Who is football for: fans or big business?
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first British team winning the European Cup. Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Lisbon Lions’, 14 out of 15 players of the victorious 1967 Celtic squad were born within 10 miles of Celtic Park in Glasgow. The beautiful game has come a long way since its origin as a largely working-class game. English football has financially benefited from globalisation and the growth in popularity of the game overseas, and its millionaire top-flight players hail from all over the world (and think nothing of switching their allegiance to the highest bidder). The record-smashing 2015 TV rights deal, shared by Sky and BT, made Premier League clubs richer than ever and the subsequent explosion of transfer fees means English clubs have never had so much clout in the market.
A lot of fans do not seem happy, however. Concerns about rising ticket prices have rocked a number of clubs, most notably Liverpool, who were forced to U-turn on potential increase before the 2017/18 season after significant unrest from fans. And after the FIFA corruption scandal and controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar – better known for its petrodollars than its footballing tradition – there seems to be growing concern that the football top brass cares more about money than those who support the game.
In Germany, controversy has been brewing over the success of the corporate-owned Red Bull Leipzig, ‘the most hated club in Germany’, who seem to contravene the spirit of German football, where most clubs are majority owned by the fans. In the UK, there appears to be some backlash against big money. Non-league clubs such as Dulwich Hamlet FC and FC United of Manchester (founded in reaction to Malcolm Glazer’s purchase of Manchester United) have seen exponential growth in recent years, marketing themselves as a fan-friendly antithesis to the modern game. The pioneering AFC Wimbledon, formed as a non-league club when Wimbledon FC’s franchise was moved to Milton Keynes, have even made it ‘back’ into the lower tiers of league football. But fans of such teams will not have the pleasure of seeing a Neymar, Paul Pogba or Gareth Bale grace the field. Supporters simply cannot see the best players in the world playing in Britain without the commercial success of the game.
Are fans being left behind by the growing international success of the beautiful game? Is money ruining the game? Can commercial organisations be blamed for hoping to benefit from its popularity? Can fans have it both ways? Should football be seen simply as entertainment for those watching wherever they happen to be, or should it have a ‘soul’, some deeper connection to the loyal fans who make it what it is?