The following article first appeared in Issue 27, released in December 2017.
Fans are vital to the modern game but tribalism too often means they fail fully to realise their power
The signs are reasonably unambiguous: “MODERN FOOTBALL IS RUBBISH”. Thumbing through an increasingly thick catalogue of examples, past Manchester City’s boutique fan-experience innovation, the Tunnel Club (for an annual subscription of just £15,000 you can let the corporate grub you’ve swallowed go down while looking through one-way glass at players lining up in the stadium bowels, gathering their thoughts before emptying into the waiting bowl), you’ll find the preliminaries to Real Madrid and Manchester United’s pre-season clash at San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in the dubiously monikered International Champions Cup, the players’ perfunctory pre-match palm-press taking in not only each other and the officials, but also a man dressed as Ronald McDonald. The marketing men whose job it is to pluck such game-changing ideas from the realm of mere possibility like to talk in terms of “eyeballs” – and it may indeed have had you thinking about Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou – stopping at almost nothing to have their clients’ goods invade our field of vision, to become part of the landscape, whether we like it or not (at this stage, surely it’s only technological limitations preventing adverts being sent directly to our retinas).
Money ruins everything eventually, of course, and football doesn’t escape. Although it’s also true that the 25-year sedimentation of wealth at the top of the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that club football has become has provided certain compensations, the corporate colonisation partially offset by the concentration of superstar talent at a smattering of elite clubs and the aesthetic refinements that entails, even if it is all at the expense of competition. And here lies our cognitive dissonance with it all. Nevertheless, Ronald McDonald surely marks a nadir, even for modern football. Or perhaps we should call it postmodern football, which exists primarily for the TV audience, whereas the old football – whose quintessential depiction remains LS Lowry’s Going to the Match (1953) – was there to draw flesh-and-blood crowds.
Lowry portrays a world before football’s thralldom to the diktats of the market, a world when football hadn’t yet assumed its overheated importance as an identity marker – “City till I die” – inked into skins that are all too thin. It was a time, too, before the conscience of working-class supporters had to grapple with the inherent bad faith of professing the sacred (if volatile) bond with the £150k-per-week superstars – those living embodiments of our freely accessed fantasies of conspicuous consumption, lifestyles that are not so freely accessed as reality – bonds that also bring them into weekly antagonism with economically homologous groups of similarly tubby, middle-aged blokes whose routines, rituals and investment in it all are identical save for the colour of their replica shirts: allies or enemies?
One imagines some of Lowry’s happy throng of featureless, de-individuated ‘matchstick men’ are flocking to the game having just knocked off from the Saturday morning shift in one of the factories whose chimney stacks bilge away impassively in the background, their owners no doubt glad to have any potential worker agitation vented efficiently. The club here is rooted in the surrounding locale, an autochthonous expression of the community. It is territorialised: a stable, regularised circuit of ‘individual’ behaviours, social relations and libidinal investments providing what Raymond Williams called a “structure of feeling”. Players and supporters inhabit the same lifeworld, the same social class, perhaps communing over a pint in the pubs later, each genuinely sharing in the destiny of the club that is nothing more than the ever-evolving materialisation of their efforts.
Lowry thus chronicles in that thrumming stadium the seeds of what would mutate into the colossal football industry of today (Bolton’s Burnden Park, depicted in the painting, would eventually be replaced by an out-of-town stadium named after a sportswear manufacturer, with the communal experience of walking to the game replaced by a car journey compounding the atomisation of post-industrial life). The punters came, the ground was filled and the takings at the gate provided its measure as a going concern: a simple economy, in which that testy terrace refrain for malingering players – “we pay your wages” – had a good chunk of truth to it, when Marx’s old industrial-era schemas for measuring value still had traction. No more, not when Marx’s celebrated “labour theory of value” – which assumed that, since he creates surplus value over what he’s paid, a salaried worker is inescapably exploited, a somewhat difficult claim to sustain for a Premier League footballer – can no longer function as a reliable gauge; not when ephemeral, immaterial commodities with no rational labour-time embedded in them can fetch exorbitant sums in the market; not when, in football, it is no longer possible adequately to measure a “production cycle” as such, let alone the returns it yields or individuals’ contributions to it. It follows that salaries are approximations, accommodations, exploited by the agents and entrepreneurial entourages that trail elite players like pilot fish to their great whales. Such is the footballing ecosystem today, a hall of smoke and mirrors unrecognisable to Lowry’s world.
The reader perhaps won’t be entirely flabbergasted to hear that the principal agent of this transformation is money. It was of course Marx who best described the restive, revolutionary power of capital’s “unfettered disturbance of all social conditions” as it sluiced through traditional symbolic structures and meanings, and ultimately reduced them to numbers: “Capitalism displays a cosmopolitan, universal energy that overthrows every restriction and bond in order to establish itself as the sole bond”. Money brings about clubs’ deterritorialisation – the partial uprooting of their inherently local identity, which then reterritorialises on the commodity-images of a global brand which, in keeping with the immaterial productions of post-industrial economy, are principally designed to mobilise, channel and regulate desire, and thereby create a stable commercial circuitry. Deterritorialised clubs no longer rely on their local populations, which is all the more reason to treat them as little more than consumer cattle. Camera fodder.
Marx’s seminal theorisations about the workings of capital were reached while observing the English working classes in the same industrial Manchester streets immortalised by Lowry. And it is apposite that today, next door to the Lowry Centre at Salford Quays, across the ship canal from that great temple of hypercapitalist football, ‘The Theatre of Dreams’, the second catalyst of football’s transformation, Match of the Day, is filmed in MediaCityUK. For again, if the early- or pre-modern football depicted by Lowry was staged to draw huddled masses of spectators, then MotD is the harbinger of a football existing for viewers – which is to say armchair consumers (to whom, alongside the slick pleasures of a globalised footballing product, will be hawked a variety of man-stuff, like shaving foams, choice pilsners, pizza delivery firms and betting opportunities).
Arguably the most fruitful way of grasping postmodern, TV-age football is via the Situationist provocateur Guy Debord’s prescient The Society of the Spectacle, published fifty years ago and yet still offering purchase on capitalism’s saturation of the increasingly dreamy and hyperreal public sphere with contrived images compelling banal fascination and the sort of passivity that turns the world into a representation masking its own historical processes of struggle and force – much like Marx’s famous “commodity fetish”. Indeed, the first of Society of the Spectacle’s 221 short theses reworks the opening line of Marx’s Capital: “the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities”. And for Debord: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation”. The spectacle, Debord tells us, is “the social organisation of appearances”, adding that it is “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people mediated by images.” The spectacle insinuates itself in all our actions and interactions, our interior lives, our intimate dreams. We walk down the street checking our reflection in car windows, continually scanning the world for pretexts for a social media update. Contrived naturalness: the reality of the artifice.
You don’t need to look too hard at professional football to find examples of this infestation. From South American shirts that look like F1 drivers’ overalls, via those ubiquitous portable interview backdrops and digital hoardings, right through to the language itself, including stadium sponsorship and, most egregiously, managers enjoined to refer to competitions with their sponsor’s names, commodities are thrust in our faces like a stripper’s crotch. And then there’s players’ constant self-commodification, be that monetising social media posts (Forbes reckoned that Cristiano Ronaldo generated US$176m in value for his sponsors across social media in 2016, a 449% return on his endorsement deals) or attempting to copyright ‘signature’ goal celebrations, to own specific bodily gestures (the moment of maximum joyous abandon on a football field becomes another occasion for shoring up the brand). Truly Baleful.
The apotheosis of football-as-spectacle is quite possibly Sky Sports’ hideous Transfer Deadline Day, where to the soundtrack of Jim White’s tireless carnival barking the market itself becomes the story – the market that inspires pride (we may not perform well in the Champions League, but we know how to spend our dubiously sourced wealth). And as the “totaliser” ticks up through the hundreds of millions, awe-struck fans luxuriate in the financial powers coursing through their post-industrial towns and cities, the new Peruvian playmaker hopefully providing a brief sniff of footballing stardust to enliven them, and consolatory crumbs of psychic well-being in the form of “bragging rights”. And out of all this fervour will sprout those sincerely felt yet ultimately illusory bonds with multimillionaire footballers – “play for the badge on the front of the shirt and we’ll cheer the name on the back” – who occupy utterly different experiential universes and with whom there’s no real social connection, an exemplary bearing-out of both the spectacle and Lenin’s definition of ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. But we won, reply the opiated masses.
Then again, why be so po-faced about it? It’s not as though you can do anything about it, right? May as well go with the flow, no?
A working class sedated by the commodity fetish and by identity, refusing to look at “their real conditions of existence”, is the underlying thread of The Rise of the Right, a book by Simon Winlow and Steve Hall examining resurgent English nationalism – a different context, true, but one not so far removed from the widespread alienation and escapism we are talking about here. Such has been the victory of neoliberalism and so-called “free market” capitalism, its authors claim, that academics, journalists, politicians and broadcasters eventually stopped talking about alternatives to it, and thereby slowly normalised it. “Capitalism had become so triumphant, ubiquitous and unchallengeable that it was commonly understood as a non-ideological fact of life. It had become the only game in town. No feasible and appealing alternative could be imagined. Magically, and right before our eyes, capitalism, with all its stark contradictions and injustices, metamorphosed into ‘the economy.’”
Is football’s enslavement to the market any different? Has the will to intervene in or regulate it (in a more radical manner than Financial Fair Play) simply evaporated? Has it become an incontestable fact of life: mystified, “reified”, still understood as being tethered to some underlying logic. For aren’t transfer fees a simple matter of supply and demand – footballers are scarce commodities, sold to the highest bidders – all governed by the inherent rationality of the “hidden hand”? And aren’t footballers’ exorbitant salaries – something of a popular cause célèbre and, Ronald McDonald notwithstanding, surely among the least palatable developments of postmodern football – therefore somehow fair? Don’t they merely reflect this selfsame rationality: what “the market” dictates? Nothing cheers the heart quite like news of a footballer “holding out” for £200k per week, as opposed to the derisory £180k they’ve been offered (this illustrating that peculiar capitalist competitive voodoo – also seen in the glossy pages of Superyacht World – that, regardless of how rich you get, you can never quite have enough, never quite have done with acquisitive desires).
Is it that people have grown apathetic about the mind-boggling financial spectacle that football has become, or that they feel powerless to do anything about it? Perhaps they simply don’t know how best to register their opposition. Psychological accommodations can always be made to prevent us confronting the lunacy of things.
It should go without saying that a state of affairs in which the “market rate” for kicking a ball into a goal (at the top end) might fetch more in a week than a nurse or teacher makes in a decade is utterly unconscionable. Of course many of those who protest about ‘obscene’ pay in football are simply playing to the gallery, but merely shrugging while pointing to the untouchable market’s inherent rationality or fairness seems feeble, even if top-flight football is one of the few functioning engines of social mobility in modern Britain. It all smacks of acquiescence and disavowal, of course, and to issue apologia for the young Jordans and Jermaines avoiding the tedium of call centre 9-to-5 not only fails to grasp the fully social processes behind the creation of the loot that wends its weekly way into their bank accounts – and let’s be honest, no matter how good Messi is, if no-one went to watch him, his sublime dribbling skill would not intrinsically be valued at £300k per week – but also that the wages that these socially mobile footballers take home each week directly underpins the increasingly stratified structure of club football everywhere. It’s Champions League syndrome, a familiar feedback loop: paying salaries that attract the players to guarantee annual qualification, which in turn attracts the cream of global talent who wish to test themselves at that rarefied level. The resulting network of local elites is analogous to monopoly capitalism, and de facto anti-competitive – which is exactly the way capitalist oligopolies want markets! It’s certainly hard to imagine Steaua Bucharest winning another European Cup.
