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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 24 February 2021

'Last year's Champions League - it really doesn't get any better... But it comes at a huge price'

David Goldblatt chats to The42 about his new book ‘The Age of Football’.

Tottenham's Lucas Moura celebrates at the end of last year's Champions League semi-final.
Tottenham's Lucas Moura celebrates at the end of last year's Champions League semi-final.
Image: Adam Davy

FOOTBALL IS NOW more popular than ever and David Goldblatt has the stats to prove it.

In ‘The Age of Football,’ Goldblatt writes: “It bears comparisons with the world’s religions, not as a system of belief or alternative metaphysics, but in the scale, regularity and profundity of its cycles and rituals. Its economic footprint is hardly titanic, but European football now turns over more revenue than the European publishing or cinema industries.

“The game’s attraction to global corporations as a vector for their brands seems unquenchable, ensuring its presence and imagery is multiplied many times over. It is the object of desire for television networks across the world. Indeed, even Amazon and Facebook, recent purchasers of football media rights, have decided that they need football more than football needs them.

“The level of mainstream and social media coverage afforded the game is simply vast and unending. The game attracts, at its peak, audiences that dwarf other sports, shows and genres; and when it does so, it gathers eyes and minds in acts of collective imagining like no other spectacle on offer.

“Everywhere, as it has for over a century, football creates and dramatises our social identities, our amities and our antipathies. No other sport, no popular cultural form, has been subject to this degree of adulation. Football is first: the most global and most popular of popular cultural phenomenon in the 21st century.”

Consequently, there is also more money than ever in football. And, as the Notorious BIG once rapped, ‘mo money, mo problems’.

Football’s increase in popularity has coincided with a growth in the scale of corruption in which it has become entangled, while many of society’s problems at large — racism, overwhelming economic disparities, violence, greed — have been starkly reflected in the sport.

Therefore, Golblatt’s new book is a comprehensive examination of the ‘beautiful’ game in the 21st century through a political, social and economic lens, looking in detail at significant developments over the past 20 years, with chapters devoted to a range of topics, including the Fifa corruption scandal, three-sided football and how the politics of South America influences the sport.

The42 recently caught up with Goldblatt, an acclaimed historian whose other books include ‘The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football’ and ‘The Games: A Global History of the Olympics,’ for a chat about his latest work…

book-presentation-from-former-fifa-president-sepp-blatter Former Fifa President Sepp Blatter is among the key figures in Goldblatt's book. Source: DPA/PA Images

What prompted you to write the book?

I published ‘The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football’ in 2006. Most of the stories in it peter out around the turn of the century. So that’s 20 years of global football to catch up on in and of itself. But I recognised, pretty quickly after I wrote ‘The Ball is Round,’ that the world changes remarkably fast.

Since that book was published, we’ve had the global financial crisis and its endless consequences. It’s interesting, Twitter gets no mention in ‘The Ball is Round.’ YouTube barely gets a mention. Facebook has only just come into being. And again, history is moving at the speed of light, so the world is looking very different.

It seemed to me to make sense to catch up. I had an inkling when I started writing that was very soon confirmed once I got stuck into it. Although clearly, political power and economic forces have been at work forever in football, the last 20 years really have seen a complete step change in both. So all of those things conspired together to say, yeah, it’s time to revisit the world of football.

Was there anything that particularly surprised you during the research?

The sheer scale of material, first of all. I read more for this book on 20 years of history than I did for the previous one. And the quality of what is being written, particularly in my area around the politics and economics of football, the volume of stuff being produced, is just amazing.

In 2003 or 2004, I was still scratching around in certain areas and certain things. Now, I’m just completely overwhelmed. And that’s academic work. It’s intelligent popular work. It’s journalism in the mainstream press, the world of the blogosphere and all the specialist football websites that have been established.

I spent two days on Twitter looking at the accounts of every prime minister and head of state in Africa, trawling through them to find references to the Premier League. You find that pretty much half to two-thirds of African heads of state, sub-Saharan ones, have a declared preference for a Premier League team. I just recycled all my notes from the book and the pile of paper was over three metres high.

