Football is f***ed but most of us choose not to look in the boot for the rotting bodies

John Nicholson
A Newcastle fan draped in a Saudi Arabia flag
A Newcastle fan draped in a Saudi Arabia flag

I read Ian Watson’s piece last week about how f*cked football is with interest and suspect he expresses a widespread feeling outside of the usual noisy minority on social media and the tiresome below-the-line shouters.

But if that’s the case, why are most top-flight games sold out? Why was last season the highest ever average top-flight attendance of 40,236? Surely the crowd is happy with how things are, or they wouldn’t go. Happy with the morality of their ownership, happy with the ticket prices, happy with how the league is governed, happy with VAR. Happy with everything. Yee haw!

That is certainly what the league’s executives, club owners and directors would tell you as they take your £110 for a replica shirt. And it’s what they hide behind whenever any criticism is directed at them. The public loves us. Look at how many of them are here.

But this attendance record isn’t incompatible with there being widespread dissatisfaction with the moral, financial and governance models of the clubs in the league, nor is it incompatible with despising the league itself as an appallingly greedy, money-obsessed organisation which is shamelessly and thoughtlessly exploiting the people’s game.

The answer to this apparent conundrum lies in football’s deeply ornery nature. We find it so compelling as a sport because it isn’t very good most of the time, even at the highest levels. The Premier League sells itself like its farts don’t smell and it is a combination of high art and ballet, but in truth it is just football and at all levels, from top to bottom, football is a bit shite most of the time.

We actually enjoy and accept this – I especially love and actually prefer really, really awful football – but still watch to experience the highs of the moments when it isn’t shite, or to laugh heartily at the latest nadir. Civilians don’t understand this. Those who see the game as part of the entertainment business don’t understand it. And you can see why. It is odd. But it’s the truth. When it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood.

But because this sort of everyday ‘putting up with it’ disgruntlement is built into every serious football fan’s DNA, disgruntlement at the nature of the league, or ownership of a club, can also slide into that space and sit alongside very easily. We can grumble about it, criticise it, want it to change, we can say we don’t like it, we can wish it wasn’t so, but we still put up with it, the way we put up with another tedious goalless draw, or a four-minute wait for a VAR decision, or the cold rain in late November. We put up with a lot.

Add to that the fact we feel helpless to change anything and we know that everything in our lives involves buying, using, or working for people, institutions and owners who are involved in or in some way connected to Very Bad Things, football just becomes another one of those things, as we inexorably slide into blank-eyed nihilism where false equivalence is the new fact and corruption is sold as innocence.

Not long ago the £100 million footballer would have seemed insane, VAR would have seemed bizarre, and the idea of a nation state buying a football club but pretending not to, would have seemed like ludicrous fantasy. However, football’s Overton window has moved so far toward the extreme that all these things have already become normalised. And the same thing applies to all ownership models involving Big Money.

The way the Glazers bought Manchester United was shocking, loading the club with debt in the process. But if that happened again, would you be as shocked as you were when it first happened? No, you wouldn’t.

So many things in football that were once very shocking, now just aren’t. That’s also how sportswashing works. It insidiously makes that which was once unacceptable, ever more acceptable, until it’s just normal.

Newcastle United fans

There’s no doubt football at the top levels is entering a radical new phase, ever more distant culturally, financially and morally from the rest of football. It’s like a car that looks shiny and sleek but there’s a pile of bodies rotting in the boot.

While there are always useful idiots who go out of their way to pretend there’s nothing to see here, most feel otherwise, but who has the time and energy to open the boot and find the bodies? I suspect most of us who are disgusted at football’s economics and ownership models simply mark it down as just another thing that isn’t perfect about life and perhaps increasingly turn our football attention more to lower-league football.

This may be evidenced by attendances last season in the second, third and fourth tier which were the highest since the post-war boom. Even the National League are posting impressive attendance averages and the Scottish Professional Football League continues to top the match attendance per capita table across Europe with 21.3 people per 1,000 going to a game.

The fact the Premier League TV audience in the UK has become constipated and looks unlikely to grow unless broadcasters develop a different model, also reflects that there is not a growing passion for the Premier League. In other words, the amount of people who will pay to watch it has peaked, at least here in the motherland.

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Of course the power of crowds could bring about major change via boycotts and demonstrations, but life has taught me that there’s little appetite for that, especially in economically tough times where we’re understandably more worried about paying our rent or mortgage than we are about the fact clubs’ owners are autocratic warmongers, bullies, bigots and human rights abusers of the worst kind, because it affects us more directly.

We are required to look the other way a lot in modern life, this is just one more thing. It smells bad, but we just hold our breath, the way we do when entering a public toilet.

So Ian’s right, football is 100% f*cked, but it’s worth saying that it’s only 100% f*cked at the top levels and I suspect that in the long run, at those levels, eventually, it will eat itself and in doing so ruin the very thing that made it so compelling in the first place, in the same way that AirBnB property portfolios ruin the picturesque fishing village by pushing up the cost of houses, hollowing out the local population, turning the village into a ghost town for most of the year and thus ruining that which made it lovely in the first place. Goodbye inclusive and functioning community, hello selfish asset acquisition and destructive, greedy materialism.

I don’t believe football’s Overton window is permanently installed into this tasteless, gaudy, diamond and gold-encrusted desert skyscraper. This is all just a phase. There will come a time when disgust will manifest as indifference for many.

But elsewhere, Real Football will go on, divorced from the carpet bombers and executioners, separate from obscene wealth and ludicrous wages and still be tremendous entertainment, despite being shite for most of the time.

The Premier League, UEFA and FIFA are all appalling organisations that have waved through so much that most of us think awful, but they shouldn’t take the fact that the grounds are still full, as widespread approval. We’re just putting up with it for now. All we’ve done is separate our love of the sport from everything else, choosing not to look in the shadows for fear of what we might see, choosing not to open the boot of the car despite the rancid smell.

But it won’t be like this forever. Everything is just a phase and change is going to come, even if we don’t know how, why or when. It will. Don’t doubt it.