A note here on Leicester City, whose extraordinary achievement – amid a nigh-on unrepeatable perfect storm – doesn’t disprove financial determinism. Rather, it shows that supporting modern day Manchester City or Chelsea (or PSG, Real or Barça) is tantamount to cheering market forces (even when these institutions’ wealth creation derives from non-economic factors). On the other hand, the widespread revelling in Leicester’s story can be taken as a symptom of a repressed or subdued political will among football supporters – perhaps not just concerning football’s increasing lack of genuine competition but also in regard to the wider conditions of life – a burning if inchoate desire to shatter the injustices of “the market”, albeit one that doesn’t know where, or how, to intervene.
Of course, with a few notable exceptions, football fans aren’t necessarily renowned for their progressive political outlook. However, if we have a nagging feeling that there’s something not quite right about allowing “the market” to determine that footballers are worth more for a month’s work than, say, a fireman would earn in 20 or 30 years, then any proposal for radical action should start with a basic statement of how value in football originates.
TV companies buy the images for two main reasons: to sell subscription packages and to sell advertising. They are plugging into manifest global demand. A quantity of eyeballs. Asserting that the value of players’ salaries derives from this TV money is true, if facile, and in any case merely displaces the question. How is the value of the TV deal – £5.14bn for UK rights over the current three-year cycle – calculated? More importantly: how is that value produced?
It’s often assumed that the value – that is, the attractiveness of the product – is driven primarily by the players’ star quality – this is the thrust of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s so-called ‘Wilt Chamberlain argument’, suggesting that if a portion of the crowd are there specifically to see his unique talent rather than the LA Lakers, then his wage should be commensurate with that portion of the gate – but is this true? Scratch beneath the shimmering surface of the football-spectacle and it’s a much more complex thing. As we saw, from one perspective the value attached to English football rights reaches right back to Lowry’s depiction of the weekly trip to the footballing shrine – which is to say that global demand for English football, no doubt well-oiled by unstinting marketing hype, is in some indelible way connected to the meaning and tradition enveloped in that long history, to the “dead labour” provided by those anonymous crowds, all now embodied as cultural capital and sprinkled over these multinational clubs’ most contemporary, expansionist, globalising strategies.
It might well no longer be true that these fans are paying the players’ wages in any meaningful sense – such is the size of broadcast deals and the clubs’ commercial reach that match-day revenue is typically under 30% of total turnover – but it’s also impossible to say that the astronomical value of the TV images is unconnected to the crowds as bearers and transmitters of tradition, even if from the standpoint of the spectacle they are mere camera fodder: a nonspecific, though (collectively) essential bringer of noise, colour and atmosphere, albeit (individually) as apparently replaceable as the unskilled proletarian labourer.
When capitalism – which is utterly indifferent to the means of its own expansion: plutonium, pretzels, pornography or paparazzi pics – subsumes football, it inevitably changes the clubs’ relation to its supporters. Clubs continue to trade on their loyalty but no longer rely upon them commercially, as this luminous passage from Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner’s Jumpers for Goalposts neatly captures: “If clubs didn’t always treat their supporters well when they were still making the bulk of their money out of them, the impact of the increasingly obscene broadcast deals has been to turn casual disregard into barely concealed contempt. ‘Supporters’ have given way to ‘the market’ – in fact, supporters are part of what clubs sell to the market. The idea of such devotion, the sound of the ground as kick-off approaches, the images of a throbbing, jubilant crowd (which, in real-time, is being asked to sit down): it’s all packaged up with the game and dispatched around the globe to people who might never get within 100 miles of the stadium.”
