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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