As the England squad trooped wearily off their flight home this morning, it was too easy to see them as the villains of the piece, the spoiled “golden generation” that failed miserably at the World Cup in South Africa. That’s less than half the story.
Neither the Football Association (FA), the players, the manager, nor the media pundits (who for the most part are looking for individuals to blame), have been able to put forward a coherent long-term strategy of where to go from here. This is hardly surprising as, to one degree or another, they are all themselves imprisoned in a set-up that perpetuates one failure after another at international level.
The fans, largely shut out of the administration of the game internationally and at club level, have no way of voicing their opinions of the way forward. They have been effectively cut adrift from the game, to be manipulated by the patriotic right-wing press.
Football in England is dominated by a lethal combination of a stifling bureaucracy, greed and big business. With the establishment of the Premier League in 1992 as an entity with commercial independence from the FA, corporate interests quickly moved in. Many of the clubs became PLCs with shares quoted on the stock exchange. Others were taken over by oligarchs and billionaires as playthings.
The market for players took off to the point now where a footballer can be “worth” up to £80m and be paid up to £9m a year, much of this financed by TV revenues which can go down as well as up. With these salaries, it is easy for the players to lose all sense of reality – and of community.
As a result of clubs trying to compete in this market, one club, Portsmouth, has gone bankrupt since the economic crash, and most of the rest have huge debts. The combined debts of Manchester United and Liverpool are over £1 billion and the Premier League is the most indebted in Europe. To keep the Premiership on the road, the best players in the world have to be attracted to play in it. Profits have to be made to keep the shareholders happy. Bringing young talent through under this system is well nigh impossible.
It was worth noting that German football is organised and owned quite differently. Last year a meeting of all first and second division clubs rejected by 35-1 a proposal to allow teams to be bought, sold and owned as they are here. Under existing rules, no "outside" investor can own more than 49% of a German club's shares and at least 51% must remain with club members. Germany also has more than 10 times the number of qualified coaches than England and a way of bringing young players through, as England discovered on Sunday.
The FA, apparently convinced that a top manager could overcome all these problems, splashed out £6m a year for the services of Fabio Capello, a practising Catholic (he prays twice a day), a top club manager certainly, but also with one or two blemishes: stubbornness, bordering on arrogance; and a rather unwelcome admiration for the Spanish fascist dictator General Franco.
Maybe there was more than meets the eye in the rebellion mounted by John Terry (who to his credit turned out for a protest against the BNP in Barking before the election) at the World Cup.
What can be done? A new model for the game could be the fans’ clubs created as a result of the disillusion and disgust with corporate behaviour at Manchester United and Wimbledon. The fans are the shareholders of the alternative clubs and they have one vote each to decide on future policy.
Establishing the primacy of the game itself over profit is well beyond the FA and the Premier League, however. They are part of the problem and not the solution (just look at the cost of Wembley compared to the stadia in South Africa). The administration of football nationally needs to be taken out of their hands and placed under the control of the fans and players at every level. A revolution off the pitch is a first step to a revolution on it!