Happy International Women´s Day; though, in truth, I am not happy at the way that things are. In fact, I am angry. This is not good enough – we should not still be here. The stream of actual and structual violence against women worldwide in our society seems endless. Each new article I see about the state of how things are fills me with a fury I can barely contain, and which leaves me, as now, shivering with rage. It is not difficult for we men to be better people. It is not difficult to set far better standards for ourselves. And those of us who are afraid of starting to improve for fear of falling short of perfection need to get off our backsides, and now. Even now, as I type this, I fear the accusation of self-righteousness. But, at some level, fuck that. There is not nearly enough self-righteousness out there. There are not nearly enough men giving this issue proper thought, or asking proper questions, or doing careful reading, or doing careful thinking. There are a thousand things that do not even occur to us about sexism and misogyny even though these two freely infect the air around us like they were bacteria. This might seem like handwringing, and maybe it is. But there is not nearly enough of that either. There is so much more room for respect and understanding and support and compassion, and I hope that we either begin or continue to see this.
Given the spate of anti-gay laws either mooted or passed in Russia, Uganda and the USA, I thought I would repost this poem of mine, “Love Against Homophobia”; please share it with anyone who you think might appreciate it.
“Love Against Homophobia”
To some people
My love is somewhat alien;
When he comes up, they start subject-changing, and
In some states he’s seen as some contagion -
In those zones, he stays subterranean;
Some love my love; they run parades for him:
Liberal citizens lead the way for him:
Same time as some countries embracing him,
Whole faiths and nations seem ashamed of him:
They’ve tried banning him,
Prayed that he stayed in the cabinet,
But my love kicked in the panelling, ran for it -
He’s my love! Can’t be trapping him in labyrinths! -
Maverick, my love is; he thwarts challenges;
The cleverest geneticists can’t fathom him,
Priests can’t defeat him with venomous rhetoric;
They’d better quit; my love’s too competitive:
He’s still here, despite the Taliban, the Vatican,
And rap, ragga in their anger and arrogance,
Who call on my love with lit matches and paraffin -
Despite the fistfights and midnight batterings -
My love’s still here and fiercely battling,
Because my love comes through anything;
My love comes through anything.
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I am seeing several comments, on Twitter and elsewhere, about appeasement. The argument is that Vladimir Putin is proceeding unchecked because the West has shown no recent military desire to rein in the excesses of other autocrats. Here’s the obvious but understated thing about appeasement: it’s neither merely nor necessarily about refusing to confront someone on the battlefield. Appeasement is incremental. It’s about all those times that dictators are allowed to publish their public images long before conflict is even on the cards. Appeasement is the glossy centre-spread in the lifestyle magazine for the despot whose regime is ankle-deep in blood. Appeasement is making no effort to bar said despot and his or her entourage from any of their favourite haunts in your capital city. Appeasement is failing to freeze even those of their assets which you can readily identify. It’s ducking the issue and imposing sanctions on their nation’s people even as they are free to roam the world with all the opulence their hearts desire.
Appeasement is allowing Putin to go ahead with the Sochi Winter Games, an event which made an apparent mockery of several of the principles of Olympism. In that context, appeasement will also constitute inaction around the 2018 World Cup in Russia, allowing Putin another opportunity to project his imperial prestige around the world. These sporting events, in the current political context, look like little more than grotesque marquees. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee both make claims in their founding documents and on their official websites to celebrate the best of humanity; but, by giving Putin two of the globe’s biggest showcases, they may unfortunately seem complicit in celebrating its worst.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has just approved a bill which allows those convicted of homosexuality to be imprisoned for life. Commenting on the new law, he stated that “No study has shown you can be homosexual by nature. That’s why I have agreed to sign the bill…Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country. I advise friends from the west not to make this an issue, because if they make it an issue the more they will lose. If the west does not want to work with us because of homosexuals, then we have enough space to ourselves here.”