And that’s before we get to Egypt. Before, you would hear about an event, goal, riot, whatever, you can’t check it. Now, I’m finding nearly everything is available through somebody’s mobile phone on the internet. So all of that I found surprising. 

But above all, politics and politicians have always taken an interest in football, but nothing like to the level of engagement that there is today. 


Do you think football is now the dominant form of entertainment, eclipsing cinema, music et cetera?

It’s still got pornography to challenge it probably in terms of volume of consumption. But that aside, it’s clearly the most popular sport in the world — that is without doubt. It’s been true for some time.

The triumph of football is now complete — the four most populous countries in the world, 25 years ago, China, India, the United States and Indonesia, football is marginal in their popular cultures and sporting cultures. And now, it is very present.

In China, it is the dominant sport with the explicit backing of the Communist Party and Xi Jinping himself. He’s clearly obsessed with football.

In United States, 25 years ago, since Major League Soccer has been launched, it is now sustained, it’s successful, it’s getting attendance figures bigger than the Brazilian top division.

The women’s game is obviously the most successful women’s game in the world at the moment.

Even in India, where cricket is king, we’ve reached a point where football is finding its place. So the Super League is bringing the razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League in cricket to football. India hosted the U17 World Cup recently and the country went crazy for it. [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi was surgically attached to Twitter for most of it. It’s a marker of a kind of cosmopolitan sophistication, because these days, any old Dalek can watch a flat-screen telly and see the cricket, but football in the global cities marks you out as something distinct and different.

And Indonesia, which was on nobody’s radar 25 years ago, when the national team plays and they are not very good, 100 million people are watching it. At that level, in terms of sport, football is king.

And, it’s difficult to measure these things, but the European football industry turns over more money than the European publishing and cinema industry. Nothing gathers eyes in acts of collective imagining in other cultural forms the way football does. Because so much meaning has been layered and ascribed to it by publics, it gives it a cultural significance that very few other things can match.

china-henan-xi-jinping-symposium-yellow-river-protection-and-development-cn Chinese President Xi Jinping is a big football fan. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

There’s a problem in many country’s domestic leagues, including Ireland, with low attendances, lack of interest et cetera, and part of the issue is people’s obsession with the Premier League and elite football. Do you foresee a time where there’s a significant rebellion against the status quo, or will the problem only get worse in years to come?

In some parts of the world, it is hard to imagine at the moment how the current situation is going to be turned around. The hollowing out of football in Africa and in particular, the domestic game, is so huge that the gap between what can be delivered in Africa, compared to the kind of televised entertainment that the Premier League is offering, it’s very hard to see in the short term or even the medium term how that can be turned around.

At the moment, I’m expecting more of it. Ireland have suffered. Scotland is going in a similar direction. The Scandinavian countries, which are rich countries, are struggling. People who watch the Champions League in midweek are often not so interested in domestic football, so that’s a challenge.

On the other hand, football has a pretty extraordinary capacity for representing the local. For my sins, I go down and watch Bristol Rovers. They’re my nearest team. There are 7,000 people there on a good day and we all know what good football looks like, because we all watch the Champions League midweek. But there we are still on a Tuesday night at Bristol Rovers. And we’re not going there really for the calibre of the football.

In my case anyway, Bristol Rovers’ ground smells of pasties — not pies, but pasties, you can smell the turnip. That invokes the uniqueness and distinctiveness of Bristol for me, and the experience of being part of it in a way that really nothing else can.

So while football can still do that in small leagues and smaller countries, it’s going to have a place. And it could be nurtured and developed. If you’ve got that, you’ve got something really great to work with.

On the other hand, under current economic dispensation, it’s very hard to see anything other than the gaps getting greater.

a-general-view-of-the-carlisle-grounds While the Premier League has thrived in recent years, clubs such as Bray Wanderers in the League of Ireland have experienced financial problems. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Jonathan Wilson recently wrote a piece in The Guardian lamenting how the Champions League now truly begins in February, given its increasing predictability and the gap between the top teams and the rest. This is a problem at all levels of football. As a result, do you think a European Super League is ultimately an inevitability?

