BILLS & BALLS: HAS THE GAME LOST ITS SOUL?

One of the largest and richest football leagues in the world, the English Premier League’s, recent proposal to play a 39th game outside the country quite predictably led to a huge uproar. The consensus among fans and the media alike was that the game was selling its soul to the lure of more and more cash and the entire enterprise would end badly for everyone except the ‘moneymen.’ The proposal was withdrawn but it revealed people’s views about the game.

This debate about the intersection of the ‘soul’ of the game and the money pouring into football has fascinated for a long time. The view seems to be that the more money is poured into the game, the more immoral and empty the whole spectacle becomes. In the long run, the game will lose its ‘soul’ and the fans will turn away from it in larger and larger numbers.

Many fans seem to wish to return to the ‘good old days’ even though many of them have not actually experienced this golden age and presumably have never seen some of the brutality that was sanctioned on the pitch in that bygone age .

I’ll play the devil’s advocate and take an unpopular position on the key arguments; is money a corrupting influence on football? And just what is this soul to begin with?

You would be hard pressed to find two people who have an identical idea of what the ‘soul’ of the game is. For many it is a hazy concept in which football is pictured as a kind of utopia. In that sense we see football’s ‘soul’ as virtually pure, just twenty-two men on the pitch running after a ball without the politics and intrigues that surround the game. Now that football has become a business, many fans see it as tainted. They feel that they cannot identify with the players anymore because they earn too much money and live a life of excess.

I find myself reluctant to make similar judgments. As I mentioned earlier, we all have different ideas of just what the soul of football is, so why do we talk about it as if it’s a completely objective phenomenon?

And even if we do agree on some hazy idea of what this is, why do we instinctively believe money is going to have such an adverse effect on this ideal?

My take on the subject is that in the context of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter that football has become virtually a business, the magic will always be there. It doesn’t matter if players are receiving such eye-watering salaries. We don’t love football because the players earn the wages we do; we love it because it is such a thrilling game and because it arouses a passion within us. Some fans get turned off because many players lead a life of such excess, but they are only human and in many ways footballers become punching bags for our discomfort with how consumerist our society has become. My point is that at a basic level the flow of cash into the game will not necessarily taint football in the way many are suggesting.

There are of course many valid concerns about the money pouring into football and one I worry about is the increasing gap between the wealthiest clubs and the rest. The wealthiest clubs win more trophies, attract the best players, create more fans all over the world and as a result of all this, make even more money. The smaller clubs cannot keep up and this could indeed pose a problem once the richer clubs become virtually bigger than the League itself and create a permanent monopoly on success. However in this case, the concern would be the inequality that money is creating in football. My opinion is that its very presence is not particularly handful and our attempts to keep football innocent and virginal are doomed.

I grant you that there are many aspects of the game that should rightly make many fans uncomfortable. However, I feel that as long as we don’t get unduly cynical or expect football to serve as a moral compass for us, then it will always be the beautiful game. Indeed when one thinks of the unifying power the football has today, from Tokyo to Alaska, it would take a very disparaging person not to be moved by this.

by Minega Isibo

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