For all the American ham and glam, the last World Cup Finals were a public relations disaster: the apex of world football frenzy was a dull noscore draw, and had to be decided on penalties. In a previous game, Diego Maradona had run to the corner flag after scoring for the Argentines, only to stare and rant at the camera in such a maniacal manner that all suspicions were confirmed – his euphoria was ephedrine-induced. Andres Escobar, the unfortunate Colombian who scored an own-goal in his team’s unlikely draw against the Americans, was gunned down on his return home by an embittered betting syndicate. And, to make things even worse, Britain wasn’t even represented.

In this, at least, the Finals which begin next month will be different. On 10 June, Scotland will play Brazil at the Stade de France in the opening game. For the first time in eight years, English supporters, too, will be able to admire, or rail at, their team on the most important international stage. The media and advertising bonanza will last for more than four weeks. The final itself is on 12 July, and it’s a fair guess that the Brazilian Bastille will remain unstormed.

Fans see the unfairness of the ticket allocation for the World Cup as indicative of their lot in the modern game. As an explanation, or rather excuse, ‘hooliganism’ is the word deployed by politicians, television executives and club shareholders. According to Dominique Spinosi, the security chief of the French World Cup Committee, ‘the British invented the poison of hooliganism at the start, but they have also invented the antidote.’ The cure is rigid ticket arrangements, a sensible separation of fans and a legal squeeze against touts: but by allocating 60 per cent of all tickets to their own fans, the French organisers have left swathes of supporters out in the cold. France has been cited as being in breach of European competition regulations which guarantee all EU citizens equal rights in the sale of goods. As it stands, tour operators and sponsors will get 20 per cent of the tickets, and Fifa another 20 per cent to divide between the competing nations. So in Lens on 26 June, when England play their final group match against Colombia in a stadium which holds 41,278, there will be fewer than three thousand (legitimate) English ticket-holders. (Gulliver Sports Travel in Gloucestershire offers the round trip for a mere £695. The face-value of the ticket itself is £14.50.) At St Etienne, which has a capacity of 38,000, there will be a paltry two thousand Scottish supporters.

Tony Banks has called the French hosts ‘miserly’, and 22 Liberal Democrat MPs have signed a motion condemning the French authorities. A few more tickets have become available thanks to a contingency fund. While Blair has banned his football-mad cabinet ministers from taking up freebies at the Finals, the merchant bank Deutsch Morgan Grenfell has admitted to having 1600 seats already booked. (At England’s Euro 96 semi-final against Germany, an astonishing 14,000 people in the stadium were on corporate entertaining packages.)

Of the ten venues, now commemorated on postage stamps, the Stade de France is the jewel in the French crown, even if it is set on the site of a gasworks. It is elliptical in shape; its athletics track can be hiden underneath retractable lower stands, so there won’t be the usual Continental distance between spectators and players. It has a halo roof, hovering 140 feet above the turf, supported by pylons and an inner rim of tinted glass to let in light and cut out infra-red. Ten thousand people will be able to dine at the stadium, which also has a thirst-quenching 750 metres of bar. Football is selling out to the hospitality suite (the Stade de France has 148 of them), the suits and the sponsors.

In Britain, the transformation in football began with the Hillsborough tragedy of April 1989. Hillsborough was the result of a self-fulfilling Thatcherite prophecy. The Tories were determined on a crack-down against hooligans; the police were paranoid and, as a result, they failed to operate effectively. The disaster was caused ‘not by hooliganism but by football’s political desire to react to hooliganism by erecting unforgiving steel cages which became coffins’, Colin Ward writes in All Quiet on the Hooligan Front (1996). Lord Justice Taylor produced his interim report on the tragedy on 1 August that year. The chief superintendent in charge, Taylor decided, ‘could not face the enormity of the decision to open the gates and all that flowed there from’. He had ‘an aversion to addressing the crowd’ and failed ‘to take effective control of the disaster situation. He froze.’