I don’t think it’s inevitable. People who say ‘inevitable’ usually mean that that’s what they want to happen. I don’t accept that. I think there are choices to be made. The concentration of talent and money is not just across countries, but it’s across clubs, it’s within leagues, with all of these things, the inequalities are getting greater. And it’s a great shame. 

Tottenham, my first team who I inherited from my father and grandfather, are playing Olympiakos and Red Star in the Champions League. You should be thinking they’re going to be quite tough, close-fought games. Maybe Olympiakos and Red Star should have a chance of getting through. But you know actually, they don’t. It’s very unlikely. Each season, maybe one or two outsider teams creep their way into the round of 16, but it’s no more than that.

I think we could do something about it if the Premier League or Uefa wanted to institute ways of sharing revenue more fairly, it’s really not a problem. There are lots of ways of doing it. But will they choose to? All the power in football tends to lie with those who have the money. It’s not a very democratically organised game in that regard. So we could do something about it.

As regards the European Super League, part of me wants to say: ‘Right, why don’t you all just fuck off into your fucking Super League and we’ll get on with it?’

I struggle to think that it can be such a sustainable spectacle as the Champions League. Chelsea-Inter is a great Champions League tie, but week in week out as part of a Super League? It doesn’t carry any of the emotional or historical weight, or depth, of domestic leagues.

And maybe in time, it could acquire that, but I doubt it and I think it’s also the end of away fans. We’ll all fork out every now and again to go to a Champions League game, but for that to be what’s happening every weekend… And without away fans, football really is in trouble. It’s bad enough in the Premier League, the average age of the audience is 48, whereas in 1992, it was 24-25. 

The crowd can still be noisy, but we can see what way it’s going. But if you don’t have away fans, which provide the kind of grit to get most crowds going, I really struggle to see how that’s going to work as an experience and as a spectacle.

Part of the reason the world loves the Premier League is the players, its global brand. But it is something about the English crowd and the way it sounds and looks on television and the football it insists upon that makes the league so popular. I really struggle to see how a European Super League can reproduce that. Plus no promotion or relegation, it’s boring.

bury-fc-plight Messages from supporters are placed on a fence outside Bury's Gigg Lane stadium. Source: Dave Howarth

And we’d see other smaller clubs struggling and more teams like Bolton and Bury getting into trouble, right?

To be fair, you can’t blame all of the decline of the smaller clubs on the big ones. There is a widespread problem of endless, unbounded and unreasonable levels of optimism amongst the people that run football clubs, a desperate lack of transparency in the way they do their business, a real failure of regulation by football associations and leagues.

And once again, you look for best practice in Germany. Germany has far fewer administrations [in peril] and bankruptcies. It has had them in the past, but since the Bundesliga got serious about financial transparency and annual audits of everyone’s books — actually saying to people ‘you can’t play in the league next season, because you can’t afford that wage bill,’ it’s transformed the situation.

I think we need more of that [German approach], and it would make a big difference to the Boltons and Burys of this world, because it’s incompetent and frankly insane owners, completely deluded about the prospects and possibilities for their club, who then end up driving them into the ground.

It’s crazy in the Championship, where you’ve got half the clubs virtually spending their whole turnover on wage bills, let alone everything else they need to spend money on. That needs to be stopped and no one will stop it voluntarily, because everyone will say: ‘What about the person next door, they’re doing it, we’ll fall behind.’ So this is why you have centralised political power forcing them to do it.

soccer-1986-fifa-world-cup-mexico-86-final-argentina-v-west-germany-azteca-stadium-mexico Argentina's Diego Maradona holds aloft the World Cup in 1986. Source: EMPICS Sport

Near the start of your book, you compare the significant differences between the 1986 and 2014 World Cup finals. What do you think has been the biggest change to the game in the period between these two matches?

