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Soccer and Politics: The Beautiful Game is a Political Football

Liverpool's Shankly Mixed Football & Politics - Stuart Frisby
English football and politics have always been closely aligned. Today, as football industry and market demographics change, they are still intermingled.

The 2010 Football World Cup has opened debates about the state and future of football in a global economy under pressure, the top echelons isolated from the lower, who should own clubs, all driven by the media in a time of cultural diversity, environmental change and new entertainment demands.

Barney Ronay writing in The Guardian in April 2007 2010 asked what happened to the workers’ game now football is awash with TV money; where are the old socialists? He cites Brian Clough and Bill Shankly, who were not only footballing legends, but known firebrands of left-wing politics.

Clough is best remembered as manager for Derby County, Nottingham Forest and briefly, Leeds, achieving unsurpassed back-to-back European Cups with Nottingham Forest. He never managed England, saying “I’d want to run the show”, so was not selected. He was a passionate socialist and activist, taking part in pickets, donating to trade union causes and was approached twice by the Labour Party to stand for Parliament.

Bill Shankly was a distinguished player (Preston North End, Scotland, Partick Thistle & Carlisle United) but is most remembered for managing Liverpool, winning the FA Cup twice and the UEFA cup once. His most famous remark was: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

His second one was: “The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life”. He happily linked football and politics.

Socialism versus Capitalism

Ronay also quoted one-time Scottish international & Labour Party supporter Gordon McQueen: “Football is all about money and greed and everyone’s involved in it”. McQueen explained his politics as what he was born to and brought up with, but did think that activity on the political field was incompatible with the football one, as modern players are ‘cosseted’, almost all apolitical.

However, the view from Premiership club boardrooms is different. It was in 1992 that BSkyB’s TV subscription money bought into football with sums that transformed it. Now, TV income is in hundreds of millions, players’ wages have reached levels that make them Britain’s highest spending celebrities, and to that extent, McQueen’s ‘cosseted’ jibe is borne out.

The history of early clubs was of keen amateurs, perhaps under the auspices of pubs, churches or local community focus, banding together to enjoy their sport. They built simple grounds, where almost exclusively male crowds would stand, not sit, on terraces, chant and sing bawdy, sexist or racist songs, drinking booze with a cameraderie absent from other aspects of their lives in largely working-class, Labour-supporting locales.

From these roots, have grown mighty clubs, buying/selling global players and merchandising in big-business leagues. Manchester United boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, recognised for his managerial skills and his ‘champagne socialist’ lifestyle, is one who supported Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party and then Prime Minister, but who enjoys wines, racehorses and other attributes of worlds occupied by capitalist bankers. Many socialists argue that everybody should have champagne lifestyles, so there’s no hypocrisy in a working-class man being part of it.

The arrival of Conservative Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street in 1979 inspired numbers of footballers to declare more right-wing views, according to Ronay. Kevin Keegan and Emlyn Hughes visited Downing Street; Coventry’s Steve Ogrizovic and Keith Houchen canvassed for the Conservative 1987 election candidate, and Arsenal’s manager Terry Neill and striker Charlie Nicholas shared a platform with Mrs Thatcher at a Conservative rally.

Like many sportspeople, players get involved with political campaigns. Rio Ferdinand supported one against knife crime across London. He has written of ambition to inspire the nation’s youth. Robbie Fowler while owning a reported hundred houses for rental, has been spotted wearing a T-shirt encouraging striking Liverpool dockworkers. Gary Neville supported footballers giving a day’s wages to a nurses’ hardship fund. Dismissed by critics as gesture politics, these are public political expressions, nonetheless.

Where Is It Going?

Clubs’ buying power and the business of transfer markets means local players rare. Football’s evolution into mass TV-packaged entertainment (game timings are regularly altered to fit TV scheduling) means geographical fan-base loyalty is no longer easily defined. Renting grounds for concerts or religious meetings makes economic sense, but changes their nature. The corporate entertainment concept and ever-spiralling ticket prices show that football still evolves.

The film, Rollerball (1975, remade 2002) imagined a futuristic game that was a hybrid of football, roller-skating, motor-cross and martial arts to the death and had become the thrill-opium of the masses. Few fans would want that, but as the media now sets the entertainment agenda, could something similar evolve? Football has always been theatre, especially played under floodlights. Does it matter if it feels like attending a rock concert? Andrew Lloyd Webber even wrote a musical: The Beautiful Game!

First published at Suite 101, 14 June 2010.

Photo: Liverpool’s Shankly Mixed Football & Politics – Stuart Frisby

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