Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will face eachother in a couple of days in the Champions League final. And I couldn’t care less, I might not even watch. Why? Because neo-liberalism is slowly destroying the sport, just as it is tearing societies apart.
In the old days Ajax, Steaua Bucharest and IFK Göteborg could win the European Cup. Their fans could actually dream of the almost impossible. Look at the wave of enthusiasm Ajax created this year with their attacking kind of football. But it was also a reminder for a lot of people of the old days: that the underdog had a genuine chance of winning.
In my younger days that was a genuine possibility. I will never forget the consecutive Champions League finals I visited in 1995 and 1996 with Ajax. In those days, it was normal. Now it was just a freak accident the team from Amsterdam made it to the semi-finals, it wasn’t supposed to happen.
The reasons are myriad, but there is an overarching narrative which is valid both for football and for society as a whole. Neo-liberalism has led to trade without restrictions, to football without borders and a society that is being torn apart.
There are in my opinion three developments at play here:
– Big money takes all: Real Madrid and Liverpool are the Google and Facebook of the football world. They have become so dominating financially that there hardly is any competition anymore. Yes, in England six clubs can become champions. But the gap to the other fourteen is ridiculously big. Same in Spain. Germany? Bayern Munich champions seven years in a row
– the social contract has been broken: in society you are always taught that if you do your best and work hard, you can one day go to university and after that make lots of money. But society nowadays has been rigged towards those who already have lots of money. If your parents are already rich, your chances of making it in society are much higher than when you find yourself in the lower echelons of society. The social contract has been broken. Same goes for football: the rivalry between clubs, the illusion that your team can one day win as well, are the bedrock of what makes a competition interesting. Everyone has a genuine chance of winning. Well, those days are over
– brands are becoming bland: football is all about emotion. Big clubs have become bland brands though. They are designed to sell shirts worldwide and build global brands to sell TV rights everywhere, if possible behind a decoder / subscription service. But the product on offer is slowly becoming boring. The same games again and again, between brands a normal football fan cannot relate to. Juventus-Real? I didn‘t give a damn. Liverpool-Spurs? Even less. Clubs are becoming detached from their fanbase. This is a short-term strategy, and the big clubs (gathered in the ECA) are threatening to take it a step further with a Champions League reform. They won’t listen. Until football has lost its central role in society because nobody cares anymore
So the rich are getting richer. In society, in football. We have come to the situation where the revenue of tickets has become almost completely irrelevant to big clubs (who still charge outrageous amounts of money by the way).
This is not a way forward. Football should be for the many, not the few, to borrow an election phrase. Free trade is nice, but in the world of sports that thrives on genuine, egalitarian competition it doesn’t work. In the overall world it doesn’t work as well, because the basic idea that everyone has almost the same chances (and obligations) in society is being hollowed out.
It’s time for big changes. How we can achieve that in society as a whole I will discuss in a future blogpost. And let’s see whether I am going to watch the Liverpool-Spurs match on saturday 🙂
(update: this interesting piece in The New Yorker makes the same observation)