Football’s Oligarchy

Democracy is an ideal that is widely respected and desired as the best way of governing people.  It is transparent and popular way of making decisions and enforcing them.  Whether it is running a country, a public concern or even a global sport – it’s an ideal that is central to how we perceive the world around us, how we are involved in it and how fair we consider it to be.  Football, though, is about as undemocratic as could be.  It is an oligarchy run by the rich and the corporate businessmen – far detached from the heart of the sport.

The running of the world’s most popular sport, a game of the people in hundreds of countries the world over, has little to no impact from the people that play the game, and those that make the professional game the business that it is – the fans.  The people that run the game’s national and league setups are unaccountable to the masses that prop up the businesses they regulate.  This results in football being a game that is slow to react to the wishes of fans and technology in general.  Goal-line technologies have existed for years to easily solve a fundamental flaw in the game, but the powers-that-be stubbornly held out against it until only 2012.  Other sports have introduced full video referee technology so that any decision can be reviewed and made accurately.  Traditions of football should not be changed unless they are for the unquestionable benefit of the game.  Goal-line technology is undoubtedly a positive thing.  Football may never reach such a sophisticated level of regulation that other sports enjoy because of the bureaucracy and general reluctance of those in charge to accept new technologies and ideas.

The recent developments at Cardiff City also show that fan involvement at a club level is at a perilously low watermark in the modern game.  Vincent Tan is the latest in a string of massively wealthy individuals to buy a football club without the faintest notion of what a club’s heritage and community means to its’ thousands of followers.  Tan has changed Cardiff’s very symbols: their crest and their colour.  The “Bluebirds” now play in red strips.  These symbols form part of the identity of the club and, in turn, those that support them, and they have been ripped away from supporters without even the vaguest of consultation.  It’s not just at Cardiff where fans’ wishes have been ignored in the interests of commercialism.  Even at Everton last season, a club that many would consider to be more traditional in its ownership, there was furore over the attempts of the board to change their crest.  The club eventually reneged, and gave the fans a say in which crest to use, but it is still a poignant example of clubs changing for the worse.

Both football’s governance and other organisations involved in football games, such as police and stewards, combine to deprive fans, players and managers of another basic right that they would expect anywhere other than at a football ground: freedom of speech.  Managers are censured endlessly for expressing their disappointment at referees’ decisions.  Regardless of whether their criticism is correct or not, football’s organisational units (such as the SPFL and SFA in Scotland and the Premier League and FA in England) will ban and fine people for explaining their emotions and opinions on something that is crucial to their livelihoods.  I agree that these organisations should protect referees; it is a very tough but essential job, and we need to encourage people to become the men/women in the middle, but stopping managers and players from saying what every fan on the terraces and pundit on the TV can without impunity is not going to solve the problem of trusting referees once and for all.  Referees should be accountable to the people they serve just as much as anyone else officiating the game.

Some of the most iconic of football chants have been blacklisted by overly politically correct police forces up and down the country, limited fans’ freedom to criticise their opposition and support their team.  To be fair, these measures have seen the welcomed reduction of sectarian and racist chanting at games, but police and stewards have taken their crackdown further than necessary in some cases.

There are beacons of hope for the role of democracy in football.  From the rubble of two of Scotland’s historic football clubs, Hearts and Dunfermline, supporters’ groups have emerged to save the clubs they care about so much.  The Foundations of Hearts and Pars United groups have both managed to secure the ownership of their own clubs, and will operate the business in a way that is best for the clubs, their employees and their fans.  Although neither of these groups boast the wealth of the millionaires that have graced the game, they will provide a considered, balanced and fan-based ownership of the club that they have invested more than just money in.  Full fan ownership won’t necessarily be the best way of managing every football club, but at least some fan involvement on the board of each club would help make the game better.  This is an exciting development in modern football.

Another interesting development was the announcement two weeks ago of a challenger, Jerome Champagne, to the throne of world football’s dictator, FIFA President Sepp Blatter.  Champagne is suggesting some changes to the game, such as the introduction of ‘orange cards’ which would sin-bin a player for fouls that are “in the heat of the moment”, which could help referees control the game – but the more interesting proposals are to reform FIFA.  Time and again, corruption scandals have bubbled under at the organisation, with tyrannical leader Blatter keeping control of them.  Champagne wants greater transparency at the top of the game, including revealing the salaries of Executive Committee members.  This is sorely needed at FIFA.

Champagne’s plans aren’t necessarily revolutionary, but I’d support his presidency far more than another term for incumbent Sepp Blatter.  He has already served four 4-year terms as President, and is clinging on whilst the game is moving on without him.  Blatter was one of the stalwart opponents of goal-line technology, despite widespread support for it.  Some of his comments on a range of issues have attracted widespread condemnation.  Even at last month’s World Cup draw, he interrupted a minute’s silence for Nelson Mandela, who had died the day before.  Blatter’s presidency has seen only one benefit for the game, goal-line technology, and that was against his will.  Superfluous rules such as booking players for taking their shirt off have been introduced, a common primal celebration after scoring a goal, which has given rise to ridiculous refereeing decisions such as a player being substituted being sent off for removing his shirt too early.   These laws are neither helpful or necessary.  In a democracy, there would be a change.  Football, though, is not a democracy at the moment.

Going forward, it would be great to see clubs and national associations take their fans’ input as seriously as the advice from financiers.  Football clubs have become businesses that offer sport, rather than the other way around.  Without the fans, these businesses are nothing, and often fans’ initiatives can make a club far more successful than a board could hope to do on their own.  Whether football’s oligarchy can be overthrown in a world where cash is king, though, is a tough question to answer.

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