favourite sport without having to fly down from China to watch our beloved team at Stamford Bridge or the Reebok. We can sit in the comfort of our home, wherever we are in any part of the world, whether by ourselves or with family, friends and opponents to enjoy a live game. In this new reality, atmosphere is actually what you make of it, not what Mr Ingle wants it to be. In fact, you need not subscribe to Sky to enjoy live football. At no cost at all, you can watch it on the internet if you choose! Football entails the same economic choices people make every day. You, as a lover of your team, will have to determine the opportunity cost of acquiring a season ticket, including the actual cost of going to and from those games. If it’s not worth it, you choose other less costly ways to enjoy it. Fifteen years ago, you didn’t have that luxury!

Ingle may continue shaking his head at our idiocy, but when Sky introduced the television deals and football clubs became PLCs, we weren’t that dumb not to know that there would be costs; we weren’t that dumb not to recognize that things weren’t going to be the same again since the structure and funding of clubs were and are still changing. The fact is we’ve seen the changes and we like them and that is why things are still dandy, not because we’re idiots! Today, the Premiership is the richest league in the world and that means it attracts the best, falling over themselves to dazzle us with their vintage skills. I mean, think of the array of stars that grace our pitches every match-day and tell me where they would be today without money and the big salaries they’re paid. Would you rather go stand in some dire stadium and watch blokes who’d just walked unto the pitch straight from the nearest pub in the name of top-level football or watch these consummate professionals who’ve brought real quality in an atmosphere befitting such taste?

Mr Ingle selectively contrasts the situation here with what obtains in the continent, telling us how they wouldn’t stand for the inelasticity of ticket pricing; but what he’s failed to prove is that the man who pays £10 pounds for the Borussia Dortmund cheap ticket is actually not paying more in real cost than the man paying £20, £30 or even £40 here. It is quite possible that removing £10 from the average Dortmund supporter’s pay packet will affect him more than removing £20 from that of his West Ham counterpart, but until Mr Ingle works out the economics of both set of supporters, including their pay packets, he can’t just come up with such figures as proof of exploitation.

More importantly, what Mr Ingle needed to have considered was whether the Dortmund supporter is really enjoying the game the way he campaigns for it to be enjoyed. On Monday, 8 August, Gabriele Marcotti did a piece in The Times about how Bayern Munich’s monopoly does German game a disservice. Ingle complains of a group of three or four dominating the Premiership, well he better not tout the German league as an option with Bayern Munich winning five of the last seven titles. Borussia Dortmund who managed to beat Bayern to the title in 2001-2002 are now paying for such insolence by being £70 million in debt and on the brink of administration! Werder Bremen, who did it two years ago are now a shadow of their former selves, having sold their best players to meet the cost of past glory! This year, Bayern is again left as the only viable club in the Bundesliga, waiting to pick up all honours, as they did last time around, at the end of the season.

We need not even begin to discuss the travails of Serie A with the match-fixing scandals, the riotous fixture lists, the football litigations and the notorious hooliganism in the stands. When Inter ‘hardcores’ in the stands decided to make a bonfire of Dida, the AC Milan goalkeeper, Italian journalists and commentators looked over at us with our gaping mouth and said matter-of-factly that football in Italy is still in the Stone Age! In fact, today (Sunday, August 21, 2005), I was reading a report by Ian Hawkey in The Sunday Times titled, “Meltdown in Serie A”?. This meltdown is signposted by Juventus desperately trying to get people to come fill up their empty seats at “the unloved, albeit architecturally stunning 67,000 seat Stadio delle Alpi”?. The club is offering women and children under the age of 13 a season ticket for only £12.87 (65p a match!). Unlike in Germany where grounds are full, in Italy, the potential customers are staying away. And the reason for this is not far-fetched. The Italian football atmosphere with its stands and contra culture is a retro and not very many are still in love with the mob culture. When you think of it, I really wonder how many fans of the Premiership would want to swap places with the Germans or Italians.

Of course, the argument that few clubs are monopolizing the highest echelon of the game in this country holds no water, because that’s the whole essence of competition and that’s the way it’s been everywhere. For every Bayern in Germany, you will find a Juve or AC Milan in Italy or a Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain; and for every Borussia Dortmund or Werder Bremen, you’ll find a Lazio or Roma or a Valencia or Deportivo. Those who dominate will continue to dominate, because they are likely the ones to put in the resources necessary to increase the gap between them and the rest. Once in a while a good coach and a determined team would snatch the title for a year, but while this is good for the hearts of the romantics, it usually doesn’t take long to dawn on them that it’s no revolution as normal service resumes sooner rather than later. It’s a market and those who control it love stability! The only way you can compete is to put in the resources. Even in Europe’s smaller leagues, as in France, Portugal or Holland, you still can’t look beyond two or three clubs every year. We are lucky in England to have Mr Abramovich come in and pump money into the game and in the process break the Arsenal-Manchester United stranglehold over the Premiership. The money he’s dished out to English clubs in the name of buying players have gone a long way in staving off trouble for some of those clubs and that money remains within the game. Rather than disparage people like him who bring their own cash into the system, English football should be grateful to them for breathing a new life into the game and should make it appealing to more of his kind to come in and invest. Of course, the debt-importing Glazers are a different matter.

The irony of the whole situation painted by Mr Ingle is that people are actually saying “NO”? in their own ways to the seeming exploitation going on in football here, but they do recognize it’s a market and emotions alone do not determine its health. For instance, in spite of the official buoyancy reports about the Premiership, we still get reports of grounds not being full for certain games more than before. But this may not only be due to the high cost of tickets; it may also be a reaction to the lack of creative and imaginative pricing that is the hallmark of our football clubs. For instance, paying £48 to see Arsenal at the Bridge today guarantees that charging the same amount for a ticket to see West Brom on Wednesday means there would be a lot of empty seats. Now, if this can happen at Stamford Bridge, imagine what will happen in lesser grounds. But if the pricing begins to reflect the quality of the opponents, people are more likely to pick and choose what games to attend without the difference in attendance figures swinging wildly or shortfall in numbers being that drastic. At any rate, the bottom line of this exploitation argument is that people know that there is not only one way of enjoying football or following your team, which means it is not a monopoly. The ticket price may rise daily, but there are other ways to enjoy it all and still feel contented.

I won’t end this without saying something about Mr Ingle’s attempt to stereotype players as haters of fans. This is absolutely not true. These people aren’t aliens! They have family and friends who support them and their team and who’re proud of what they do. Lincoln, Chesterfield or Luton players are no different from Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool players. They play for the fans, but also love their privacy. And not all fans are as ignorant as those who accuse players of betrayal for changing clubs. Most modern fans understand that big money moves are part of the game today.

I’m going to end this now, because I’ve already missed the first half of the Bolton vs Everton game. At least I should watch the second half as a “warm-up”? for the main feast of Chelsea vs Arsenal. As for atmosphere, let’s just say I don’t think I can have anything better than the state of my living-room right now. Rather than campaign for what he euphemistically calls “safe stands”? or trust-run clubs, Mr Ingle should wield his influence in the area of FA reform. Let him begin by pushing Lord Burn’s suggestion of having the Community Football Alliance within Soho Square.

Related links: