The Origin of English Football
Thanks to the tireless work of trade unionists in the late-nineteenth century, British workers enjoyed much more leisure time than they had done previously. This social movement, which grew in opposition to the horrific conditions and long working hours endured during the Industrial Revolution, secured an eight-hour working day and a two-day weekend for most workers by the end of the nineteenth century. During their new-found free time, many workers grouped together to pursue sporting activities and so most English football clubs have their origin in particular workplaces: Arsenal was born out of Woolwich Munitions; West Ham out of Thames Ironworks, etc. In 1888, these workplace teams were organised into the Football League yet today, corporatisation of English football has left this traditional working class sport almost unrecognisable.
How Did Football Become a Global Commodity?
The 1995 Bosman ruling used EU law to argue that transfer fees for free agents conflicted with the right to free movement within employment. This allowed players to leave their club on a free transfer when their contract expired. Players whose contracts were due to expire could now demand increasingly higher salaries from their current club who had to acquiesce or else lose the player on a free transfer. Similarly, players could also demand huge salaries and signing-on fees from new clubs to compensate for the lost transfer fee. The Bosman ruling put the power firmly in the hands of the players and introduced the potential for huge sums to be exchanged during transfer. Seeing this, opportunistic businessmen reinvented themselves as football agents who exploited the Bosman ruling to make substantial personal profit. Clubs now had incentive to accumulate wealth to ensure that they could buy and retain players and so they were eager to accept offers from external wealthy investors.
Currently, one percent of the global population owns more than the other ninety-nine percent combined. With statistics like these, it is not hard to imagine that all big business is linked by common investors. Once football was identified as a profitable sector, it became part of the vast inter-dependent web that is the market. Now, the financial welfare of a club relies on so many external factors that events in an unrelated sector can, through a chain of financial dependency, impact upon the running of a football club. A notable example of this in recent history is the takeover of Blackburn Rovers by Venkys, an Indian fast food chicken supplier who hoped that the acquisition of the club in 2010 would increase their brand recognition. It quickly became clear that the Indian outfit were woefully ill-equipped to manage a football club and Rovers plummeted to League One with their debts spiralling to over £100m. Although Blackburn have achieved promotion back to the Championship, Venkys continue to fend off financial collapse. The fate of the club remains dependent on the ongoing success of the poultry supply industry. As long as clubs are owned by super-wealthy individuals, there will always be motive to cut spending and increase income in order to maximise profit margins. For fans, this looks like rising ticket prices and a distinct lack of signings in the transfer window. The stability of these clubs relies heavily on the success of their owner’s other investments. If their primary businesses are losing profit, they look to the relative stability of their football club to prop them up, which is often detrimental to the fans.
Is Banishing Foreign Investors the Answer?
Foreign ownership has undoubtedly changed the face of English football. The Premier League is by far the richest football league in the world due to its plethora of international investment. Owning a Premier League football club has become an act of vanity — a vulgar statement of wealth. The EPL now appears to be a playground for the likes of Manchester City’s Arab owners and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich whose involvement in English football has been described as an expensive hobby. Burnley, Brighton, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Spurs are the only remaining majority British-owned clubs in the Premier League. But British ownership does not necessitate integrity by any means. The corruption of British billionaires Joe Lewis and Mike Ashley (of Spurs and Newcastle, respectively) is well-documented. Lewis, who bet on the pound crashing out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in ’92, now resides in the Bahamas to avoid paying tax on his staggering fortune. Meanwhile Ashley, whose venal business dealings have seen appalling treatment of Sports Direct workers and the closure of House of Fraser, treats struggling Newcastle United and its loyal fanbase with complete indifference.
The three smaller British-owned clubs — Burnley, Brighton and Huddersfield — are all relative newcomers to top-flight football and appear to have resisted foreign takeover for now. Although not on the scale of internationally owned EPL outfits, there is still a substantial amount of money in these clubs. Mike Garlick (Burnley), Tony Bloom (Brighton) and Dean Hoyle (Huddersfield) are all lifelong supporters of the clubs they now own — a rarity in modern football — but they are still, first and foremost, profit-driven businessmen. Their investments, though more modest than the real big-spenders of the Premier League, have brought their clubs long-term stability. However, fans of these clubs cannot be complacent. As the capital within these clubs increases, so too does the bosses alienation from the fans. Businessmen, regardless of their nationality, will ultimately prioritise their financial interests above all else. Therefore the real issue is not whether a club is owned by domestic or international investors, but whether it operates in the interests of its fans.
Fan Ownership and the German 50+1 Rule
For a club to operate in the interest of its fans, the fans must play an instrumental role in the running of the club. FC United of Manchester is now the largest fan-owned football club in the UK and is democratically run by its members who all have equal voting rights. FCUM was founded by Manchester United supporters who opposed the takeover by American businessman, Malcolm Glazer. The fan-owned club has created an impressive culture with a staunchly working class following. Whilst fan ownership has been extremely successful for FCUM, it is often dismissed as unworkable in relation to the Premier League. It is said that the Premier League clubs require external investment in order to remain competitive with other leagues yet European giants like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all operate successfully under systems of fan-ownership.
