Is football even fun anymore? Was it ever fun?
This was on my mind over the New Year as I caught up on some reading.
One article was on a manager who reads phonebook-sized opposition scouting reports every week. Another went into the subtle nuances of contract law when it comes to footballers switching agents mid-transfer. A third discussed how player data could be used to make recruitment strategies more efficient. Throughout, I read breaking news reports on shady businessmen selling their club ownership stakes, shady businessmen involved in third party player ownership schemes, trial convictions for racist fans, suspended youth team coaches.
Meanwhile the ‘lighter’ fare discussed controversial red card incidents and accusations of referee bias, transfer rumours along with estimated fees, betting tips in order to ‘maximise return on investment’, and news on the latest manager to have been sacked in order to try and avoid the utter, unthinkable financial tragedy that is relegation.
It’s all a Big Deal.
Granted, this dour mix may be a reflection of my own curated reading list (thankfully there was at least one fairy tale in the mix, on Sutton United’s cup run). But a glance through most of the football dailies and social media feeds reveals that we increasingly regard football like scientists, lawyers, political pundits, and financial experts, and less and less like fans.
One could object with a ‘twas ever thus,’ and maybe that’s true. Certainly the papers have for a long time covered the fun and games of sports in the same way they would poll tax or a transit strike. But there was a good reason for this. Before the age of mirrored online video highlights and GIFs, you needed to read the papers to find out what actually happened.
Despite the fact there are highlights instantly available for every imaginable match, print media hasn’t been able to kick the earnestness habit. Instead, as publishing revenues drop while content bloats, we seem to be moving further away from Brian Glanville-esque storytelling or endless James Richardson puns and more toward football as a thing that produces information for content consumers.
There are a number of reasons for this. For one, the disintegration of the traditional publishing model has heightened competition, leading to a never-ending war for information, something, anything novel to lure readers. Sports sections are no different; there is now no aspect of the game too tedious to make the printing plant, in part because there are no longer any printing plants.
For another, we’ve never quite figured out what football is, exactly. Is it serious or trivial? Art or entertainment? A business or a cultural institution? The truth is that football is football; it flirts with all of these categories but is equivalent to none. It’s trivial and serious. It’s a business and part of the cultural heritage of the cities and towns around the world where it first arrived over a century ago.
The reality is that those who control football—broadcasters, sponsors, owners, administrators like FIFA and UEFA and CONCACAF etc—despise this ambiguity. They desperately need you to believe that football is not a sport but a business, a vital growth industry that will generate untold wealth for faceless investors around the world. More than that, they want you to believe football is a force for economic domination and political respect.
This, despite the fact that football itself is, as a global enterprise, relatively minor. The sponsorship deals upon which the world’s biggest football clubs rely on to survive are mere pocket change to the corporations that dole them out each year. The combined annual revenue of the twenty Premier League clubs in 2014-15, the world’s richest league and one that includes global giants Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool, was just under USD $4.2 billion, putting it around 570 in the Fortune 1000 list, near infrastructure engineering company MasTec and Calumet Specialty Products Partners, a company “...which specializes in the manufacturing of naphthenic and paraffinic oils as well as aliphatic solvents and paraffin waxes.” Yes, football no doubt earns far more for ‘auxiliary’ industries like fantasy sports, betting, satellite and cable companies, but only as one very large slice of a larger pie.
Nevertheless, we’ve all bought into this vision of football as Big and Important Global Concern. Football is no longer an escape into ‘an altogether more splendid life’ as JB Priestley once put it, but a national project in need of capital and government investment. Watching football’s become another job.
This may be why fewer of us are choosing to. Premier League and Champions League ratings are down on both Sky and BT Sport. This may be a momentary blip, or it may be because of the exorbitant cost of cable and satellite subscriptions, coupled with the increasingly quality and availability of illegal digital feeds.
Others have speculated that GIF culture is to blame; why sit through successive 90 minute dirges commentated when you can catch all the best highlights later on on reddit? But this theory leaves out an important truth: watching football via GIFs on social media is not just more convenient, it’s also more fun. Bad jokes, puns, parodies, camaraderie, the beauty of a wonderful shared moment. Twitter is an awful medium overrun with Nazi scum, but it’s truly at its best during football matches.
The desire for fun may also be why more and more kids prefer playing FIFA to watching the real thing. Why listen to a colour commentator espouse on the effectiveness of Conte’s 3-4-3 70 minutes into a dire 0-0 draw when you can play Barnsley and see how many red cards you can pick up against Barcelona in a friendly match played in Brazil?
Fun, as it turns out, is an intractable problem for football—football needs it not only to keep people coming to the matches, but also to produce its future stars. This was perfectly articulated by Zhang Lu, a commentator quoted in this New York Times piece on China’s increasing investment in football (yet another of the lighthearted football topics of the day). Though his remarks were meant to criticize Chinese football officials, Zhang inadvertently captured the global view:
“Chinese soccer has failed before through rushing for instant success,” Mr. Zhang said in an interview in Beijing, recalling previous failed efforts to build up the game in the 1980s and 1990s. “The problem is that everyone’s thinking is still deeply set in traditional ideas. Everyone thinks soccer is just about getting results, competition, training, creating stars.”
Zhang instead calls for a greater ‘focus on fun and broad participation’ in China’s schools. But even this idea of fun is tainted; it’s meant merely as a way to widen the player pool, to discourage potential Lionel Messis from leaving the game before they mature and discover that football is homework. Fun isn’t an intrinsic part of football, but a way to trick children into eating their broccoli.
Football of course isn’t only about fun. It’s about competition, innovation, experimentation, beauty, self-expression, joy. And yes, clubs should be run as businesses, but only to ensure that they are first and foremost sustainable, not prone to panic and unrealistic owner ambitions. But the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. The solution isn’t for more Men in Blazers knockoffs or more coverage for esports soccer tournaments, but maybe a shift in how we talk about and cover the game.
Football after all isn’t just a game, but it is only a game.