Conference demands change

16 April ~ Football, according to David Goldblatt, the author of The Ball Is Round, has to bear the weight of ethical visions of what the world might be like. Talk about "the beautiful game" is loose and hackneyed, because no one who watches Bristol Rovers every week would pretend that football always looks that way. Goldblatt is more concerned with the potential for beauty and for that, football urgently needs profound and far-reaching reforms, as he said when he delivered the keynote address last week at Hofstra University’s intriguing conference on Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity and Politics.

In it he called on those in charge of the game to acknowledge that the real essence of a football club is “the collective cultural capital” of those invested in following the team. A stadium, the management and a club’s players are all changeable, but this capital built up by decades of common support reflected the true foundation of a team’s identity.

The writer outlined five aspects of football governance needing reform. First, all international and national federations needed to acknowledge that embezzlement is theft, and therefore a criminal act, and that all their accounts need auditing. Second, board and committee representatives could no longer be chosen from within, via the back door – players and women, for example, should have representatives at board level.

Third, match-fixing has to be tackled – it has always been present, but the scale of betting has become phenomenal. In the lower leagues, said Goldblatt, there are many players with drinking, gambling and debt issues, and if it gets any worse then in 15 to 20 years no one will take the game seriously.

Fourth, football must examine its long term relationship with commercialisation. “We need to think about regulating the economics of football,” said Goldblatt. Football’s association with gambling, for example, is out of hand when so many teams are sponsored by betting companies. In addition, more money needs to be channelled from the “extraordinary wealth” at the top of the game down to the lower levels.

Finally, he attacked what he called the “spectacularisation” of football – meaning the way that football is consumed and presented, and dominated by TV coverage. He cited FIFA’s ban on the vuvuzela and traditional Brazilian musical instruments at the 2014 World Cup. “If we kill the spontaneity and the crowd’s contribution,” he said, “then we’ve massively diminished the cultural experience.”

None of these ideas is particularly new, especially to anyone who has been reading WSC for the past 25 years. It was inspiring, however, to see them delivered with such verve in front of hundreds of academics and students from around the world. While the conference served up 100 fascinating papers and numerous lively panel discussions – covering topics from the organised league in the Nazi ghetto town of Theresienstadt to “Female fans and the 1966 World Cup” – it was Goldblatt’s fire and conviction that suggested the conference could serve as more than a mere forum for the polite and erudite exchange of views on gender, art and identity in the game. Ian Plenderleith

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