There is no question that Museveni, at the very least, hates gay people and holds them in the lowest and most violent possible contempt, and so there is no need or reason to appeal to any last vestiges of his compassion. If anything, it is probably sensible to anticipate an escalation of his anti-gay rhetoric, given that the next presidential election is in 2016. It would not be too cynical to see this new law as the opening gambit in his campaign.
Why does Museveni hate gay people? Well, it’s hard to know for sure. They may well fill him with revulsion. But there are plenty of people under his rule whom he probably finds similarly revolting, yet whom he has not found it politically useful to isolate and vilify. For example, he is not particularly fond of the Acholi, the tribal group to which I belong and which his party has described as no more than “biological substances”, to be eradicated like germs. Following Museveni’s rise to power in 1986, he orchestrated a persecution of the Acholi so comprehensive in its cruelty that he destroyed a generation. His soldiers hounded one and a half million people into camps in the North. They embarked upon orgies of rape and torture, spreading HIV/AIDS as they went, and skilfully allowed Joseph Kony to take the rap. Their work was so thorough, so methodical, that, to quote from an Acholi Times article of June 2011, “Northern Uganda is the worst place on Earth to be a child today…According to Oxfam, the rate of violent death in northern Uganda is three times worse than Iraq’s.” The article, “Genocide in Uganda: The African Nightmare Christopher Hitchens Missed”, is excellent and can be read in full here.
What does all this mean? And how has this suffering been so effectively concealed from the world’s media? Well, for that we can thank President Museveni’s masterful control of public relations; for, rest assured, whatever most people are thinking about him right now is precisely what he wants them to. Back in the Eighties, when he had come to power and was seeking Western legitimacy and countless millions of investment, it served him well to present himself as the progressive face of East Africa, a man the West could do business with. Now he has taken a careful look at his country’s accounts, and no doubt his own, and realised that he no longer needs the colonial shilling of which he was once so conspicuously fond. Now he is styling himself as the brave liberator, the African Che freeing his continent from the gays. And, as he does so, he can congratulate himself on almost thirty years in power during which his despotism and vast accumulation of wealth attracted remarkably little negative comment. He is settling now into the role of the jovial old dictator, most strikingly depicted by The Economist in their October 2013 profile of “the Gentleman Farmer”. As this newspaper then wrote,
“Comparisons between Mr Museveni and Idi Amin, the Ugandan “president for life” who butchered tens of thousands of his people in the 1970s, have become more common. Mr Museveni is a lot less brutal but shares the same love of power.”
The assessment that President has been “a lot less brutal” is, with reference to his treatment of Acholi, an increasingly generous one. He is unquestionably far more efficient in the disposal of his enemies than Amin, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia, ever was. Most major Western government who are horrified at Museveni’s latest manifestation of his hatred cannot say that they or their predecessors did not see it coming: for, after all, he has terrifying form in this respect. From President Museveni’s contrasting approach to gay people and to the Acholis, we can conclude that he has two types of hate. If he merely despises you, he will tell the world; but, if he thinks you’re truly dangerous, he won’t tell a soul.
When I read of the death of Jordan Davis, the black teen shot following a dispute over the loudness of the “thug music” played in his friend’s car, my first reaction was an exhausted sigh. The wells of fury and anguish are finite, and with each such injustice they evaporate a little more. As a black teen, it takes so much energy trying not to appear dangerous. It starts with planning your wardrobe, where you must avoid wearing the hoodie, a homing beacon for trouble. It moves then to the pace with which you make your way about town; neither not too slowly, else you will be accused of loitering, nor too swiftly, else you will be identified as shifty. Be polite, patient and courteous with the police as if you were meeting the Queen. When questioned on what you are doing in the area, respond with the earnest diligence of an asylum seeker arriving at Customs, even though you may have lived in said area for most if not all of your life. When walking through the misleadingly open entrance of an esteemed institution where you do not apparently belong, wander over to the concierge to ask how you should make your way about the venue, even though you may have been there several times before. This is you giving the reassuring signal that you are grateful, nay privileged, to be on such unfamiliar and rarefied terrain.