Clubs constantly mine their own traditions as the means to extend the brand globally, all the while using everything from in-house TV stations to Twitter to sanitise or softsoap the less feelgood aspects of their operations. Here two closely related functions of image-creation are brought together: both managing a reputation (PR) and attracting new consumers (marketing). Take Being: Liverpool, a Fox TV-produced fly-on-the-wall documentary commissioned by Fenway Sports Group the summer after they had bought Liverpool – thus bringing to an end the ignominious tenure of Tom Hicks and George Gillett – and clearly designed for maximum penetration in the USA. It was sentimental in tone, drawing on its loyal, local core fans even as its implicit goal was to expand the constituency of Red Men.
On the one hand, then, Being: Liverpool sought to present a dreamily mythologised identity to the new consumers/supporters it hoped to woo, to which end each episode featured a snatch of Scouse playwright Dave Kirby’s rheumy-eyed poetry about standing on the Kop as a kid, articulating that umbilical connection to the past (which is not to knock this as mawkish, merely to flag up a certain degree of mobilisation of emotion for commercial purposes). Even the timbre and accent of his voice expressed that locale/territoriality with which the remote fan was enjoined to connect (although you do have to wonder whether Scouse is amenable to the universalist requirements of globalisation: it’s not easy to export Carra to Indiana, let alone India and Indonesia…). This is the tension that the deterritorialised club has to negotiate. If it does sustain the old identity, this will assuredly not be on the grounds of boardroom-level affinity, but rather because it comprises the packaging of authenticity – an authenticity that far-flung supporters need to believe exists while, paradoxically, their increased commercial importance slowly strips it from the club.
However, as Being: Liverpool’s slick PR blandishments were being aired around the world, the club was embroiled in a less edifying reality on its doorstep. FSG’s takeover occurred in the middle of protracted efforts to increase match-day turnover, be that through expanding Anfield (which at the time had around 31,000 seats fewer than Old Trafford) or building a new stadium altogether, perhaps even ground-sharing with Everton. Tens of millions were spent in feasibility studies without a spade ever breaking soil, before it was finally decided they would stay at the hallowed Anfield – as owners of Boston Red Sox, who played at an equally venerated old stadium, FSG had an affinity for the intangibles of atmosphere – and first expand the Main Stand, followed by the Anfield Road end.
This solution required the demolition of the eastern row of terraced housing in the neighbouring Lothair Road, some of whose owners were reluctant to leave, despite threats of Compulsory Purchase Orders. Mark Duggan, chair of the local resident’s association, accused the club of collusion with the City Council in a deliberate policy of running down the neighbourhood, already one of the most deprived in the country. Houses were bought up and left empty, thereby, it was claimed, tacitly inviting various anti-social problems – first re-housed ex-con tenants, then street gangs looking for territory, an oblivion-seeking underclass, scrap-metal plunderers – that would drive down prices and ultimately drive out residents. It was, some felt, forced destitution. Thanks to tenacious investigative reporting, it was also a disruption of the spectacle’s “social management of appearances”.
(On which note, as the brainchild of FSG’s newly appointed Director of Communications and Corporate Relations, Jen Chang, Being: Liverpool truly did fail. A few months into his job, Chang got wind of a blogger operating under the pseudonym of Duncan Jenkins who professed to be in the know about affairs inside Anfield. Liverpool believed this was a real journalist party to high-level information in the club, when in reality he was a marketing professional taking wild potshots. Nevertheless, his speculative tweets over Fabio Borini’s transfer so annoyed AS Roma that, having asked for “maximum discretion” about a fan favourite, they added £300k to the fee – not exactly a ringing endorsement for the inherent rationality of the market! – and Chang soon found himself at a rendezvous with ‘Jenkins’ during which, in full view of CCTV cameras, he expressed his professional annoyance in a somewhat heavy-handed and intimidatory fashion. Thus the official responsible for maintaining the club’s public image, the ‘Poundshop Pesci’, was promptly sacked).
Toward the end of Anfield’s phase-one redevelopment, news broke that the most expensive tickets in the Main Stand would cost £77 – an eye-watering figure, particularly coming deep into Tory austerity – and a substantial amount of Liverpool fans staged a walk-out in the 77th minute of their next home game against Sunderland (it was tempting to wonder whether FSG were disappointed they hadn’t set the price somewhere nearer the £95 mark so as to deprive the supporters of a symbolically resonant juncture at which to desert the stadium). They were 2-0 up at the time, only to draw 2-2.
