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October 2016
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Football in the shadows. Why the great game isn’t all that it seems.

By Tony Attwood

There are many people – I suspect it is a majority in England – who believe the world and what makes it work, can be understood by common sense.  “The evidence of my own eyes” as one correspondent wrote recently on Untold.

In this view you can look at anything in the world, and through the use of “common sense” you can see what it is and know what it is.

The trouble is that this view falls down on occasions.  It doesn’t help explain why, when one jumps up in the air, one comes back down.  Saying “gravity” doesn’t help, because that’s just a name, not (in the world of common sense) an instantly observable explanation.   Likewise it is hard to explain why the world turns, what electricity is, or why the earth’s north magnetic pole has left Canada and turned up in Russia.

For to understand such matters one needs theories.

But theories are not just helpful for big questions in physics.  Theories can help us understand everyday life too, in answering all sorts of questions such as how did Leicester transform themselves in the course of one year from no hopers to champions.  Or why, after so many years at the top, did Man U not manage to continue that run when Sir F Word retired?

This being the summer, when there is no football to interest me other than the international stuff which I only watch for the hailstorms, I tend to ponder such issues, particularly as I drive home late at night after a dance, trying to guess where the next police “Driver Awareness” road block is going to be, and how I can best avoid it.

What puzzles me as I ponder is the overarching question, why is professional football in England as it is?  What sort of dark energy is it that keeps football expanding all the time?  What sort of dark force holds the vision of football together so that all the media outlets seem to agree as to what they will write about, and what approach they will take?  What is going on?

Massive, rapid expansion, and holding the whole thing together, are two contradictory pressures.  Ask anyone in business who has run a company that grows, grows, grows and grows.  The growth is great, it gives a sense of power, and quite possibly the promise of great profits.  But it is so easy for it all to spin out of control.  Quite soon instead of one company, there are lots of departments, each doing their own thing, and soon they are pulling against each other.  Hey presto profit and growth turns into loss and decline.

What keeps this dark energy of expansion in check is a dark force that holds everything in place.  Something that keeps the vision of football in one place, and which stops the individual bits flying off.

So the questions arise.  What is the dark energy that powers all this expansion?  What is the dark force that despite everything holds football together.  (Or put another way, why does no one ask questions about why the PGMO is so secretive and so different from ref associations elsewhere!)

The expansion of football is there for us all to see.  This summer we have the biggest ever Euros, we have talk about creating a fifth division at the top of English professional football, we have the agreed expansion of the league and cup competition that previously only included League One and League Two teams, to include A grade Academy sides.  In the autumn there will be the big meeting to talk about reforming (a code word for expanding) the Champions League.  This coming season the top clubs will have more money than ever before – by a long way.

But despite all these pressures for growth there are counter balances that keep football together.  The FA, the most inept, pathetic, dysfunctional, disreputable, disorganised organisation that world has ever seen is still there, still holding the reigns of power regarding the international stage.  The Premier League is all powerful domestically.  Uefa, utterly corrupt and inept is still there, as is Fifa, each discredited but seemingly still able to sally forth without being held to account.

Dark Energy (I take the title from physics of course – the power that makes the universe expand at an ever greater rate) is fuelled by money, ambition, greed, and a seemingly basic human drive that many people have, to have more.

Dark Force (this name, also from physics, is the force that holds everything together and stops galaxies flying apart – a sort of super gravity which we can’t evaluate but which works) stops football flying apart in a series of corruption scandals, blames, counter-accusations, breakaways, discrediting of officialdom etc.

It is the Dark Force in football that particularly fascinates me.  A Force that keeps the Dark Energy of expansion in control.  How on does it work?

The answer is, I think, that there is enough vested interest to keep everything together.  It is true in Fifa, Uefa, the FA, the Premier League… they all know when they are onto a good thing, so they work hard to keep everything in order.

What could counter this Dark Force which holds everything together, is any organisation or set of organisations that would benefit from pulling it apart, exposing its dark secrets, its corruption, and its self serving nature.

In western democracies that counter to any Dark Force is normally the mass media.  But instead of being part of an approach to expose the greed, corruption and sheer stupidity within football, as it does (on occasion) when looking at politicians, the police force, industry, criminals, business, the mega-rich etc, it acts in reverse, supporting the status quo, holding everything together.  Just as the mass media is often the bete noir of politicians and big business, so we would expect it to be of endlessly expanding football.  But it isn’t.  It is the reverse.  The media has become football’s lap-dog.

