The UEFA Champions League, and the broadcasting deals for its fixtures, is changing football irreparablyFlickr - Prakash

Wednesday night saw Real Madrid face Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their last 16 tie in the UEFA Champions League. Both sides were expensively compiled. Real’s front three cost near enough £150 million, with £90 million-man Gareth Bale coming off the bench. PSG’s Neymar and Kylian Mbappé came cheap at only £360 million together. International audiences for the fixture, which finished 3-1 to Real, will have been in the several hundred million. What is troubling, however, is that this fixture, hundreds of miles away from the industrial towns of the North that are the lifeblood of the beautiful game, is what seems to matter the most to football currently.

Football in England owes much to the genius of Archibald Leitch. The architect, in the early twentieth century, left his mark across the country with his stadium designs. The edifices of Goodison Park, Old Trafford, and Ibrox north of the border were, and are, magnificent creations of Leitch. Such vaunted celebrations of football are found not in manicured suburbs, but rising from the depths of working-class Britain. For centuries, the men and women of industrial Britain have known life in and on the terraces. These are the people of football. The people of football are those who would run the boarding houses that the Busby Babes grew up in, they are those whose funerals Kenny Dalglish attended in the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Wednesday night’s game is indicative of the damage being done to the game – it is dangerously close to being diluted beyond repair.

The millions that flow into the top leagues, and into the coffers of the European elite, are sanitising the game and turning it into an unrelatable entertainment media. Only this week, the Premier League has begun to auction the broadcasting rights, in the UK, to its fixtures between 2019 and 2022. Five of the seven packages of games over the period on offer to bidders have already been sold, four to Sky and one to BT, to the tune of £4.464 billion. Though this is slightly down from the previous broadcasting deal, which was worth £5.14 billion between 2015 and 2019, this money is unlikely to bring reductions in ticket prices for fans. More importantly, however, this money is unlikely to address the hegemony of the Big Six in English football. The two Manchester clubs, the two North London clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool will continue their domestic dominance. The 1970s as a decade saw Derby County, Nottingham Forest, and Leeds United all win the first division title. All three sides currently languish in the Championship, the second tier of English football, with little to no interest shown in them from outside their fan base. 

European nights at theatres of football are special, but they are not the be all and end all in footballPixabay

This is the problem with football in its current form, exemplified by the global interest in head-to-head clash between Unai Emery and Zinedine Zidane’s multi-millionaires. It just does not matter. Leeds, in particular, showcase football as the sport it should be, rather than the continental cinematic experience it is becoming. When, in January, the club announced a new crest to capture the “fans at the heart of our community,” social media users of United persuasion were quick to criticise. And they were heard. The utterly shocking attempt at re-branding was promptly abandoned. This is people at the heart of the football community, this is grassroots football, football as it should be. Football is not some far-off contest that means little practically, football as entertainment on the sofa is the football of a dystopian future that is fast becoming the present. Leeds it the kind of club that football needs to return to the fold.

“Football is a capitalist enterprise that is forgetting its true function, it is forgetting its true duty to those who grind week-long to earn enough for a ticket”

This is not to dispute the genius on show in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Neymar and Ronaldo shine as brightly as Blackpool’s Illuminations on a cold and windswept winter night. Yet, they are beamed into our homes, paid millions for the privilege to entertain, but they are not relatable. Football is counting down the days until the team down the street is irrelevant, and the vast sums ploughed into the game from broadcasters both home and abroad are the reason why. League fixtures are even becoming obsolete. What should have been a clash of the titans, the North London derby, was a damp squib of a 1-0 which is firmly in the rear-view mirror as Tottenham focus on Juventus, with whom they drew 2-2 in Turin, and Arsenal focus on Ostersunds in the Europa League. Such is the Gunners’s league form that they must emulate Manchester United and lift Europe’s second tier title in order to return to the so-called pinnacle of the game, the Champions League. If they do, the North London side will naturally reach the knockout stages only to come unstuck and exposed as mediocre by Bayern Munich. The North London derby of old would divide households, streets, and schools for days. Does it anymore?

This is not a popular opinion; it is one with which I struggle to reconcile myself. Yet, it is what must be said if football is to retain some of its identity. As the Manchester United Supporters Club battles with its club’s owners over the lack of atmosphere at the biggest permanent club ground in England, we see the conflict at the heart of this nouveau riche football. Fans do not matter. Ed Woodward, Executive Vice-Chairman of Manchester United, whatever that title means, spoke in marketing jargon as he justified the signing of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal in the January transfer window. Woodward boasted of a “solid business model” that has financed investments in the club in terms of players, and of the social media interest and shirt sales that have come from the Chilean’s arrival. Football is not, however, measured in shirt sales.


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Football should be measured in league points, domestic trophies, and the vociferousness of the cacophony of support from the terraces. It should not be measured in shirt sales, in advertising revenue, in astronomical wages and transfer fees. Neymar and Ronaldo, by their very existence as the objects of international interest, are jeopardising the core, founding spirit of football. Gone are the days when giant killings were possible, gone are the days when league clashes were violent, boisterous, dangerous encounters on and off the pitch. That the violence is gone is good, that must be said. That the meaning of derby games is diminishing is not. Football is a capitalist enterprise that is forgetting its true function, it is forgetting its true duty to those who grind week-long to earn enough for a ticket. The Champions League is fantastic, but it is an artifice of decadence behind which the problems of football lie. The Man on the Clapham Omnibus, he does not matter anymore

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