I wrote this poem a while back about floods, climate change and rising sea levels, and thought I’d share it now, as it seems relevant. If you find it of interest, please share.
The creep. I spent a sleepless eve
Beneath creased bedsheets, and I breathed
An anxious breeze, a worried wind:
I panted – my thoughts, hurried – things
Were inching closer, so it seemed:
The moon glinted; it had once beamed
Benignly at me; sign of what
I did not know; I closed window
Despite the night-time’s stifling heat,
Hiding from moon: just like a fleet
Of clouds might hide the sun from us,
My curtains hid me from the dusk
And thus I lay in darkness -
In room humid as closed casket:
But, in here, I felt no safer;
My room’s walls were thin as wafers,
And, through them, I heard in distance
Some small sound, growing, insistent
With each piston of my heartbeat,
Creeping towards me, my parched sheets;
I had heard this creep for weeks, for months –
At work, I’d talked about it once
But all I received was colleagues’
Jibes that I needed a life:
That didn’t stop me hearing it
Or fearing it. And here it came:
Tapping my eardrums like first rain-
Drops on a nervous pane of glass
That knows the storm’s approaching fast…
I could not just wait there for it
Nor could I ignore it; so I,
Throwing on my overcoat,
Went to front door, opened it, closed
It behind me hard, with a slam
To drown that sound, and then I ran
Up to the broken traffic lights
Which lit the crossroads; flashing bright
Green, amber, red in rapid strobe,
They winked at cars, who never slowed
Down to return these urgent flirts;
And as I stood there, with the church
Across from me and the vibrant
Neon sign of some off-licence,
I heard something – no, that’s a lie:
You won’t believe me, but I’ll try
To tell you what I heard: my mind
Had amplified, well, every sound
Across the world. In every town,
Be it Lisbon, Brisbane, Beirut,
I heard each noise: I could hear troops
Marching in the Congo, groups
Of French teens smoking bongs, those suits
In Swiss board meetings, with their knives
Sharpened, to backs to be applied…
Why did my ears offer me
This cacophony, that deafened
Me like blast from weapon?
I heard private sorrows, sobs, tears –
It was like I’d borrowed God’s ears…
Wait – there was more that I could hear:
I heard atoms in Korea
Splitting savagely in some test
To create some man-made sunsets;
Somewhere, polar bears were drowning;
Urban roads were overcrowding –
Whether on weekdays, or Sabbaths –
With hordes of metallic mammoths;
I heard jet planes farting carbon,
Arson’s roar in forest fires,
Heard the laughs of arms suppliers
As they sold death without bias
To either side of a conflict;
Heard the anguish of a conscript
In some war-torn Middle Eastern
State, who’d just killed without reason…
But, in midst of all this din,
I heard that sound, tiny, yet grim –
The creep of each tide up each shore
Higher than it had crept before –
Each creep up each beach was either
Just one or two millimetres;
Whilst we engaged in wars of words
Or worse, this creep went unobserved:
What was causing it? I focused
My ears, so that I could know this –
Fixed my hearing on a target
In far corner of the Arctic,
And I found source of this creeping:
I heard one huge iceberg, weeping,
Shedding itself in grief’s gallons
Into sea for no apparent
Reason; then I listened more
And all became a little more
Haunting, as these teardrops echoed
Around this deserted ghetto…
It seemed that the sun had kidnapped
Icebergs that it would not give back –
So this iceberg mourned its siblings.
With tears’ torrents, it was shifting
Tides towards us, and our coasts
So soon the coasts would be as close
As our front doorsteps; but the creep
Went unheard by the people. Meek,
Made humble by this distant threat,
I did what these seas did – I crept
To my room, that tomb,
And I slept.
Floods are causing distress throughout many parts of the UK, and I am fortunate that the only discomfort that I am feeling is severe frustration. I may find it difficult in the next few paragraphs to articulate my fears, so I apologise for any lack of clarity in advance.