The simple answer as to why the media doesn’t hold football up to account and question its every mood is generally given (when it is given at all) as being because football is too popular.

But it never used to be this way.  Go back to the 1970s and the media attacked and criticised football all the time.  So did politicians.  And in fact one part of the media (the newspapers) would attack the way another part (TV) reported football.   So why did it all change?  Why did this counterbalancing force that used to hold football to account, suddenly reverse and become the Dark Force that holds football together, allowing football to expand, expand and expand?

I find four reasons.

The first reason is that whereas in the past football had seen coverage on radio and TV as the enemy, which would reduce crowd numbers, now it saw broadcast football as the gateway to ever greater riches.  In 1931 Arsenal FC banned live radio broadcasts of its matches from Highbury.  In the 1970s Nottingham Forest repeated the idea.  As for live televised football that was little more than a few England internationals and the FA Cup final.

What everyone found with the expansion of live football on TV was that instead of destroying football, the game on TV expanded its audience dramatically.   English football became more popular not just in England, but gradually across the world, so football and TV began to work together as one.

The second reason is that in the aftermath of this development TV had to change its view of football.  It had always edited recorded matches in such a way as to make games look as exciting as possible, and out of this, had the power to talk up certain clubs and talk down others.  They began to edit out dubious referee decisions too – easy to do on recorded highlights, especially when they knew that the Sunday newspapers would have started to print before the journalists had the chance to see what Match of the Day had done to the game.

Thus TV started to have a vested interest in football as good and exciting, and certainly not open to any sort of criticism.

Which left the newspapers in a quandary.  They had declining sales, declining advertising revenues, and declining influence on public opinion.

Their solution was the third reason.   What was at one time a medium that held football to account became instead a Dark Force that bound football and the media together.  With less money and less influence the solution was cheaper, quicker, easier journalism.  In short personality stories and gossip, particularly about transfers.  If there is a story that can be made up, and which no one is going to contradict, then let’s run that.

Out of this attitude also came the fourth powerful element in holding football together.  With a desperate need to create stories in order to appear relevant to football fans, but with ever less money to do so, the media began a sort of shorthand version of reality, which ultimately the bloggers copied.

In its simplest form it involves seeing an issue and instead of investigating it, making up a “common sense” answer, and then running it.   Since there were precious few investigators around who would bother to investigate whatever was said, the story became common currency.  It is a system of make-it-up journalism, in which common sense assumptions are made, and once made all the media joins in and supports.

There is no more perfect example than the notion that England doesn’t win many trophies because there are too many foreigners playing in the Premier League.  Say it a few times and it seems true .  Let English lads play in the English league and England will win the World Cup.

But stop for a moment and look at the Netherlands.  They have a much smaller base of players, and all their top players play overseas, and yet they have done much better than England over the years in terms of reaching the latter stages of the World Cup.  The evidence is irrefutable – but never spoken.

This “common sense without evidence” approach generates stories without cost, and infiltrates all the media so that these stories become perceived as true.  FA policy is now built on this myth.

There are many such examples: the notion that transferring players in for big costs leads to success in the following season is untrue in most cases.  The notion that changing managers will help a team is also untrue most of the time, and so on and on.  The belief that Arsenal get more injuries than anyone else.

I reckon there are about 20 of these myths around which are repeated ad infinitum by the media, and which most people now believe to be obviously true, and yet which have no foundation in reality.

But they have a purpose.  These are the myths around which the media unite, and which now serve to hold football together as it constantly expands.  These myths mean that anyone who challenges them is seen as the outsider, the oddball; a laughable idiot who can be told to go and play with his toys.

Dark Energy and Dark Force might seem very obtruse concepts, but I can’t find any other way to explain why time after time when we look at the evidence of what is going on in football, we find these bizarre and eccentric and false beliefs repeated, without any football reporter actually challenging them.

It is, if nothing else, rather odd.

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20 comments to Football in the shadows. Why the great game isn’t all that it seems.