The Bundesliga is often held up as a shining example of how football leagues should operate. With top-quality football, high attendances, low ticket prices and a great fan culture, the German equivalent of the Premier League attracts admiration from football fans worldwide. This success is largely accredited to the 50+1 rule which states that a Bundesliga club must hold a majority of its own voting rights. The rule is designed to protect clubs from corruption by external investors and ensures that the club’s members and fans retain control. The benefits of this method resonate with English fans whose clubs have been run according to the impulses of individual owners or else have been used by callous capitalists to clear their own debts. In the Bundesliga model, corporate interest is inhibited by the will of the supporters. As the fans want what is best for the club, it is unlikely become mismanaged. Football clubs run for the workers, by the workers is something which most English football fans long for.
Casual Culture is at Risk
Casual culture is the last remaining working class element of modern football which has so far resisted capitalist corruption. This is a credit to the loyal football fans who have stayed true to their roots and demonstrated that there is strength in working class unity. But even this is under threat. Other political forces are attempting to infiltrate the noble working class tradition of football. Opportunistic groups like the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) and the English Defence League (EDL) seek to project their fascist agenda onto this proud working class pastime. Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, even went so far as to adopt the name and persona of a football hooligan in order to increase his working class appeal. These individuals and organisations have recognised that football culture provides a concentrated population of disenfranchised workers whom they can manipulate with divisive political rhetoric. They pretend to speak for the everyman but in fact wish to divide workers along lines of race, ethnicity and religion.
It is true that racism has been and continues to be prevalent in football, but this is a disservice to the working class tradition and must be renounced. The working class have a proud history of interracial solidarity which has been forged through centuries of worker struggles. For example, the prevalence of cotton mills in Lancashire and Manchester meant that the North West of England became a hub of working class anti-slavery movements. In 1862, Lancashire mill workers refused to touch cotton which had been picked by US slaves, effectively bringing the cotton industry to a standstill — a self-sacrifice for which they received a letter of acknowledgement from Abraham Lincoln. In 1977, the Grunwick Dispute pushed female, immigrant, East African Asian strikers to the fore of the trade union movement and demonstrated the need for workers of all creeds, colours and religions to unite against their common enemy. A call by the strike committee for mass-pickets received an emphatic response with countless trade union and labour organisations rising up in solidarity. It is said that the involvement of white, working class men in support of striking Asian women was the turning point in race relations in Britain. Soon after, the Battle of Lewisham saw workers mobilise against the National Front, outnumbering them eight to one and subsequently forming the Anti-Nazi League. Football fans must remember the working class roots of the sport we love and resist the forces which use it to stir up hatred and division.
Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism (FLAF) is a grassroots campaign created to oppose those who attempt to force fascist politics into the culture of the beautiful game. The organisers behind FLAF recognised the rapid growth of the far-right groups within football firms/supporters and decided to set up an initiative to counter this worrying trend. Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism has no political affiliation and intends to keep it that way, insisting that their core values are football, anti-fascism & working class unity. Already, the group has demonstrated that there is strong opposition amongst fans to the right-wing politicisation of football, with the number of likes on their Facebook page far exceeding the DFLA within just a few months of existence. Last month, FLAF and other antifascist groups gathered in London to oppose the DFLA and found the far-right group to be little more than ‘fat old men trying to relive the NF glory days’. FLAF is a working class firm who fight for their clubs and their class, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
At a more local level, football leagues and tournaments, such as those put on by 0161 Community in and around Manchester, are an example of how football can be used to unite people of all backgrounds to foster working class solidarity. The approaches of FLAF and 0161, which simultaneously build working class unity and interracial solidarity, are exactly what is needed to combat the capitalist and fascist infiltration of football.
Capitalism and Fascism Threaten Working Class Society
The Premier League is a microcosm of British society. The enemies which threaten football are the same enemies which corrupt society as a whole. Already our infrastructure has been blighted by the greed of external investors as capitalists pursue profit at the expense of our health, safety and well-being. The Tories have been quietly selling off NHS contracts to private bidders despite objections from high-ranking NHS staff. Construction giant Carillion had 420 public sector contracts when it went under, leaving thousands without jobs and costing the taxpayer almost £150m. Our railways are run at a significantly higher cost to the commuter than their state-owned European counterparts and private rail companies push plans to cut train guards — much to the outrage of the RMT, who are striking in an effort to preserve these vital passenger safety jobs. Private profiteering does not benefit the working people of Britain and we must make our discontent known when polling day comes.
Just as they have done within casual culture, right-wing political groups (with the tacit support of the mainstream media) carry out their racist agenda in wider society. Their divisive rhetoric directs hatred towards migrants rather than at the capitalist culprits who exploit migrant workforces to cut labour costs. Their simplistic analysis of terrorism lets wealthy war profiteers off the hook and offers no long-term solutions to the problem of religious extremism. As in football culture, we must resist this bigoted narrative and instead point the finger at those in power who allow such situations to arise. In football and across society, we must push back against capitalism and fascism by building working class solidarity for the benefit of our clubs, our class and our country.
First Published: November 1st 2018