So the ’86 World Cup, it’s above all the finals I like to compare, because it’s Argentina-West Germany and Argentina-Germany in 2014. Looking at the film of the 1986 final, there are the outlines of our world there — corporations have arrived, it’s an early stage, they haven’t completely plastered the Azteca yet. The Azteca itself is soulful but rather knackered — it’s basically leftover from the 1968 Olympics and ’70 World Cup. It hasn’t been rebuilt, it’s the same old stadium basically.

It’s still recognisable as our world. It’s a global TV audience. But again, in 1986, most of the world still hasn’t got television — rural China, Africa, India, people haven’t got TVs. Although the first satellite relay broadcasts are possible.

There was not a single person that I could see in the crowd wearing a replica shirt in 1986, whereas if you go to 2014, virtually the whole crowd are wearing replica shirts. So what’s changed since then and what’s driven it is overwhelmingly digital TV is at its most powerful.

And lots of other things have happened. But the capacity to broadcast globally, the capacity for pay-per-view TV, which has been the engine driving the financial side of the game for 30 years [is key]. There are lots of different ways of organising that. In another world, it might have been socially owned clubs and state broadcasters with some sort of commitment to egalitarianism and democratically and socially minded football associations. But actually, what we had is private digital television companies, predominantly privately owned clubs, socially owned clubs and football associations who’ve given up on regulation, who’ve driven the process in the last 30 years.

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The other thing that really strikes me about that moment is the closing ceremony, which in 1986 is completely ramshackle. It’s so ramshackle that when Diego Maradona gets the cup from Joao Havelange, the then-president of Fifa, he has to be hauled back physically before he goes onto the pitch with the cup, because Sepp Blatter has arrived late and has to give out the medals. So he has to be called back and there’s a medal put on him.

The the Argentinians go back onto the pitch. There are literally thousands of fans on the pitch and it’s fantastic to imagine a world in which the security is so lax or relaxed that you can allow basically a people’s carnival to happen. That’s what happening there. And I take that as a proxy moment for: ‘This is an era for the crowd, the public good, the common interest,’ which still had some real weight and place in the way in which football was presented and the way in which it was run. Over the last 30 years, that space has been squeezed and squeezed.

You end up with the 2014 World Cup ceremony, which is the most desperate, painful, mannered, manicured for-the-cameras-only experience. By the time the Germans get the cup in 2014, the stadium is basically empty. All the Brazilians have fucked off. They’re on a separate, plexiglass plinth. You realise it’s all just for the 1,000 camera people who are stacked on the pitch below, not for us or the people who were there.

For me, that’s why the comparison is so strong and it carries such a big moral and political message.

Source: regioworldcup86/YouTube

This might be hard to answer given the current uncertainty, but do you see Brexit radically altering the state of the Premier League?

It’s interesting, one should probably ask the people programming Football Manager, because they’ve been thinking about this thing, the consequences of Brexit for football in more detail than Whitehall or the civil service have for the last three years and trying to build it into the algorithmic assumptions of the game. What I think, in the short term, it’s going to be harder for the Premier League to have such a global labour force.

To me, the Premier League’s rise in the world is based on two things — massive globalisation of its player and coach labour force, which produces these extraordinary teams with greater concentrations of talent and secondly, the nature of the crowd. I think those two things combined together, with some very slick marketing and packaging, make it so successful. So if you can’t recruit as widely as Premier League clubs have in the last decade or so, it’s going to be a struggle.

Then it’s down to what sort of deal they make with whoever is in charge, which is also entirely unclear. Will there be Visa restrictions? At the moment, Europeans don’t count as foreign players, certainly if they’re members of the European Union. This is going to change. 

All of this will probably be good for Scotland and indeed Ireland, who supplied quite a lot of players in the Premier League and its predecessor Division One, but they would have been squeezed out by the flood of Croats and Serbs, and Greeks and French and so on.

