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Football in England is at the crossroads and its future hangs in the balance

By Tony Attwood

Football has a habit of lurching from crisis to crisis, from headline to headline, from coverup to coverup.  But just because until now it has somehow it always got through each disaster and struggled on to the next doesn’t mean this can go on forever.  The crises are coming faster and faster and each brings the need for another catastrophe, just to take attention away from the last.  It is not a model that can survive much longer.

Of course there was a time in the 1970s when it looked as if football as a top line entertainment was on the way out with crumbling stadia, negative tactics, declining crowds, and a certain amount of unruly behaviour going on in the grounds, were reported in such a way as to make the average reader who never went to a game feel as if law and order and the very fabric of the nation were under threat.

Indeed to a degree it was under threat, but as we have found out since, it was primarily a threat from the South Yorkshire police, the Sun newspaper making up stories, and a bunch of loonies from Liverpool who went on a rampage at Heysel Stadium resulting in 30 dead and 600 injured.

And yet utterly horrific though those events were, somehow football came out the other side, and was gentrified with the arrival of the Premier League.  But despite that we now find ourselves facing even bigger issues, for now we face not just challenges to football from outside of the game but also simultaneous challenges from inside football itself   And to my mind these challenges are the biggest since the Football League decided not to punish Manchester Utd and Liverpool for the most obvious match fixing event in the history of the League, just over 100 years ago.

Indeed football is currently facing the challenge of such a multiplicity of issues that no one seems able to consider them all at the same time, and instead takes each one independently, while pretending all the other problems don’t exist.  At least not today.

Thus at this moment the nation’s media is very agitated about the fact that the horrible beasties at Fifa have fined the innocent FA £35,000 for the wearing of remembrance poppy insignia.  And of course that is important for many, many people.  And nothing I say here is meant in the slightest way to suggest otherwise.

But the fact is that Fifa, that horrific, corrupt organisation that is still midway through dealing with huge numbers of its senior figures being arrested for, or suspected of, corruption, has for years had a rule about symbols on shirts.   The UK sides don’t like that rule being applied to the poppy, but don’t mind it being applied to Iran which was fined 45,000 Swiss francs for breaking the same rule.  We’re right and they’re wrong, although that argument isn’t helped by the fact that according to the media we’re always right and the stupid foreigners are always wrong.

So for the moment the poppy question will remove from the headlines the issue of football in the UK as an industry where predators could (at least in the past if not now) go on the prowl and abuse children endlessly and where others either turned a blind eye or seemingly simply moved the offender on.  The people at the top of clubs, it seems, are not to be held responsible for their actions in running organisations in which such appalling crimes happened and the suspect was not reported.

Meanwhile Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Brazil, Paraguay,  Estonia, Ukraine, Chile and Argentina were all recently fined amounts in the same sort of region for discriminatory and unsporting conduct by fans, including homophobic chants in some instances.  This is what Fifa does, and England’s FA has chosen to be a member of that organisation.  It has rules, it interprets them, and hands out punishments when it sees fit.  That’s what it does.  That’s what it always does.

But somehow, to me, there seems to be a disconnect.  We’re fighting Fifa about whether the poppy is a political symbol or not, while seemingly not looking too much at either broader questions of how the lives of so many young people were wrecked by men using football clubs to prey on children for so long undisturbed, or how Fifa’s demands in Qatar for new stadia are being met by the use of slave labour.  The poppy might well be important to many, many people, but why not put as much energy and garner as much publicity to fight the way Fifa is working in Qatar?  Ah, it must be because we hope England will play there.

The problem with Fifa fines, as with the FA’s response to Fifa, is that nothing is happening that has any impact.   The fact that Fifa is currently being taken to court over the issue of liability for the suffering of workers building the stadia for its world seems hardly to have made a ripple in the firmament of football in England.    And so yes, I am asking why we are talking so much about the symbol of the poppy on a football shirt, which of course I respect, while willingly going along with Fifa’s disregard for human rights in Qatar, which to me is a much bigger issue.

If fighting for the right to wear the poppy is important, then surely fighting for the basic human rights of workers in Qatar who are building the infrastructure for the world cup in which the same home nations that are protesting about the poppy will seek to compete, is also important.  The living – even those in foreign countries – are as important as the remembrance of the dead.  I honour the memories of members of my family who died in the second world war, and that won’t stop until my time comes, but that is my personal affair.  Trying to do something to protect the exploited from the greed of Fifa is very much a public affair.

The problem for me is that the FA could go to the CAS and win and then consider it a triumph.  But the triumph will be Fifa’s for one again it will have set aside discussion of its own corruption, and reduced discussion of the issue of Fifa’s support for Qatar’s use of slave labour.