Conditions within football grounds have changed since 39 people died at the Heysel Stadium in 1985, and 95 at Hillsborough. Between 1974 and 1990, there was an average of six deaths a year at British football grounds. Every time I went to an Everton game, the words of my father (‘Don’t let anyone give you a knuckle sandwich’) would ring in my ears. Since the Taylor Report, Premiership grounds have become all-seater, with season-ticket holders shelling out for expensive ground improvements, and even – in the case of Middlesbrough, Derby, Sunderland and Bolton – relocations to new stadia, out of town. Because fixed assets (Chelsea Village, Sunderland’s Stadium of Light) are secure investments for wily chairmen, money is not always invested where the paying public wants it most: in the decidedly mobile assets of young players. Prices have risen exponentially: for transfers, tickets, tacky merchandise. The combined salaries of Premiership players have doubled over the last four years to £96 million, but there is a huge gap between the richer and poorer clubs. Meanwhile Murdoch’s television channels, which have the exclusive rights to live Premiership games, and stagger them throughout the week for maximum viewing figures, have hyped and re-branded the game. One of the greatest threats to football is now the misrepresentation of those supporters who actually go to games: exaggerating the hooligan problem allows Murdoch and club chairmen to fleece the fans.

David Conn’s The Football Business is a damning analysis of commercialisation.1 His story starts at the Royal Lancaster Hotel on 18 May 1992, when Sky Sports was in competition with Greg Dyke of ITV for the Premiership rights. ITV are said to have put up £262 million for five years, a deal which favoured the ‘big five’ clubs, who were guaranteed exposure. Alan Sugar, one of several candidates for the title of ‘Thatcher’s favourite entrepreneur’ and chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, ‘stood personally to benefit if Sky got the football’: his electronics company, Amstrad, would get plenty of orders for satellite dishes. Because Spurs was one of the biggest clubs, there was a blatant conflict of interests, but Sugar tipped Sky off about the ITV offer, and Sky increased its bid to £305 million. Sky still required a two-thirds majority of the Premiership clubs. Chelsea and Crystal Palace supported Sky; Leeds and Villa went with ITV. Spurs effectively had the casting vote. Sugar’s nod for Sky gave Murdoch’s company the majority it needed. It was, as Sam Chisholm, former chief executive of BSkyB, acknowledged, the ‘turning point’ for Sky. By 1993, a running deficit of £47 million had been turned round to a £62 million profit; in 1994 profits rose to £170 million, in 1995 to £237 million. By 1996, Sky had over five million subscribers and enjoyed a turnover of £1 billion. In May 1996, Murdoch won the four-year rights once more. This time he paid £675 million for the privilege. Ten years earlier, football had earned £2.5 million per season. Even the coolest economist would diagnose hyper-inflation. Soccer has changed Sky and Sky has changed soccer almost beyond recognition.

Everton Blues,2 by Neville Southall (my team’s loyal keeper between 1981 and 1998) gives the player’s reaction, and is a mournful read for any fan: ‘I hate Monday games for two reasons. First of all you get lower attendances than on a Saturday, and secondly people have usually spent their money by Monday and they are budgeting for the week ahead. I think it’s unfair ... Sky is now running our sport. We now have the tail wagging the dog.’ Because of advert breaks, the referee even has to wait for a nod from the touchline before he can start each half. ‘This is not a process of provision,’ Ed Horton writes in Moving the Goalposts: Football’s Exploitation, ‘it is a process of exclusion.’3 His book is more fiery and rhetorical than Conn’s – it starts: ‘Football has sold its soul, and we are paying the price’ – but its central thesis is the same. At the grounds, soccer has become a sanitised, sit-down spectacle. ‘The crowd conveys less power ... feels less exciting than it did. The damage done is not to the people at the top, but to the crowd itself, that central component of the game which makes football so fascinating.’ Police and stewards have occasionally mistaken shouting and screaming, standing up, a few gesticulations, the wanker-sign, as indications of ominous intent. It’s all beginning to be frowned on and stamped out. Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has lamented the lack of ‘atmosphere’ at Old Trafford: ‘it doesn’t seem as vibrant as the old days.’ David Davies, the FA’s head of public affairs, has made much the same complaint. The nouveau fans in corporate suites have no repertoire of songs outside Skinner and Baddiel’s shitty ditty. Much has been lost in the crack-down on ‘hooliganism’ – the hooligan myth has in effect become a cover for profit.

