Brendan O’Neill

The two elites squeezing the life out of football

The two elites squeezing the life out of football
(Photo: Getty)
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So, all of a sudden the chattering classes care about football fans? Yesterday, the kind of people who usually wring their hands about the vulgar, tattooed hordes who pack into grounds and chant unspeakable things at the opposing team, posed as the champions of fans.

A European Super League would be a contemptuous assault on the salt-of-the-earth football-watchers who are the heart and soul of every great team, they said.

Politicians, sports commentators, and Guardianistas — they were all at it; all waving a metaphorical scarf for the good ol’ English footie fan currently being betrayed by filthy rich oligarchs who see football as little more than a money-making machine.

It was quite the turnaround, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t entirely buy it.

After all, aren’t these the same people who have been foisting the BLM ideology on football fans for months on end to try to cleanse them of their probable racism? Aren’t they the same people who will churn out outraged column after outraged column when fans chant iffy things or, in the case of Spurs, refer to themselves as the Yid Army?

Aren’t these the same people who have either turned a blind eye – or cheered – the introduction of extraordinarily infantilising measures at matches to control the heaving, sweating crowds?

There have been plenty of patronising edicts. Rules against standing up at games. Football banning orders that can stop certain fans from leaving the UK to watch their team overseas. ‘Bubble matches’, where away fans can be prevented from travelling independently to certain games and instead must agree to go on police-approved coaches, like criminals.

As I argued in this magazine a few years ago, bubble matches are ‘the biggest civil liberties outrage you’ve never heard of’. They’re further proof that football fans are ‘monitored, censored and over-policed in a way that would cause outrage if they were any other group’.

All this stuff sucks the life out of football too, as surely as the furious monetisation of the beautiful game does. And yet the inhabitants of the political and media worlds who have been fuming for 24 hours straight about the proposed Super League say nothing about such fan-bashing. Except perhaps: ‘More please.’

Don’t get me wrong. The Super League is a terrible idea. It would indeed be a closed shop, a violation of the competitive spirit of football. It would be a transparent money grab, motored by greed. It would be a continuation of the concentration of wealth among fewer and fewer clubs that we have seen via the emergence of the Premier League and the Champions League.

But it would be even worse than those developments because it would move the big clubs even further from their fans. It would rip these teams out of their national and local context and formally turn them into globalised big businesses. It would, unquestionably, be a smack in the face to fans.

However, it would be wrong to obsess myopically over the baleful impact that Big Business is having on football. Because that would mean losing sight of the equally problematic impact of what we might call Big Virtue — the trend among the political and media classes for viewing football fans as a latently racist, regressive mob in pressing need of moral correction.

The truth is that in recent years football has been under attack by a pincer movement. On one flank there's the big-money men, milking teams for every penny they can get with little thought for what the lifelong fanbase might need or want. And on the other flank there’s the cultural elites who for a long time have viewed football as a vehicle for socially reengineering the plebs.

Hence the endless social sermonising that has been visited upon football over the past few decades. Kick It Out. Rainbow football laces to remind fans not to be such homophobic Neanderthals. The incessant taking of the knee, which no longer takes place in any other sporting or cultural arena. No, just football. They need it, you see, as gruff and unreconstructed as they are.

Who can forget the fury of the commentariat when some Millwall fans booed the taking of the knee in December? We were back into 1970s territory, with plummy observers instantly denouncing these fans as thick, vulgar racists.

Or maybe they were just bored of their sport being hijacked for political and social ends?

So, yes, football is under threat. Not just from mega-rich oligarchs — but also from the Nu Football middle classes who seem to consider it their colonial-style mission to tame the football masses and turn them into polite, seated, passion-free fans ‘just like us’.

Football’s new oligarchs and some of the people criticising them might have more in common than they would like to admit. Both seem to see football as an opportunity – whether to make money or signal virtue – and both take a very haughty view indeed of the fans.