The whole situation goes beyond the surreal when one reads part of the Fifa statement put out with the poppy fines, which said, “Keeping in mind that the rules need to be applied in a neutral and fair manner across FIFA’s 211 member associations…”   Who could ever associate the phrase “the rules need to be applied in a neutral and fair manner” with Fifa, an organisation known for corruption that goes beyond anything ever seen or even imagined anywhere else in sport?

And what makes all this such a mess is that the issue of the symbolic importance of the poppy has removed from the headlines the awful way in which clubs and football authorities have dealt with paedophilia within football in the past.  It has made it seem as if membership of Fifa is itself a respectable and reasonable thing to have, rather than something to be questioned.  Plus it has also set aside consideration of all the other issues facing football at this moment.  Issues such as the FA wasting the money it was given for the grass roots in football, while spending it on its own grandeur instead.

And all this is before the issues of the FA refusing to resolve the question of why there are so few top level coaches in England per 1000 players (when compared with other countries).  When Untold highlighted this issue on the lack of English coaches in football no one took much notice.  Now that point has been copied over and over again in the press – particularly after the defeat by Iceland – but still nothing changes.

So awful is the situation within the FA that not only did Sport England withdraw its funding for the building of new grassroots facilities but three past chairmen of the FA recently went to the UK government demanding action, meeting with the fifth sports minister in a row who has proclaimed that she or he will not hesitate to cut the granting of tax payers money to the FA each year if the FA does not reform.   And has the FA reformed?  Of course not.  Has that donation of tax payers money ceased?  No of course not.

And all of this has been going on while the issue of refereeing is still there.  Two years ago almost to the day Untold ran the headline 98.4% of all referee decisions are correct, claim PGMO. And amazingly the Independent believes them.   Against this, our weekly analysis of refereeing decisions, complete with video evidence that everyone can check, shows that under half of all major decisions made by referees are correct.  If that is not a crisis in football (not to mention newspaper reporting of football) I don’t know what is.

Or let’s go down another route.  In the mid 1970s several football journalists started to complain that TV companies were manipulating the way football was presented in order to make the games seem more exciting than they really were.   We don’t hear that cry any more, and it is more or less only Untold that raises the issue, even though it must be patently obvious to many people who go to a game and then watch a recording of it afterwards that even live matches are being manipulated to promote the “entertainment” and cut difficult issues that they don’t want seen.

Just as almost all newspapers in England currently report our government’s preparations to leave the EU in a way that supports the papers’ own political leanings without any attempt at balance, so football is reported in a way that suits the position of the media as organisations that pay football for the right to report it.

The issue of the fine for wearing the poppy on shirts is not irrelevant, any more or less than Fifa’s action against the Irish FA for its logo commemorating the Easter Uprising is irrelevant.  These are issues to be discussed and debated.  But not in isolation from all the other issues within football, such as Fifa’s corruption, the FA’s gross incompetence, how paedophilia was allowed the thrive within English football, the abandonment of grassroots football in England through a total lack of funding, the issue of why refereeing in the Premier League is organised in a way that is so different from elsewhere in Europe, the level of inaccuracy among referees…. and on and on all the way to the more trivial matters like the Telegraph using a picture of a match at the Emirates stadium which did not involve Arsenal, alongside an article saying that the stadium is often very empty at Arsenal games.  Or the Guardian deliberately misusing statistics to suggest that Arsenal don’t score enough goals.

The crisis facing football is not just that we have a multiplicity of issues hitting the game at once, it is that the media and the authorities work together to encourage us to think that there is only one issue at a time.  Forty years ago it was crowd violence at matches.  Ten years ago, the way the cost of watching football has risen. Two years ago: the world cup should not be in Qatar.  Last year, Fifa corruption laid bare.  Nine months ago, the deal to give the Olympic Stadium to West Ham.  Last summer, footballers in Spain avoiding paying tax through overseas companies.  A couple of months back, the England manager with a history of unresolved accusations against him, talks corruption with undercover reporters.   Last month paedophilia in football clubs.  This week poppies.  The acknowledgement of major problems with refereeing in Premier League games?  The option of countries banding together to leave Fifa and either stop internationals, or reorganise them through new body? Not any time soon.

Seeing each issue in isolation like this, and turning each one into a headline that is quickly forgotten, is not the way to reform football; this is the way to destroy it, and if people with power and influence do not start considering football’s problems in a sensible unified and coherent way soon, but instead leave the agenda setting to journalists and politicians, the time will come, in England if nowhere else, when we wake up and find football really has all fallen apart.

We need reform, which means we need the media to start taking the problems of football in a more serious and more connected manner.