I cannot believe that we are still here, in 2014, largely dismissing the possibility – or, in my view, the probability – that the extreme weather events we have seen recently are the result of climate change accelerated by the human race. I actually cannot believe it. In 2006, when a work colleague alerted me to this issue, I went away and read as much of the science around this issue as I could. I didn’t want to acknowledge the enormity of the growing problem at first: the range of challenges that our world would face was overwhelming. For some reason, though, the threat which stood out above all was that posed by rising sea levels. I think, quite simply, because this is the worst thing about floods: they meet you in your home, at your doorstep. There’s nowhere else to run after that, when the danger is lapping at the entrance of your refuge.
And this is where I feel such frustration. I feel the same frustration that I might feel if I had been telling a friend for months to go to the doctor to get that terrible chest pain of theirs checked out, and they ignore my concern only to suffer a heart attack. And my feeling is exactly this: a grim concern, not the detached smugness of “I told you so”, but a worry that they may not be able to recuperate, since the health problem may be too far gone. Because we have wasted so much time. We have wasted so much time indulging xenophobia at the imaginary floods of Romanians and Bulgarians from the EU whilst the very real floods have been arriving with increasing insistence each year. We should have been looking instead at how we could adapt to a world where extreme weather events are more and more common.
Climate change is not, in the end, a political issue. After all, those floods will happily converge on the homes of liberal and conservative voters alike. The key question, in my view, is whether we will make smart estimates about the funding needed to mitigate the effects of such floods in future. Otherwise, I wonder how just many more warnings we will need.
When people talk of war, the first image conjured is often of a battlefield thousands of miles away, greeted by the steady rainfall of bombs. But there are other more subtle wars taking place each day, which can be brutal in their effects upon any given individual. One of these, which has become particularly vicious in this time of global economic discontent, is the war on empathy. The war on empathy, waged by politicians who lack the imagination or the sensitivity to think of compassionate solutions to the world’s problems, dictates that every time that society suffers as a whole, a smaller and defenceless group must be identified by political rhetoric or policy as the culprit. The war on empathy dictates, for example, that the lack of jobs is not attributable to the financial crash or the automation of many occupations, but is instead the fault of immigrants coming to our shores and stealing them. The war on empathy is waged by soldiers who lack any emotional connection with people whose monthly wages have fallen far behind inflation and the cost of living. It is waged by soldiers who look contemptuously upon those who have not attained their own levels of affluence or social status, and accordingly punish them for it. The war on empathy commits acts of structural violence against its targets, and it is the most dangerous bombless war that you will ever see.
Climate change is consistently claiming the headlines these days. Many people are not convinced that the recent extreme weather events are anything to do with our pollution of the environment; many others are convinced, but I suspect are feeling helplessness and resignation about a problem that feels too big to address. I wrote this, “Helpless”, in the hope that it might resonate with some of them.
It’s hard not to be selfish
If you feel helpless
If you know the ice shelf’s melting;
Have to look elsewhere, stare at the twelve-inch;
Quick, give me sports statistics to delve in…
Bring it to my doorstep,
Grinning from the tabloids’ foreheads,
Morbid – more wars – more deaths -
I will ignore it, as forceful as storms get;
I will not witness the torment….
Pardon: I can’t watch what I can’t stop,
And I can’t put the oil back, refreeze the seas,
Or uneat the meat,
Or unburn the coal,
Or unfly the planes,
Or unbirth the souls;
I’m not about to halt what I can;
No, I’m off to grab hold of and gulp what I can;
Some will bet that I could have done better
But can’t say I never made an effort;
See, I’ve called on those above us, but none replied
So now all I do is cover eyes:
Now all I do is cover eyes
On Monday 20 January 2014, I gave a talk at the Economic Research Council, “Are footballers the bankers of modern sport?” In their own words, “The Economic Research Council, Britain’s oldest economics-based think tank, is dedicated to extending the reach of economic education, debate and leadership. In support of this, the ERC raises the profile of economic conversations; we host events to cultivate wider accessibility, inclusion and civic participation.” You can read the text of my talk below; you can read more about the Economic Research Council at http://www.ercouncil.org/, and follow them on Twitter at @EconResCouncil.