Leading the way in the stock market flotation of clubs is the most profitable, Man United. ‘If you were to make a list of everything that bedevils football and put them in a pile, at the top of that pile would sit Man United. All the greed, all the arrogance, all the desperation to rip football away from its roots, are summed up in Man United,’ Ed Horton writes. But the hard-sell has had astonishing success: in 1996 the market researchers BMRB revealed that 27 per cent of seven to 19-year-olds were United followers. And in December 1994, after Ferguson’s team had won the double, the share price rose so high that each share was split into ten, to draw in more buyers. In March 1995, chairman Martin Edwards sold 1.2 million shares, and pocketed £1.5 million. In 1996, after the second Sky deal, shares rose again to £4.50 each; Edwards sold £3.7 million shares, making £16.6 million. Peter Reid, the ex-Everton midfielder and manager – and as Sunderland manager, the subject of the BBC fly-on-the-wall docu-tragedy of the club’s relegation, Premier Passions – stands to make hundreds of thousands of pounds should he wish to cash in on his Sunderland share issue. To get to the 1994 Cup Final against Man United, Chelsea fans were invited by their chairman, Ken Bates, to purchase a piece of the pitch for £200 – in return he would dish out his spare ticket allocation for Wembley. As Colin Ward predicted in 1996, ‘stand up fisticuffs’ on the terraces have been replaced by ‘boardroom pugilism’. When the Sunday tabloids reported in March that the chairman and vice-chairman of Newcastle, Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall, had ridiculed fans who paid the extortionate prices for replica shirts (and said that Geordie women were ‘dogs’), six million was wiped off the club’s share value.

Peter Johnson spent his first quarter of a century as a fan at Anfield, standing on the terraces in the era of Shankly and Paisley as Liverpool brought home all the silverware. He began to make a lot of money selling Christmas hampers, paid for in instalments. In the early Eighties he bailed out nearby Tranmere Rovers. Then, in February 1994, the man who had cheered for Emlyn Hughes, Kevin Keegan, Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish, bought 66 per cent of Everton FC. He simply had more money than the rival bidders, the fan-based consortium of Tony Tighe, Mike Dyble and Tom Canon. His easy switch of loyalties is anathema to the fans.

Last year, packers in Johnson’s Birkenhead factory were paid less than £3 an hour. The cost of an average ticket at Everton’s Goodison Park was £13. Johnson’s shareholding in Everton, for which he paid £20 million three years ago, has now more than trebled in value. He wants to relocate the club, build a bright new stadium (the banners at the hallowed ground read: ‘A hamper is for Christmas, Goodison is for life’). Why move? ‘Because at Goodison we cannot incorporate the revenue streams needed to compete.’ The frustration – or is it rage? – of Everton fans, watching a chairman who’s made fifty million in three years but let the team drop to the relegation zone, is easily understood.

The need to secure investment has meant further changes at the grounds. It is true that the Premiership, at least, has seen the retreat of the more riotous element. Criminals can’t compete with closed circuit TV and police infiltration of the crowds – there are many incidents involving undercover men generally known as ‘Clouseau’ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’. Fans are openly photographed on their way to the ground and on their way out; informers are also recruited.

Drug abuse has changed, too. The word has been that fans drop their Es not their aitches. Pubs are still packed near the grounds, but alcohol thuggery is no longer the threat. Ecstasy is a part of what Steve Redhead, in Post-Fandom and the Millennial Blues,4 calls ‘a mellowing of soccer supporter culture’. Colin Ward tells the (apocryphal) tale of Henry, a Chelsea fan accosted on his way into White Hart Lane. The away fans were searched, and a young policeman feels a tiny bump in the top pocket of Henry’s denim jacket:

  ‘What’s this then?’ asked the policeman, knowing full well what it was.