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13 comments to Football in England is at the crossroads and its future hangs in the balance

  • nicky

    The cause of all the ills infesting the Near East is, I’m afraid, the world’s need for oil. Blind eyes have been conveniently turned on the excesses of the region’s royalty for many decades, for fear of being cut off from the precious liquid.
    Human rights will continue to be absent from the region unless or until the world’s need changes in substance or source.
    I won’t hold my breath though. 😉

  • OlegYch

    it seems that football is in no more trouble than any other part of our life affected by the media

  • Sammy The Snake

    Great article to take my mind off of Arsenal’s latest meltdowns! As always, I can count on you. 🙂

  • Walton

    This article would not happen if Arsenal were top.

  • Walton I have no idea what sort of mind reading powers you are using to reach the conclusion you have reached, but I can assure you, you are wrong.

  • Zuruvi

    I think the FA is just as bad as FIFA or probably worse.

    The FA and the British media enjoy attacking FIFA because it diverts attention from the corruption, incompetence, discrimination and institutional racisms within the FA and the Premiership.
    Gays are discriminated against in British football. Haters will not allow gays and lesbians to participate in football. The FA has done sweet F.A. about this matter.
    Blacks and ethnic minorities are not given adequate representation in the FA structures.
    Blacks and ethnic minorities are not given a fair chance at management in the Premiership or lower leagues.
    Refereeing is biased. We all know that there are certain teams (such as Man Utd, Liverpool and possibly Spurs) are given a special treatment by referees during matches and by the Premiership during scheduling of games.
    The FA has presided over football whilst clubs have had young children sexually molested.

    I do not think human rights issues in Qatar should be ignored but I ask which country has clean hands.
    Tony has highlighted that we should not forget the corruption of match-fixing between a Liverpool vs Man Utd game that took place 100 years ago.
    Do we really have to go back 100 years? Rafa Benitez highlighted FACTS about corruption in English football. The FA didn’t charge him with bringing the game into disrepute. Why not? Because Rafa had given FACTS.
    Qatar has been charged with “slave labour” practices but has not been tried and found guilty. I am not saying they are innocent. I am saying let’s wait for the court case to take place. When South Africa was awarded the rights to host the World Cup, the British media started a nasty campaign against this decision and one of the charges was that a country with so much crime shouldn’t be allowed to host the World Cup.
    The World Cup tournament was successfully hosted by South Africa. Not a single British fan (or any other foreign fan) was attacked, robbed or killed in South Africa during that tournament.

    The danger of bringing world politics into football is that it unnecessarily creates conflict. Some of my English friends were disappointed by the fact that the Irish national team wore shirts remembering what they perceive to have been an unjust “war” by the English on Ireland. Similarly, some of my Northern Irish friends (and others) don’t take kindly to the notion that the Poppy is not a political symbol.

    Let’s leave politics out of football. Football is a beautiful game.
    Politics is an ugly game.
    Let the two not mix.

    If we say Qatar is a bad country with bad politics and should not host the World Cup, then which country is clean?
    If we have to remember the match -fixing between Man Utd and Liverpool of 100 years ago then we should also remember the behaviours of all countries in the last 100 years: Atomic bombs, racial discrimination, colonialism, slavery, extraordinary rendition, keeping prisoners for decades on Guatanamo without trial, etc. etc. etc.

    I think we should focus on making the FA and Premiership better. The FA tries to bring FA issues into the discussion because it brings out the nationalistic spirit amongst the British people and the Sun and other news media start a campaign that foreigners are bad and FIFA is controlled by bad foreigners.

  • finsbury

    A crystal football (just the one)?

  • Flares

    Excellent write up. I would like an entire episode of the Sunday Supplement devoted to discussing it, preferably involving the three-headed Hydra of professional Northerner Sean Custis, blustering dolt Andy Dunn and the pompous, preening ass Henry Winter.

    Will make a pleasant change from the usual conversational axis of Pep’s tactics, Rooney’s future and Arsenal’s absence of minerals in the title race.

  • para

    I one wrote a letter to the Government(ok, i was young and foolish) about creating a black poppy to remember the slavery of black people by.
    Well i tell you, i did get a letter back, saying the usual standard reply, but i got the impression they just laughed and threw it in the bin.

    Zuruvi:
    “I do not think human rights issues in Qatar should be ignored but I ask which country has clean hands.”
    Indeed! Well said man.

  • Menace

    Zuruvi – the poppy, that we celebrate in memory of those that gave their lives, is a real flower. Using a colour change is not appropriate to mourn atrocities.

  • Norman14

    Zuruvi:

    We cannot claim the high moral ground over human rights in the UK.

    Just look at the government’s response to questions surrounding our supplying Saudi Arabia with illegal arms, that they then dropped on innocents civilians in another country.

    It seems to be a question of “Do what we say, not what we do” these days.

    Meanwhile, our useless media hides it’s collective head in the sand!

  • omgarsenal

    Walton….grow a pair and write an article about whatever is bothering you…..we would love to see your prowess at composing a meaningful and insightful argument….it would be a pleasant change from your cowardly sniping and unredeemable negativism.

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