Before I begin this talk in earnest, I should quickly highlight the three things that, in my opinion, make me able to give it. The first thing is that I briefly worked in the corporate world, having first studied law at university and then qualified as a solicitor in the City, at a firm now known as Hogan Lovells. During that time, I did training in the fields of, among others, capital markets and banking litigation; where, of course, a fair number of banks were our clients. I should also say, to preclude any criticism of these institutions that I may make in this talk, that some of my best friends are bankers. The second thing is that, having left the legal profession – about ten years ago now – I went on to write and broadcast about football. The third thing is that I am a poet, and anyone who knows any poets will know that we are always trying to ask questions about the world around us, no matter how pointless those questions might initially seem.
But I think that this question – whether footballers are, indeed, the bankers of modern sport – really matters. I first thought of it about two-and-a-half years ago. There just seemed to be a handful of key parallels between the fields of banking and football. Whether you’re a leading banker or a footballer, you’re in possession of a specialised skill which, if carefully honed, can earn you so much money that by your mid-thirties you may not have to work again. Whether you’re a leading banker or footballer, your wages will be the subject of much discussion – some of it disgusted, some of it envious – by millions of people who don’t think you deserve what you earn. You may feel unfairly stigmatised and targeted. You may find yourselves scapegoated and stereotyped, with the general public seeing one particularly reviled individual – say, Sir Fred Goodwin or Luis Suarez – as representative of your entire profession. You may find yourself singled out for unfair scrutiny, rather like you are in talks like the one I’m giving right now.
Of course, if we explore my analogy much further, much of the comparison begins to fall away. After all, bankers, unlike footballers, don’t spend much of their working life being jeered by tens of thousands of strangers. They don’t provide us with jaw-dropping entertainment, they don’t have their careers ended prematurely due to injury, and they don’t have people wearing shirts with their names on the back, or drunkenly singing their praises in the street. And perhaps the premise of the talk itself is flawed, implying as it does that all bankers and footballers are making millions of pounds: when, in fact, it’s only those at the very top of either field who are making those eye-watering sums.
Yet bankers and footballers have one crucial thing in common: which is that their perceived excesses are being held up as symbols of systems in need of profound reform. And, imperfect though my analogy may be, I felt that this topic was worth some further reflection.
Let’s look at football. The game’s growth has been remarkable: in just a hundred and fifty years, it has, to use an Internet term, “gone viral”, and is now the most popular sport on the planet. Yet there are several severe indications that this popularity is being excessively exploited by those who run the game. The most striking of these has been highlighted by Dave Boyle in his 2012 report for the High Pay Centre, “Football Mad: Are We Paying More for Less?”. Here he wrote that “since the creation of the Premier League in 1992, top footballers’ salaries have mushroomed, rising by 1508% to 2010…Over the same period average wages [i.e., those of the ordinary UK worker] increased by just 186%.”
That’s neither here nor there, you might say: what a football club pays its players is entirely its own business. But the problem, continues Boyle, is that these superheated salaries have hit the ordinary fan particularly hard. “Fans are now paying up to 1000% more to watch their teams play, all in order to support their club’s gargantuan wage bills,” he writes. “Fans watching at home are similarly seen as a captive market, whilst those who want to watch at the pub are paying more – or finding their local can’t afford it, given the 10,000% increase in pay TV subscriptions.”
Well, so what, you might say: if you can’t afford to watch the games live, then that’s tough luck. Stream them online. Well, yes, there’s that argument. But the overarching point is that football’s running costs are such that the game itself, in its current form, may become unsustainable. Somewhat alarmingly, Boyle observes that “since 1992, over half of England’s professional football clubs have been formally insolvent. Most only survived because the wider community received less of what they were owed in order to ensure players continued to get all of what they were promised.”