Liverpool’s fans are perhaps an unusually politicised and militant crowd, not only through the extraordinary Hillsborough campaigning and its hounding of the Sun and its flagrant ideological propaganda from the city, but also the Spirit of Shankly group, formed in 2008 in opposition to Hicks and Gillett, whose ultimate aim is fan ownership of the club. To that end, they embody the political vision of the man after whom they were named, who famously said: “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.”
Undoubtedly, neoliberalism’s imposition of “competitive individualism” upon all strata of the workforce and in all corners of society has made it difficult to find much evidence of Shankly’s values today. The club ought to have felt deeply ashamed over Duggan’s allegations that the Lothair residents had been left to walk alone. That said, had Liverpool’s well-remunerated superstars wished to expedite the club’s progress toward a revamped stadium and truly ‘give something back’, then each could have donated, say, a week’s salary to a collective fund – the club’s total wages for 2010-11 were £129m, or £2.48m per week, equivalent to £70,879 for each of 35 homes – ensuring, in a stroke, that the Lothair residents were adequately compensated for their sacrifice, that the club moved forward, and that the players became legends for reasons other than 30-yard screamers or goal-line clearances. Yet that would have required a genuine sense of communality – real all-in-it-together bonds – beyond throwaway platitudes and badge-kissing lip-service. Juan Mata’s admirable Common Goal project, a charity to which players donate 1% of their salary for grass-roots redistribution, is a step in this direction.
It would be easy to dismiss the Liverpool walkout as an ineffectual piece of single-issue gesture politics. But move beyond the symbolism and you begin to see its wider political potency, not least in the inherent radicalism of its unilateralism: “we don’t care if it hurts only us, but we must make our feelings known”. Even so, if such protests are solely restricted to a beef over ticket pricing then they remain strictly local struggles – in the sense of a consumer campaign specific to football – and their revolutionary potential as part of a general critique of society is lost.
This is not to denigrate the importance of local skirmishes over fans’ consumer rights. Activist groups such as the Football Supporters’ Federation have done great work lobbying for fair ticket pricing, with the Twenty’s Plenty campaign leading eventually to a three-year cap on away tickets at £30, which is a notable win (even if there was a sense that the agreement was reached in the name of the spectacle, to ensure that there are two sets of fans there for TV broadcasts). Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals for a football supporters’ rail ticket – to ensure fans travelling vast distances at inconvenient hours because of inconsiderate TV scheduling aren’t left out of pocket by having to rearrange pre-booked trains – is equally admirable. Yet all this remains within the realms of reform. Why, in addition, shouldn’t supporters aim a little higher?
The small-c conservative football supporter – or those blithely seduced by the sugar-rush pleasures of their globalised footballing entertainment product – might at this juncture wonder what business a humble leisure pursuit has interfering with wider political reality: not so much, “How can football change society?” but, “Why should it?” The obvious answer is a simple reminder that a revolutionary spark – or, avoiding the increasingly contentious r-word, “a catalyst for social transformation” – prompting us to question the fundamental assumptions and functioning of society can come from anywhere (much as Grenfell seemed to crystallise many issues around austerity and impersonal subservience to the market). Why not football as the first domino?
Make no mistake, the Liverpool walk-out hinted at the immense political leverage that supporters have – and this from the depths of fans’ apparent powerlessness when faced with a globalised capital circuit interlocking South American and African footballers, Asian consumers, Middle Eastern monarchs and North American broadcasting giants – precisely because of their integral role in that money-making machinery. Marx understood that all wealth is, ultimately, socially created, and that the greatest of all capitalist mystifications was the one that transformed capital, not labour – which we use here in a broad, post-industrial sense to include the affective labour of devoted supporters – into the source of value: “capital thus becomes a very mystic being since all of labour’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labour as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself”.