I do wonder, slightly more apocolyptically, whether England will become such an unpleasant place that even the prospect of Premier League wages is making people think: ‘Do I want to come here with my family?’ I don’t think we’re quite at that stage yet. But English society and culture is unpredictable enough to make me wonder further down the line whether that will be a problem. 

There’s also the question of transport. If it’s a no-deal Brexit, we’re in the realm of the unknown. So I think in the short term, over the next season, the impact will be not very much. Once we get beyond that, the Visa and migration issues will be important and essentially, unless a very generous deal is cut on the Premier League, which is possible, that will be a problem.

Further down the line, the really interesting question is — England and its very big cities has been rightly perceived as welcoming, cosmopolitan and open in the last 15-20 years. I just wonder whether being outside the European Union and the terrible rancour that has been released by the Brexit process will actually dim that and make it a less appealing place to put your money and to play football.

usa-v-netherlands-fifa-womens-world-cup-2019-final-stade-de-lyon USA's Megan Rapinoe (centre) and team-mates celebrate with the FIFA Women's World Cup trophy. Source: John Walton

You write comprehensively about the problems in the game — racism, corruption, greed et cetera. Does modern football have many redeeming features?

The first thing to say is the last 20 years have seen a transformation in the gender politics of football. I think what we’re seeing now is the sort of football fever that once gripped young men and boys, when football first arrived in the British Isles and beyond.

It would have emerged had women been allowed to play football, but of course, legally and practically that was stamped on in the 1920s all over the world with the English FA taking a disgraceful lead. Now, unencumbered by that, that football fever is happening again. We see it in terms of grassroots participation, the women’s participation in the professional game as a spectacle, especially women’s international football, but also the place of women within the men’s game, as they start taking on coaching roles and having more of a presence in the media. I think this is the best thing since sliced bread.

The way I would put it is — football is the world’s game, it’s the global game, it’s humanity’s game, but for 150 years of its history, its imagery and self-identity was completely suffused with masculinity and that clearly cannot stand. So I think the arrival of women’s football, and to have women in the game and the feminisation of aspects of football, is absolutely fantastic. 

The second thing we can say about football is that politicians are not the only people that have worked out that football has social and political weight. There is a fragile archipelago of resistance within the global game, where fans, players and organisers of different kinds are finding ways of playing, following and using football for progressive political ends. That might be the anti-racism movement of European football, the anti-commercialism protests of the German fans, the emergence in Eastern Europe of breakaway clubs that can’t bear the kind of fascism that seems to persist in many clubs and amongst many organisers.

There’s an extraordinarily rich grassroots scene where football is tied to some imaginative interesting social development projects and sometimes football is a herald of an alternative challenge to the dominant order.

There’s even dissidents in Vietnam — the only place place these guys can meet is on the football pitch, because every time they book a restaurant, it gets closed down. So I think there is enormous potential as yet untapped, enormous innovation in football. So it’s not all bad.

The other thing to say is that the football itself at the highest level is just the best ever. The Champions League — the top 12 teams or so. With the great football teams of the past, obviously you know you can only be as good as your era and there are differences of science, nutrition and so on that are very difficult to calculate for. But any of the great teams of the past — the Ajax of the ’70s, the great Brazil teams, I don’t think they’d last five minutes in the Champions League. With these teams, the football, when it’s good, is just scintillating.

The two second legs of the semi-finals in last year’s Champions League — it really doesn’t get any better. When Lucas Moura scored the goal with seven seconds to go, deep into extra-time, Tottenham had come back from 3-0 down — drama, narrative, skill, suspense, it’s amazing.

Or to watch Barcelona at their peak over the last decade — it’s just stunning football. Even Man City, when they’re really good, they’re absolutely amazingly good to watch.

But it comes at a huge price. That’s something for everybody engaged in the game at whatever level. It’s like: have a think about that. Someone’s paying. There’s always a bill. And I think we should be thinking about that.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for publication.

‘The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-first Century’ by David Goldblatt is published by Macmillan. More info here.

Gavan Casey is joined by Andy Dunne and, from Japan, Murray Kinsella ahead of Ireland’s Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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