This might sound like I’m having a go at footballers, many of whom, after all, have come from poor backgrounds and might therefore be entitled to a few years’ worth of huge earnings. But it’s ultimately not about them: it’s about how the game is choosing to allocate its resources. Boyle notes that “the amount spent by clubs on wages has…increased dramatically. The percentage of turnover spent on players has increased, from 48% of turnover in 1997, up to 70% in 2011.” Clubs are spending more and more money on recruitment, in order that they are not left behind. Directors, instead of ensuring football’s long-term future, are chasing quick results, desperate for same-season gratification. Accordingly, revenues are not flowing down to football’s grassroots; they are not even trickling down. They are evaporating. The message from Boyle’s study seems clear: just as we had a financial crash, we may soon have “a football crash”. Football is developing a serious case of tooth decay: however, even as the game is crying out for a round of root canal surgery, we keep on feeding it bowlfuls of sugar. Sooner or later, this is really going to hurt.
Here’s the thing about football. Even within a successful team, there are key contributors whose skills are undervalued. Players who score goals tend to earn more money. Of the top ten best paid footballers in the world – a list led, unsurprisingly, by Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi, Falcao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - seven are forwards, with one playmaker (David Silva), one midfielder (Yaya Toure) and one defender (Thiago Silva). What’s more, when it comes to individual accolades, it’s very rare that anyone other than a forward or an attacking midfielder gets much recognition. In recent times, only a few players have bucked this trend, with Fabio Cannavaro the only defender to have been named the World Player of the Year since its inception in 1991. Football rewards those who most conspicuously provide the glory, but I think that it is wrong to do so. In 1998, Zinedine Zidane scored two goals in the final of the World Cup, helping his team to a 3-0 victory against Brazil. Yet Zidane, widely feted as the leader of that team, was arguably not even its second or third best player throughout the tournament. Lilian Thuram, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly, for example, could have laid claim to that role.
Zidane, to his credit, was aware of the true value of lesser-heralded players. In 2003 Claude Makélelé, an outstanding defensive midfielder, was sold by Real Madrid to Chelsea. Makélelé had asked to be paid half as much as Zidane, a suggestion which was ridiculed by Madrid’s president, Florentino Perez. “We will not miss Makélelé,” said Perez. “His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.”
Zidane took a different view, referring to Makélelé as the engine of Real Madrid’s Bentley, and the club captain, Fernando Hierro, was even more effusive in his praise. “I think Claude has this kind of gift”, said Hierro, a few years later. “He’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important. The loss of Makélelé was the beginning of the end [for us… You can see that it was also the beginning of a new dawn for Chelsea. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.” Perez might disagree with Zidane and Hierro’s assessment of Makélelé. But, regardless of his view, it’s notable that his club haven’t won the UEFA Champions League in the eleven years since he sold this player of supposedly average technique.
What does all of this have to do with bankers? Well, I think that we as a society have a problem. I think that we have a system which gives excessive rewards to people whose gift or ambition happens to be making money. I don’t wish to sound like a hater: after all, my three best friends from university are all millionaires, and I’m pretty sure my best friends from law school are by now too. It’s just that we’re living in a world where the costs of living are rising so fast for everyone that only the most affluent are able to stay afloat with any measure of comfort.
I had an argument a few months ago with a friend, who works in the City, when I voiced concern about the distribution of wealth in the UK. Her position was that if people wanted to earn what she did, then they should simply become bankers and work the hours that she did, which were in the region of eighty, ninety and sometimes a hundred per week. But, I said, what about those people who don’t want to become bankers? What about those people who just wanted to be able to afford a house not too far from where they worked? What about nurses, for example, who earn just ninety per cent of the average wage in the UK, many of whom are finding themselves priced out of London? I happen to biased, because I come from a family of doctors, but I think that if our society is a football team, then the nurse is its Makélelé. Just like Makélelé for Real Madrid, nurses are doing essential work which, relative to its importance, is largely undervalued and unsung.