  ‘Lebanese black,’ replied Henry.

  ‘What’s it doing in your pocket?’

  ‘For God’s sake, you’re searching me for weapons, not dope. Dope is hope. If we all smoke this at every match then you lot don’t have to be here.’

  The policeman was not impressed by Henry’s logic and warned him that he was confiscating the dope.

  ‘You have it on me, mate, smoke it later, chill out.’

  The policeman was humourless and flipped when he found a packet of papers.

  ‘You were planning to smoke this inside the ground.’

  ‘Well, I wasn’t planning to eat it, was I?’

Ward notes this mellowing of soccer culture in fanzines: ‘using all the tactics they had learnt as hooligans ... guys whose sole contribution to the debate had thus far been “you’re gonna get your fuckin’ heads kicked in” started to speak lucidly and coherently about the destruction of their beautiful game.’ Everton’s fanzine, When Skies Are Grey, has sponsored a local youth club to wear the ‘Sport Against Racism’ logo.

The style of football has also changed, partly as a result of the influx of foreign players (which has also helped to reduce racism). The big clubs now prefer theatrical, creative total-football – using the Continental squad system – rather than the old-fashioned British tradition of uncompromising physicality, the thumping Billy Bremner tackles of the Seventies. The game is softer, more entertaining, and this helps, in a small way, to take the sting out of the terraces.

When, three years ago, I travelled with my brother to Leeds United’s ground, Elland Road, to watch Everton play Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final, the two tickets came to over £80. We were cautious leaving the stadium: our car was parked on the side of the ground where the Tottenham fans were filing out, and we were celebrating victory. Everton had just done Spurs 4-1, a win which guaranteed the Toffeemen a passage to Wembley in the final against the hated Man United. Two goals came from the Nigerian ace, Daniel Amokachi, the first black player I’d seen represent Everton, which has always been accused of favouring white players. Amokachi was cheered off the park, and the only Spurs fans we came across wished us luck against United.

Then this season, hitching home from a nil-nil result at Highfield Road, I heard Alan Johnson, the Everton Community Officer and no relation of Peter, on David Mellor’s Six-O-Six radio show, thank the long-suffering fans for their vocal support against Coventry. Of course, it was good PR, but he sounded genuinely grateful to the people, the fans, who pay his week’s wages. I phoned him to ask about the community projects he runs in Mersey-side. Aware of the club’s racist tag, he has initiated a ‘football in the community’ programme, working with children: ‘football’s a great vehicle to touch on a range of issues ... the importance of healthy lifestyles, drug awareness, race relations,’ he said. ‘We’ve made tremendous inroads. Stewards have become aware, with undercover schemes, of troublemakers. With, say, 25,000 season-ticket holders, you know where 50 to 60 per cent of the crowd sits, and the worst can be weeded out.’

‘Hooliganism’ now exists more as an idea than in reality. (In Football Hooligans: Knowing the Score,5 Gary Armstrong complains that the issue has ‘always provoked the media to a feeding frenzy’.) It is an ‘excellent topic for writers on crime and Post-Modernism,’ says Steve Redhead. ‘Even formally there is no such thing as hooliganism ... soccer hooliganism is the foremost instance of a “label” (like “mugging”, for example) which has no innate content, and is in any case used to refer to such disparate categories of transgression against criminal law codes, sporting authority, administrative rules and social conventions that it is hardly capable of referring to a “referent” at all.’ Redhead is biting the hand that has fed a whole terrace of sociologists, historians and cod-psychologists. He calls i.d., the 1995 British film about hooliganism, a ‘travesty’, and sees the ‘folk devil’ footie fan as a political fantasy, tied up with right-wing programmes of criminal justice legislation.

Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs – until recently the best-known book on hooliganism – is uniformly scorned by the new doubters. ‘Dear Bill,’ writes Bootsy Egan, Colin Ward’s pseudonym in his wonderful series of satirical letters to the soccerocracy,6 ‘remember that book you wrote a few years ago ... “well-written tripe” was how one thug described it?’ Gary Armstrong, authoritative and accurate on this as on everything else, writes: ‘This confused man produced a poor book that was more fictional than a novel; Buford fortunately did not spend too much time with his hooligans, and the account is more about narcissistic contemplations than about the “thugs” apparently representative of “a country of little shits”.’

The term ‘hooligan’ was coined in 1898 when the August Bank Holiday in the Euston Road rang to the sound of ‘Boot Him!’, and apparently refers to the Irish surname, Hoolihan. It sounds as outdated now as ‘raggamuffin’ or ‘cad’; and leaves the underbelly homogenised, rather than expressing how fans – the Blades, the Gooners, the Guvners – see themselves. Only a few years ago, left-wing analysts embraced hooliganism as a frustrated reaction against the disintegration of working-class life. There was almost a frisson of excitement in the unearthing of this ‘last proletarian resistance movement’ with its inherent threat to the stability of bourgeois society. A diaspora of fans (Arsenal boys in the suburbs of Swindon and Uxbridge) was identified, and the match-day was seen as representing a coming together, a return to roots. For Thatcher’s right-minded disciples, on the other hand, hooliganism was just another boil that needed to be lanced. Exciting ‘dawn raids’ by the police were trumpeted via press-releases, and the Home Affairs Committee document, The Policing of Football Hooliganism, spoke of ‘outright wickedness’ and claimed to detect a ‘mafia-like command system running football violence in Britain’.

The death of Matthew Fox at the Gillingham-Fulham game on 28 March has shown how quickly the spectre of hooliganism can return. With the World Cup a wink away, a wave of crowbar-confessions and campus fantasies has washed up in British bookshops, continuing the fictional exegesis and fetishisation of the ‘hooligan’ event. Violence has been sanitised and misunderstood by means of canny labels such as ‘performance’ and ‘sub-culture’, and there’s a nostalgia for the sheer energy of subversion. The ‘literateurisation’ (Redhead’s phrase) of football has produced fine words, but now the ‘hard as nails’ confession is ubiquitous.

A line in i.d. predicted that the average bloke and the violent ‘crews’ would go their separate ways: ‘the boot-boys will go back to lurking in the shit and slum with the BNP. Everyone else will get fat and bald and bring their kiddies to the match.’ Now that even respectable bald fat blokes can’t get in to watch it live, all the omens are that France 98 will be a sterile event – partly because, in the media-fed imagination at least, the football fan is still a folk devil.

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Vol. 20 No. 10 · 21 May 1998

I suppose Tobias Jones’s well-informed article on football (LRB, 7 May) is a sign of football’s deproletarianisation. Even so, he doesn’t mention the fact that there is a growing socialist element among football supporters. I have even met Arsenal fans who at least claim to be socialists.

Keith Flett
London N17

Vol. 20 No. 11 · 4 June 1998

Keith Flett upbraids Tobias Jones for not mentioning the new breed of socialist Arsenal fan (Letters, 21 May). Here in Dumbarton we are inclined to forgive Mr Jones. Arsenal is now guilty of the very un-socialist act of winning two good battles in a row. And just last week, to seal the bargain, the club’s most decorated bootboy, Nick Hornby, was announced as being the writer most admired by that avid son of horny-handed toil, Jeffrey Archer. Storm the barricades, or what? And speaking of disobedience, one of our little local teams, Celtic FC, have been equally good at keeping themselves on the right side of socialism. After winning the League the other day, the boys from Parkhead were spotted in the ‘cosy’ of a city centre hotel, discussing the merchandising opportunities arising from recent adventures, and the promise of future bonuses. The barmaid reports a ceaselessly colourful deployment of the word ‘cunt’. Or – at the very height of their shared happiness – ‘cunts’. It’s a good thing the socialist city fathers weren’t there – no bonus is safe in their sticky paws.

David Tully

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