  • WalterBroeckx

    Excellent article Tony.
    Money is the main reason to hold it together I think. Isn’t money the usual dark force for anything else in the world?
    I do admit I still love the sport but apart from Arsenal matches I can live without it.
    That would have been impossible let us say 20 years ago when I had to see each and every match of WC and EC from start to finish. Yesterday during the Germany-Poland match me and my wife were looking up all kind of things on our computers. The TV was on but our interest was with what we were searching for. I just checked the score from time to time by having a quick look at my TV.
    And when around the 88th minute we had finished our internet search, my wife asked if she could watch the news and with just 5 minutes to go in a football match I said: yes go ahead.
    20 years ago that would have been impossible. Unthinkable.

    But that is what looking and delving deeper in to the world of football has made of me: A changed man. I still love football, the sport but hate all what surrounds it.
    You could once describe me as a football mad maniac but that has now changed and now I am only an Arsenal mad maniac. 😉

    As with the latest words from Blatter about fixed draws and the corruption in Fifa, UEfa and other football organisations I have had enough of them.
    If ever Arsenal would leave the path they are taking (contrary to most other clubs I like to think… and hope – “The Arsenal way” ) it might be the end of my football live.

  • Pat

    Very thought provoking article, Tony.

    I would say that in human beings counteracting the greedy who always want to have more, there is a force that wants to work together, be together, do things not just for yourself but for others as well.

    One of the few places these days where large numbers of people gather and have a sense of being together is at a football match. It is a great feeling.

    It is sad when, as is happening at times – but not all the time – at the Euros, this turns into violent actions against the opponent.

    About the media, as long as it is nearly all owned by extremely rich people, I cannot see it reporting a true version of anything, football included. The truth does come out sometimes in various ways, but a lot of the time it is well hidden.

  • colario

    One man’s commonsense is another man’s nonsense’.

  • nicky

    Walter, I am with you entirely in failing to generate any real enthusiasm regarding the Euros 2016 games.(Or any other internationals for that matter).
    Come August, when proper football begins, it will be exciting to watch how a reconstituted Arsenal FC, duly strengthened, performs at home against Liverpool.
    Could England versus Anyone compare?

  • Ajay

    Thought provoking article. My theory is that the day there was a single owner for all three mediums( TV, Print and internet) was the day real news died and the day profiteering started. Why would one medium try to take the other out of the competition with facts and figures when they all have a common agenda (more and more moolah) and are owned by a single corporation. Infact it became a complete weapon for mass communication of shit. It should not have been allowed by the powers to be, unfortunately for us common folk nobody watched out for our interests. And unless you make the effort to question the data being fed, you are most likely to swallow and digest what u see, listen, or read and to make matters worse you need to pay for these services making them gluttons even richer.

  • esxste

    I’d like to point out the difference between a Theory in science and a theory in colloquial terms.

    A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.

    When people use theory colloquially, as you are here, it’s closer to a scientific hypothesis. You’ve come up with an explanation for the phenomena that you observe, there is some evidence to support your explanation, but this evidence doesn’t provide conclusive proof.

    I don’t mean to criticise. I appreciate the way you are investigating and gathering the evidence and want to apply the scientific method to when analysing observations. But its a bug bear to me that people don’t fully appreciate the word Theory.

  • Ando

    Off Topic –

    In the last week or so, every time I try to access the UA homepage and the banner advert at the head of the page is showing ‘ Maybelline’ (whatever that may be), the rest of the page does not load. I accessed this page through the Fbook link.

  • nicky

    We are all in the same infuriating boat, my friend.
    The Maybelline ad and all the other annoying ones which delay access to Untold and others are slowly raising blood pressures throughout the land.
    Tony will probably say that the income from advertising in this way, defrays the cost of operating Untold.

  • Gord

    I think internal strife within organizations is not the only divisive force.

    “Western” society prescribes to the idea that a shop keeper can expect a fraction (multiplication) as profit. This extends to “banks”, who charge a percentage as “interest”.

    Supposedly the logical evolution of this idea, is that successful businesses can expect to see forever increasing profits.

    Constantly multiplying some number by another, produces a geometric progression. A plot of said curve has the characteristics of an exponential.

    There are 2 conclusions:
    1. the multiplier is less than 1 in magnitude, and the series evolves to zero.
    2. the multiplier is greater than 1 in magnitude, and the series evolves to infinity.