Put simply, if football today functions as a Debordian spectacle, then it must be at this level – at the level of the production of prescribed images – that any political intervention is made, there that the machine should be sabotaged. Disruption at the level of content of images is one thing – “MODERN FOOTBALL IS RUBBISH” is a natty slogan, yet barely ruffles a hair on reality’s head – but this must be accompanied by a struggle at the material level of their production as spectacular value.
Debord himself would doubtless have seen it all as an opportunity for the classic Situationist détournement: a situation or stunt provoked to create heightened awareness of what has become normalised. For what the spectacle demands, above all else, is passivity. Docility. Consider Fifa’s behaviour at tournaments: pristine new stadiums wrapped in the company livery; corporate homogeneity in and around the grounds, with zero-tolerance toward the intrusion of other brands, especially through ‘ambush marketing’; no ‘political’ banners or messages whatsoever; and strong-armed police forces disrupting protests. The show must go on! Likewise, Uefa’s initial reaction to Manchester City fans failing to show sufficient veneration for Champions League anthem also falls into this category. The spectacle is sacrosanct. Crowds must behave.
To a certain extent, then, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of change is fans’ loyalty to their clubs – for Debord, society was awash with “endless series of trivial confrontations” serving only to trap people in psychological prisons and prevent fruitful connections and alliances (divide and rule) – which is why the Liverpool walk-out was potentially so radical. Its real radicalism requires concerted action with fans of other clubs. It needs organisation and solidarity, cutting across inter-club rivalries – as the FSF provided with the Twenty’s Plenty campaign.
This would imply a major recalibration of both desire – such partisan “structures of feeling” go deep, and weaning people off them would not be easy – and the way personal identity was lived, with these ‘tribal’ allegiances supplanted by ‘class’ alliances (in the American, legalistic sense of ‘class action’): all football fans in the same boat, even if only tactically, pragmatically, temporarily. (Isn’t this the entire problem of politics, and working classes rallying to right-wing causes, against what their objective interests ought to lead them to do…?) The problem can be framed as follows: suppose blindly supporting a football club could be demonstrated to be a clear and definite impediment to social progress, how many self-professed progressives would be prepared to forego it? Fans ought to realise – both in the sense of ‘to become aware’ and ‘to make real’ – their immanent collective power, deriving from that integral, collective role in the production of (the value of) the spectacle, thereby overcoming their atomisation as individual consumers or segregation under this or that club banner.
Of course, such sentiments aren’t easily forged. “Competitive individualism” in the labour market cuts across all forms of working-class solidarity. The more the concrete life-world and sense of common purpose so vividly depicted in Lowry’s paintings is broken up as isolated citizens are cut adrift amidst the uncertainties and instability of post-industrial life – for the authors of Rise of the Right, “a life in which the pleasures of community life have been withdrawn, a life of frustration, interrupted all too briefly by occasional flurries of consumerist hedonism”– the greater the temptations of tribalism become (we have seen this with the rightward drift that led to Brexit). Football tribes provide meaning and refuge amid this bewildering flux, becoming, as we have seen, primary markers of identity, safe havens in the (always vain) quest to overcome impermanence and mortality: “United till I die”.
By abandoning one-eyed parochialism for colour-blind, class-based solidarity, fans could really make their collective presence felt. Where unilateral walkouts only ever up harming your own club, a co-ordinated boycott of the stadiums – a postmodern homage to Lowry: Not Going to the Match – would quickly drain the enchanted spectacle of its fetishistic magic, which would in turn present an enormous and immediate problem for the game’s various power-brokers and bureaucrats, especially the broadcasters. As Andrew Wildblood, executive vice-president of IMG said, “You need to fill the stadiums. There’s nothing that looks worse on sports television than empty stadiums”. Indeed, Celta Vigo were recently fined by la Liga for low attendance at their televised games.
