A glimpse into football's globalised future
August 2 ~ Last week's revival of the perpetual story that Europe's top clubs are still hatching plans to break away from FIFA and UEFA to form their own Super League threw up a typically self-serving quote from one of the top English clubs contacted by the Guardian. "[Financially] there is a lot of unfulfilled potential in football as it stands," said an unnamed director, according to this piece. If you think it's barely possible for our already revenue-obsessed clubs to exploit fans further, then you weren't at FedEx Field just outside Washington DC on Saturday night to watch Barcelona play Man Utd in yet another US summer exhibition. I've seen the future of top-level club football, and it's worse than you might ever have imagined.
If the spectators at this lukewarm spectacle were any indication, top-level clubs may be set to take the concept of Football Tourism to a whole new level. First, almost everyone will be wearing expensive replica shirts, complete with player names and numbers printed on the back, while clutching a plastic bag of merchandise they fought through swarms to purchase from multiple undermanned souvenir outlets. Second, they will not mind being 30 minutes late for the game, because it's the occasion that counts, not the game itself. By the same token, they are happy to turn their backs on the pitch in order to have themselves photographed with the action in the background, and screw anyone whose vision of the game is blocked.
The Fans of the Future will not be segregated. There will be no need, because they will be too anaemic to fight. In theory that is of course a good thing, but they will make you long for the days of psychotic, flare-wearing morons steaming into each other across savage, cracked terraces, fuelled by 12 pints of lager. They will exchange inane chants and banter, reflecting exactly what they wrote on the club message board the day before, and the day before that. But there will be no anger, just inane grins, pop concert cheering and head-shaking bafflement when their highly paid heroes fail to perform in the same way they did on those YouTube highlights clips, where the ball always goes in. Tactical insight will be limited to what they can glean from the stiff and shiny pictorial brochure they paid for on the way in.
Half-time entertainment will be painful and obligatory. If Saturday's game is any taster, it will feature a boisterous, slap-headed geezer with a Cockney Red accent urging the crowd to applaud a flat-footed penalty kicker hauled by lots from the VIP section, all in the name of a frequently cited corporate sponsor that's making a heart-softening contribution to a charitable foundation. All corporate involvement in football is entirely benign, being either for the good of the game or the saving of the human race, with just the tiniest of pay-offs – having your name and what your company does intrusively reiterated by the geezer all the way through the interval, and a massive pennant emblazoned with your logo smothering the centre circle.
The Future Fans will pay shocking amounts of money for their tickets, and will be prepared to travel far to see their brand names in action. They believe this will prove their loyalty, stung as they are by the accusations of being armchair-bound cheerleaders with no connection to the city of the team whose colours wrap their duvets. They will use their phones to capture every moment, despite the game supposedly being an unforgettable experience. They will get up and down constantly to buy yet more synthetic food and drink, or to leave early so they can avoid the heavy traffic and return to their armchairs.
Any such travelling Global Super-Circus could be much more extreme than The 39th Game, but don't worry. The easiest thing will be to just let it happen. Let the big clubs break away and get the fans they deserve. Football can survive as a two-tier entity – one tier as a glorified parade of superficial excess where distant stars perform tricks for flag-waving idiots in massive, commercial, concrete arenas in some meaningless new format. The second as we know and love it, poorly executed under grubby skies by fallible anti-heroes to a background of agonised jeers. We'll kick out the corrupt and run it ourselves if necessary. It won't be Super, but it should be something still worth caring about. Ian Plenderleith
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