    The second possibility requires the one enterprise to at some point have more profit than the economy possesses, which isn’t possible.

    An implosion is one possible result. I think revolution is another possible result. Others?

  • GoingGoingGooner

    Professional boxing was huge when I was a child (when Ali was the champ). It is no longer relevant being surpassed by mixed martial art competitions. But, before it was eclipsed, it fragmented. From the two main organizations (WBC, WBA?) 4 emerged causing no end of squabbling. My point is not that football will be necessarily be eclipsed by some mutant hybrid of football, jai alai and throat singing but that as in boxing fragmentation could happen precisely because it is so big.

  • Gord

    OT: has a note about Arsenal Ladies Leah Williamson. She was hurt in the game versus Seattle Reign. She has had surgery, and is now starting rehab. Hopefully to return before season ends.

    News reports that youth goalkeeper Huddart has joined Eastleigh on a season long loan.

  • bushido

    brilliant piece once again Tony, this all start when people began to exploited and manipulate football when they realize they can make lots of money from it and everyone involve want piece of the pie. some individuals even get away with a crimes when they have supports and power in football world whether at club or national levels. the power balance in football start to shift when football by example were sold to the highest bidder, therefore the broadcasting company who hold the rights start to set the rules and dictated terms of how football should be portray to the viewers. as we know media and journalism goes hand in hand, thats why we get this new age of garbage football journalists bcos they dont wanna be as Tony mention above as the outsider, the oddball; a laughable idiot who can be told to go and play with his toys.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    No one or no body is too big to fail (or fall )- its only a question of if and when you either get gutted or you explode . And who picks up the pieces .

  • Re the Maybelline advert. The way around this is this: if you see that advert at the top of the page press refresh or F5 and the page will change and come up with one with a different advert at the top.

    The adverts for the site (which do generate some of the money needed to pay for the server and the protection we need) are placed via an advertising agency and I don’t have control over them. But I have told the agency and they are trying to fix the issue.

    I am sorry, the last thing I want is anything getting in the way of the enjoyment of the site.

  • Esxste: I would disagree on the issue of a theory in scientific terms. You have said

    A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation

    You might be right, but unfortunately I do understand this differently. If we consider the theory of gravitational waves, that was a theory for nearly 100 years, but there was no testing and confirmation. If we consider the contemporary theories of dark matter and dark energy there are no ways of testing either but they are constantly written about as theories in New Scientist (by way of example). Now we have the curvy cosmos theory as an alternative theory to the two dark theories (this week’s edition of NS).

    Sorry we disagree, but that’s how I see it.

  • bushido

    WalterBroeckx at June 17, 2016 at 9:10 am – you got that right, i had the same feeling for the last 5 years. if is not involving Arsenal and Arsenal players, i’m not that interested about the match due to all the scandals and corruptions surrounding the football world. being the only male of 4 siblings i was grew up around football as my dad is an amateur footballer(in Malaysia). i start to follow and supporting Arsenal since i was 16,(when local tv company start to broadcast CL match and EPL highlight every week plus occasionally FA cup match) not saying i knew about the club inside out but i’m old enough to know how the club that been on my heart for the last 18 years and counting had been portray by the media, bloggetas, fans from the other clubs and even by Arsenal own fans. maybe the reason Arsenal holding plc decide to sell majority of the share to silent Stan mainly bcos they share the same principle(spend only what you own and operating within the club budget) and Kroenke agreed to preserve “The Arsenal way”(long may it continue) rather than to Usmanov who is tend to followed Abramovich and other clubs model of spending thus putting the club at risk to be swallowed by huge debt.

  • Gunner6

    Hi Bushido
    I am a Malaysian too. Hope all is well at your end.
    Sorry UA just had to say hello here.

  • bushido

    hello Gunner6. all well here in the fasting month.good to know i had Malaysian company here at UA. hope all fine at your end as well.

  • Luvyourclub

    The FL Trophy at one point actually had teams from the now called National league in it with Halifax Town getting to the Northern Section semi final one year. Comment on Arsenal and you need stats and correct facts to be negative. Every thing not Arsenal, who cares if it’s speculation and wrong.

  • you must be joking

    obtuse or abstruse?