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Going for broke in English soccer, where the real football is the British working class

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Dr Matthew Blackman is co-author of ‘Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’, and ‘Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House). He has written as a journalist on corruption, as well as on art, literature and history. He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

Read George Orwell’s essays on English culture and politics and you will uncover the strange reality of British social life. That is, that the working class and lower middle class have always tolerated exploitation on an almost grotesque level. The absolute mad exploitation of the English football fan is one of the truly baffling elements of English life.

Why did the cancellation in the north of England not feature on Helen Zille’s Twitter account? But Helen need not worry, the English football fans’ wokeness and their cancellation of a game will not threaten our shores. This despite leaving us South African fans with nothing to do on a Sunday evening. What is certainly true is that the English football fan woke up a month ago to the fact that their culture is under threat. A “wakening” that resulted in the cancellation of the Manchester United vs Liverpool match on the evening of Sunday, 2 May 2021.

Just what this might mean for Glazer-owned Manchester United in particular and English football in general is impossible to know. Row back two months or more and you would have believed that Video Assistant Referee or VAR had, in football fan parlance, “ended football”. But no longer — with the woken football supporter, owners of five elite English Clubs are balancing on a PR tight rope. While the Glazers (and not the Liverpool owners) are largely walking alone after seeing the red rage of several thousand Manchester United supporters.

The six English clubs’ attempt to join a European Super League has marched the English fan to an emotional roundabout. And the turn-off has directed them not to allez allez allez their way to Europe, but the road to the “winter wonderland” of Stoke, Hull and Wigan Pier. One wonders if the Glazers and all the other foreign owners of English football clubs had heard the news. Britain did vote to leave Europe a little while ago in an attempt to retain their “green and pleasant land”.

But are these protests an act of nostalgia, the last dying embers of a culture? Or are they the fanning of the flames of a society sick and tired of being taken advantage of?

Read George Orwell’s essays on English culture and politics and you will uncover the strange reality of British social life. That is, that the working class and lower middle class have always tolerated exploitation on an almost grotesque level. This has certainly been true of English football. The absolute mad exploitation of the English football fan who can’t function without their “cold night in Stoke” is one of the truly baffling elements of English life. The inflated ticket prices and the amounts of money demanded by television companies like Sky and BT Sport almost beggar belief. And to think that these fees have been loaded on to many who live in what the EU recognised were some of the poorest communities in Northern Europe.  

For reasons Orwell (who went to Eton, but who also lived as a homeless person) found both honourable and perplexing, the working class in Britain have always been willing to tolerate the control the “moneyed functionless class” have over them: “The existence of these [moneyed] people,” Orwell continued, “was by any standard unjustifiable. They were simply parasites less useful to its society than his fleas are to a dog.”

In fact, the situation in football is in many ways as problematic as it was in Orwell’s era. The English football fan will pour out an ecstasy of songs and pounds for men earning upwards of R50-million a week who chase an inflated bladder around a small grassy paddock. They have grudgingly accepted that in order to do this they have to hand their minimum wages over to the owners of their clubs whose money, lifestyles and politics are deeply questionable. And who clearly have not the slightest sympathy for them.

The English football fan has largely ignored the fact that a club like Manchester City is owned by Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whose human rights record is hardly ideal. And that Chelsea Football Club is owned by a pro-Putin Russian oligarch. Add to this that other disturbing element of football, the fact that the Fifa World Cup was played in Russia shortly after its appalling attack on LGBQTI+ rights. And that the next one will occur in Qatar in what Amnesty International is already calling “the World Cup of Shame”.

On The Guardian’s football podcast, some journalists have recently stated that they will go to Qatar in order to document what is happening there. This is a nonsense. We know what is happening there. Just read Amnesty International’s report. Reporting on football and reporting on human rights violations are very different things. Journalists are only fooling themselves if they think they will be doing anything positive by covering the World Cup in Qatar. They will be performing the task of what Lenin referred to as that of the “useful idiot”. They will be doing very much the same job the ordinary fan has done in encouraging their own humiliation and subservience to the moneyed class all in the name of being able to watch and enjoy a football match.

The simple truth is that boycotts of the World Cup and of football in general in Europe are perhaps the only answer to these issues. Imagine empty stadiums? Well of course you don’t need to imagine them. But what empty stadiums have certainly proved is that football without the crowds is like Manchester United without Alex Ferguson: just a little bit boring and an experience maybe worth, on occasion, missing.

Of course, whether boycotts will work is another question. The boredom and loathing of sitting out Covid-19, of waiting to return to the stadiums, will almost certainly mean that fans will not have the will to sit out more months away from one of the most important elements of their cultural and social life. But without an effective strategy against those who own and run football, the status quo is likely to continue.

Running battles with the police are certainly not going to solve very much for the fan. And these might even awaken a violent and disturbing element of football culture. Some of the scenes last Sunday, 2 May were not encouraging. But the only way that the newly woken English football fan can act against the owners and administrators of their game, is to threaten them with the prospect of the clubs going broke. DM

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  • I agree that the majority of football fans didn’t ask for, or want, the so called super league, but in reality they care far more about the price of their matchday ticket. The vast majority could not really care about who owns their club and fan boycotts will never happen, not seriously anyway.

  • It’s the same here really, Chiefs/Pirates are huge operations, very profitable and supported by the poorest of the poor. Motsepe has bought into this vibe (I dunno if Sundowns has made him any money).

    As for Qatar22, it remains a testamant to the joke that is FIFA (Bafana will probably “boycott” it

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