Still, in the wake of Liverpool’s 77th-minute walkout, there were those who pointed out that Test cricket survived perfectly well in a post-spectactor world, the implication being that such gestures as Liverpool’s were largely inconsequential. Yet that patently isn’t true. It’s one thing to become absorbed by a dramatic Test match played in a near-empty stadium in the UAE – a game whose stop-start rhythms afford viewers far greater opportunity to mull over tactical possibilities or personal duels and dramas – and quite another to watch a football match played behind closed doors, which unfailingly bleeds the game of life. Cricket can be enhanced by a back-and-forth with the crowd, but doesn’t depend on it, whereas the cut and thrust of a football match needs the emotional feedback from the stands (on which note, the Highbury Library lament of “if they played better, we’d get excited”; “if they got excited, we’d play better” expresses the impasse of estranged lovers).
Far from being inconsequential, the Anfield walkout was, from a certain standpoint, an unambiguous success. As Owen Gibson wrote in the Guardian, “Whether because FSG realised the awful publicity risked permanent damage to the carefully nurtured global brand that flogs shirts and sponsorships around the world – like their bitter rivals at Old Trafford, it is as much Liverpool’s romantic past as their present that is remorselessly marketed – or because a genuine tipping point has been reached, it remains to be seen. Perhaps it does not matter, so complete is the victory that Liverpool’s fans have achieved.”
All well and good, but this remains only a limited victory, one circumscribed by its own aims. It should be obvious that any mass boycott aimed at puncturing the spectacle – if only to demonstrate the many-sided source of its value, and thus the wide roots contributing to those A-list salaries – needs to go beyond ticket-pricing, perhaps even beyond football itself. At the very least, it should concern itself with ensuring that some of the vast revenues that their collective presence and animus helps to generate are diverted to causes of which they approve, with a ‘union’ of supporters’ groups having a determinate input over this redistribution. The demands need not be specific (and don’t need to be spelled out here); merely an acknowledgement among the existing administrative powers that this intrinsic contribution to the globally disseminated spectacle cannot be taken for granted.
Such a boycott would raise the interesting question of how the football spectacle’s chief profiteers would react in the event of games being played out before empty stadia (and signs are the TV bubble is soon going to burst: UK subscriptions are down and illegal internet streams are filling the gaps). With advances in VR and real-time rendering of graphics, the day cannot be too far off when broadcasters can effectively ‘paint in’ the crowd. Would that be an adequate solution, or might the TV viewer need to know the crowd was genuine rather than a simulacrum, no matter how realistic? And in any case, could real-time rendering ever truly simulate the inventiveness, imagination and wit of a crowd, its collective intelligence? Authenticity is hard to fake. Surely VR could only ever provide an imitation of the idea of a crowd and would quickly lapse into predictability and soullessness: a sure fire turn-off, televisually and libidinally.
Alternatively, clubs might consider themselves wealthy enough to fork out for the tableau vivant to come along. At the very least, they might do without charging punters, so long as they come and provide the non-negotiable televisual backdrop for the global TV audience. But again, without a long immersion in fan culture, there would surely be an unmistakable imposture about them. Plastic fans, indeed.
In any event, broadcasters, having shelled out for empty stadia, would start to panic and soon everyone who depended on this TV money would begin to agitate. Clubs would fret, since however large the broadcasting fees as a proportion of turnover, a full stadium is not a negligible amount of money, especially with those wage bills! Progressive demands – over agents’ fees, salary caps, radical redistribution of profits back into the community – would have to be heard.
The reader may feel that football, much less wider society, is in no real need of reform. That is a perennial debate – politics itself, in fact – and one for other pages. What is certain, though, is that if the conscientious, progressive football supporter wishes to be more than mere camera fodder and register his dissent at the financial ills of the postmodern game, then it is only by sabotaging the spectacle’s image control, its representations, that he can hope to succeed. It’s all about the eyeballs, see.
This article first appeared in Issue 27, released in December 2017.
For unique and original football storytelling every quarter – from just £20 a year – subscribe to The Blizzard.