I mentioned before that I was a poet, and part of being a poet is looking at how language evolves. One theme that has consistently concerned me over the last few years is the way that we seem to revere people with a great deal of money, as if the wealth itself were a measure of their character. The media often speak of someone as having a net worth of x million pounds, of being worth x million pounds, as if their value as a human being were somehow in direct correlation with the content of their bank account. This is a worrying narrative, as the flipside of that view – no matter how subconsciously it is adopted – is that those who earn less are somehow worth less.
This is a pressing issue in the world of football, just as surely as it is in the wider world: that those who have little cash are given less consideration than those who have a lot. There are several clubs who have excellent charitable programmes in their communities, which aim at engaging young people. Yet those same clubs, particularly in the Premier League, often charge ticket prices so high that the average young person cannot afford to attend their games with any degree of regularity.
It is tempting, at a time like this, to look enviously at Germany. There, notes the report, “clubs are owned by their supporters, who must control at least 50+1% of the votes within a club. That ensures a degree of accountability to fans (which works to keep ticket prices lower) and has prevented oligarchs and other wealthy individuals taking over clubs.” There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with a wealthy individual’s takeover – you will not hear many complaints from Chelsea or Manchester City fans, for example – but the question becomes a more vexed one when those individuals, as in the cases of Portsmouth, Malaga and Manchester United, have financial goals that are at variance with the club’s best interests.
Fortunately for football in the UK, following excellent lobbying from supporters’ organisations – chiefly among them, the Football Supporters Federation – some of these issues have been addressed. Most notably, as a result of the Away Fans Matter campaign, some clubs have agreed to cap the cost of away tickets at twenty pounds. This initiative has attracted the support of Swansea, Norwich City, Hull City, Newcastle United and West Ham United, and the hope is that Football League clubs will follow suit. As a result of this advocacy, too, the Premier League has announced a £12million Away Fans’ Initiative, under which “clubs must use the money to reduce ticket prices for away fans, subsidise transport or otherwise enhance the matchday experience”.
There are two things that I like about this example. The first is that the football clubs acknowledged the existence of their supporters as vital to their survival. The second is that there was a willingness to accept that the financial balance in football, at some level, is wrong. It feels especially poignant to speak about financial imbalances this evening, given the release today of an Oxfam report which states that the wealth of the 1% richest people in the world is 65 times that of the poorest half of the world. In the words of Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s executive director, “it is staggering that in the 21st Century, half of the world’s population – that’s three and a half billion people – own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus.”
To this statement, some might say: so what? No-one is entitled to wealth. No-one is entitled to a high standard of living. No-one is entitled, for example, to enjoy accommodation in the world’s finest cities. So what if you find yourselves shunted out to the suburbs? You should find a job that pays more money.
Well, I disagree with that. I’m going to sound a bit naive for some tastes here, maybe even somewhat romantic: but I read a paper by the New Economics Foundation and the Cripplegate Foundation a few months ago, whose conclusions made me feel a little sad. The paper, “Poverty In Islington”, looked at the cost of living in the borough, and predicted that by the end of the decade a family would need to earn more than £90,000 to live there. The result, argued the paper’s authors, was that “this will leave Islington polarised – with very wealthy families at the top, a youthful, transient and childless sector in the middle, and those on low incomes at the bottom, living in social housing.” What’s happening in Islington is happening across the capital, in a city where the cost of homes rose last summer by ten per cent in just one month.
I think there’s something wrong with London, a city I love as much as any place on earth, turning into a place that only the affluent can afford to enjoy. London’s greatest strength has long been that it is a town that welcomes everyone: now, though, the accelerating prices of almost everything are making it a much less accommodating place. The same, too, is true of football; the tipping point for many people coming in the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final, when the cheapest ticket was £176. The following year, a chastened UEFA reduced the same ticket to £60.
In conclusion: are footballers the bankers of modern sport? I’m not sure that they are: but the question has hopefully been a useful prompt to examine wider issues in the game and the world around us. I believe that it takes all sorts to make a happy, thriving society, just as it takes more than just a bunch of strikers to make a successful football team: and I hope that, for the sake of both the beautiful game and the world around us, that we stop showing so much deference to high finance, and once again start putting people first.