Monday, 29 March 2010


Crisis. Football thrives on it. I’m talking off-field mostly, but then crisis has a way of jumping over the hoardings like a rabble of disgruntled, misguided, pissed fans and making its way into the heart of the game. Performances, results and whole seasons can hinge on the intricacies of sponsorship deals, boardroom corruption and plain incompetence, tax bills, wage bills, sex scandals, corporate scandals, moral outrage, violence and, often, the combination of all of the above as disparate groups of people in and around the sport work together to Bring the Game into Disrepute.

They pay fines for having done so and weather endless media storms, they answer difficult questions at press conferences and ignore witty banners hung over stands by one group of irate fans while pledging to ban for life another group of fans who overstep the line and throw coins at the opposing teams’ players – or worse. They defend the actions of players, defensible or otherwise, then condemn the actions of others. They attack referees, sleep with each others’ girlfriends and cry and hug and fight each other at work – most of which on a regular basis. They are thugs and intellectuals, criminals and UN goodwill ambassadors, comedians and professionals. They are the reason why sports stories are found all the way through the newspaper and round every table in every pub in the land.

“They” are the cast of the soap opera that football unarguably is, and always has been. Even better than its competitors, this soap runs 24 hours a day (see Virgin channel 517, Sky 405 and Freeview 83, if you’re interested), has an endless supply of new storylines to work through and every episode is live. And we, the fans, the public, everyone – we love it.

Why? Because we’re the same people who slow down on the motorway to rubberneck at a nice big smash and love to read outlandish, lurid tabloid news stories about improbable serial killers and scandalised celebrities. We’re also the same people who laugh at the absurdity of life and human behaviour, make up jokes and funny songs about the things we see and write endless millions of column inches of words in an attempt to decipher those same things.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, incidentally. This is what I, as a football fan, signed up for – and anyone who says they wish it was “all about the game” and professes to have no interest in the “circus of modern football” is probably being untruthful, and at any rate would be left with a very different and probably fairly unedifying prospect were it suddenly all taken away.

As Portsmouth manager Avram Grant recently put it (and so wonderfully succinct it was too): “Football is more than football.”

Portsmouth, of course, are the headline act this season – the long-running story arc that just won’t go away. They’re the soap family that would have been written out of the script were it not for the popularity of their car-crash scenario – they’ve stumbled inelegantly from owner to owner, manager to manager and payslip to payslip, constantly in danger of ceasing to exist altogether. Their troubles have not stemmed from football, but from poor management at the highest level, leading to multiple job losses, administration, a 9-point deduction (their “sporting sanction”, unsporting though it may appear) and certain relegation. The fact that they haven’t been liquidated is the only positive the fans and staff can really take from the season, especially when the consensus seems to be that were they any business other than a football club –one so ingrained in the community, a national symbol of the town and a company whose continued operation is of interest to a large proportion of the town’s population – Pompey would have been wound up a long time ago. Which would have been a shame if only for the fascinating insight into just how badly some football clubs are run and how devastating the on and off-field consequences can be their ongoing misery provides.

Supporting acts this season have included the appreciably more heavyweight likes of Liverpool and Manchester United who have both been involved in their own recession-based financial woes with, most visibly, unrest growing between fans and owners even at United, a club who have experienced little other than success since their unpopular owners took over. Liverpool are in a lot of debt and face the prospect of moving into their new ground fading further and further into the future, while their lack of prowess on the pitch this season has hardly helped matters and manager Rafael Benitez’s position looks less and less secure as each disappointing result comes in. At United, regardless of whether they go on to win the league this year, the green-and-yellow Newton Heath colours worn by huge proportions of their fans alongside the Glazer-owned red are likely to be among the most iconic images of the 2009-10 season. It may seem ridiculous to protest against owners who have brought your club nothing but success – but one look at the £700m+ debt the American family have saddled the club with is bound to make fans nervous about the long-term future of their beloved team.

There are other recurring characters in this season’s storyline, of course. Recurring characters that pop up with a laugh for the knowing audience, or with another hapless tale of woe to tell. Chelsea’s season has been hit, possibly irrevocably, by the sex scandals and marital indiscretions of John Terry and Ashley Cole – two key players in the West London club’s bid to bring the Premier League trophy back to the capital. West Ham have changed owners and face sweeping cost-cutting measures as well as the very real possibility of relegation under manager Gianfranco Zola. Owen Coyle, once hailed as ‘God’ by Burnley fans, became Judas overnight as he left the club for Bolton and, again, very likely immediate relegation to the Championship. Manchester City, Bolton and Hull City have all sacked managers.

And I’d like to put in a small mention for my adopted Bulgarian side, CSKA Sofia, who could barely be in more trouble if they’d actually set their minds to the task. After a riot at rivals Lokomotiv Mezdra saw 100 fans storm onto the pitch, they were handed a 4-0 defeat and a three-match home ban (although in researching this sentence I have since discovered that this is, sadly, not particularly rare). Add to this the horrifying news that CSKA striker Orlin Orlinov has been arrested for allegedly kidnapping a Bulgarian model and reality TV star before beating her for 8 hours and it’s safe to say that the Bulgarian league is experiencing the less light-hearted side of the soap opera – this one is more like a Hubert Selby Jr. novel.

What I’m trying to say here is that we should not be ashamed to say that “football is more than football”, and that that’s why we find it fascinating. Of course I drool over a beautiful goal and can often be seen biting my nails into oblivion during a knife-edge Champions League tie or the like, but this compelling narrative is why I like to write about football and I think it’s why a lot of people love to write, and read, about it too. There’s so much material to work with, so much going on in so many places and directly affecting so many people that it can’t be ignored: it’s a roller-coaster drama with real implications for real peoples’ lives. It’s a big part of why football fascinates me – and this is all without a ball being kicked.

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