This is the original version of an article that appears in today’s version of Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News. I sent a copy in advance to my business partner in the US to prepare him for my coming out as a closet Manchester United fan. He is a life-long Liverpool man, so this news introduced an unpredictable dimension to our business relationship. His terse response was “we need to talk!!!”
This week, Pele, the greatest footballer who ever lived, celebrates his 70th birthday. Though all his fans will wish him well, there’s not much else for them to celebrate today.
Football is in a death spiral. Not the game played by millions, week in, week out, in parks, schools and any old open space in all corners of the world. But the game we watch on TV, or in super-stadia like Old Trafford, the Bernbeau and San Siro, is slowly rotting from the head downwards.
FIFA, the world governing body, is run by a pompous emperor who struts the world stage like the statesman he believes himself to be. Powerful lobbies in rich countries seek his imperial nod to support their bids for the next World Cup. The press reports his every word, and we have to listen to his ridiculous pronouncements about the future of the game.
Not for nothing has the sports page been on the back of every newspaper for as long as I can remember. Any reader interested in sport will go from front to back before venturing inside. Sport means that much to us.
Two senior FIFA officials are under investigation for corruption, and another two regional representatives on the committee that will vote for the next World Cup host have been filmed allegedly offering their vote for cash. Lots of it.
In the UK, wealthy owners have been buying up clubs for a variety of reasons over the past decade. Hard headed businessmen looking for a lucrative “franchise”. Quixotic zillionaires seeking a vanity project that might one day pay off financially but in the meanwhile serves as a handy outlet for ego gratification and self promotion. Smaller clubs are bankrupting themselves to keep up.
People who have no regard for game, its traditions and those who pay ever-increasing sums of money to support the teams they love, shuffle clubs around on a gigantic Monopoly board. There are no fans any more. Only customers.
Then there are the players. Football has always had its share of Wayne Rooneys. Talented guys from humble origins who come into great wealth, corrupted and diminished by hangers-on, or exploited by ruthless agents who think of their man as a meal ticket or “a franchise”. George Best, Diego Maradona, Paul Gascoigne to name a few. Others come from poverty to become shining examples of values we can all subscribe to. Pele, for example, and George Weah, who has devoted much of his fortune to rebuilding his beloved Liberia.
At its best, football offers us much to admire and seek to emulate. Strength in adversity, teamwork, selflessness, discipline and the joy of collective achievement. At its worst, it shows us that it’s OK to lie, manipulate, injure and abuse people, to go for the fast buck. The photo of Wayne Rooney mouthing a curse at the camera at the end of a desperate England performance in the last World Cup epitomizes the dark side.
I used to love football. For years I supported Aston Villa. I was born within two miles of the ground. Apart from a glorious season or two in the 80s in which they won the championship and then the European Cup, following Villa has been a bit like looking out of the same window for 30 years. You hope for something new to show up, but somehow the scene never changes. But in my heart, I’ve always been a Manchester United fan. The drama, the brilliance and the beauty of the game, exemplified in one club.
I still care about the game, but I’m losing hope. For me, the best cure would be amputation. Painful as it would be for armies of long suffering fans, I’d like to see the houses come crashing down. I would like to see the owners of the richest clubs losing their shirts. I would like to see FIFA losing its “franchise”. Then, perhaps, the millions who play, watch and support the game will be reunited. Football will become, once more, “only a game”. Their game, and Pele’s too.
As the late lamented John Lennon sang: “you might think that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”….