A recent Set-Piece Menu podcast eloquently made the case for fandom as a broad church. When the Premier League is marketed so aggressively all over the world, when overseas television rights bring it so much revenue, when players and managers and owners are often foreign, they argued – quite reasonably – who is to deny the travelling supporter from Baltimore or Bangalore their seat in the stadium, the right to call themselves a fan? All of that made sense.
On an intellectual level I agreed with it. It fitted my general liberal, globalised worldview. And yet, I realised, viscerally I disagreed: of course, I paid lip service to all that but actually I regarded my form of fandom as being more authentic and more important.
Sunderland is part of me in a way that is beyond choice. I grew up there and my family is from there. Sunderland is the unsatisfactory repository for the emotions linked to memories of my dad and of all the mates I went to games with as a teenager.
But it is also for something less rational, for a nebulous and no doubt over-romanticised sense of home, for the family who long ago came from Ireland and Scotland looking for work in the shipyards and found belonging by going to games. Sunderland is who I am in a way that matters far more than individual results or whichever clowns happen to be wearing the shirts this season.
That is why it matters and it is why Bury matter and Bolton matter: if a clod be washed away by the sea, football is less. And frankly I find it hard to reconcile that sense with respecting the rights and feelings of a fan from outside who had a choice. I am also aware that this places me uncomfortably on the opposite side of the current cultural struggle to the one I would usually occupy.
But we should not be naive. Money has always played a significant role in football. The clubs who dominated the league in its early days – Preston, Sunderland and Aston Villa – did so largely by buying in the best Scottish talent. When, as English champions, Sunderland beat the Scottish champions, Hearts, 5-3 at Tynecastle in the first club world cup in 1895, all 22 players were Scots. Liverpool and Chelsea were established by stadium owners with the specific aim of getting people to pay to watch them play. The league was never some cosy alliance of community ventures.
Yet the gulf between football’s rich and poor has never been so stark. The agglomeration of highly remunerated talent at the top end of the game is producing football of exceptional quality and recent Champions Leagues, at least in the knockout stages, have produced extraordinary drama. The question is, is it worth it?
At Bury and Bolton, specific mistakes have been made by specific owners in an environment that has done little to regulate who is allowed to own clubs or how they behave. But the issues that have taken them to the brink are not unique to them. This is a systemic problem. There are those who would shrug and point out no other country sustains a league of 92 clubs (plus other professional teams in non-league) and that a certain natural wastage is inevitable. But that is one of the great joys of English football: the economic logic of the vast supermarket chains gobbling up the corner shop should not apply.
As David Goldblatt’s new book The Age of Football makes clear, this is part of a much wider trend, as everything – players, managers, investment, attention – is sucked towards a handful of clubs in a handful of leagues in western Europe. To watch an Argentinian or Brazilian league game is to be shocked by how low the quality is given the global familiarity of their best players.
Africa Cups of Nations are habitually played out in front of empty stadiums, in large part because, across the continent, the culture of going to games has gone. The football people care about is played in Europe and so it is consumed via satellite television in bars and video halls. So little consideration is the match-going fan given that the rash of new stadiums built for each Cup of Nations tend to be built on the outskirts of towns: fine for VIPs and television, rather less convenient for locals who may want to attend matches.
The terrible irony is that the pressure on smaller clubs in England is intensifying even though attendances across the four divisions are as good as they have been in four decades. The crisis stems from the chasm between the Premier League and the rest, and the various gambles being taken to try to bridge it. It is a result of the greed of the breakaway clubs in 1992.
What are those clubs now? With foreign owners, foreign managers, foreign players and, increasingly, foreign fans, they are global brands that happen to be based in England. Even at Liverpool, where the community feel is far stronger than at most of the superclubs, the dead hand of finance lurks. It is there in the slogan “This means more”, the sort of self-absorbed scouse exceptionalism that has always raised wry smiles among fans of other clubs repackaged and delivered back to fans as a (non‑ironic) marketing campaign. And it is there in the ill-judged attempt to trademark the word “Liverpool”, as though the city itself could somehow be taken from its people and transformed into a token to be bought and sold. And, frankly, even that is probably preferable to being a propaganda tool for a nation state.
What place has my irrational sense of Sunderland identity in the modern game? Is it possible to have the benefits of globalisation without the rich-getting-richer creed that underpins it, to be cosmopolitan without destroying communities? That feels the central cultural question of our age, and football is nowhere near answering it.
The standard of play has never been better but the cost is devastating.
The Guardian Sport