By Mick Duncan
The American billionaire Malcolm Glazer, has succeeded in his bid to take control of Manchester United, causing a huge backlash among the soccer club’s supporters.
Supporters think that Glazer’s buy-out is too heavily “leveraged” — it has taken the most profitable and debt-free club in the country and overnight put it hundreds of millions of pounds into debt. Fans fear higher ticket prices and declining performance on the pitch. But they are also angry about the general direction of the club.
Over the past decade or so UK soccer has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Match attendances are up and the profile of the game is at an all-time high.
But the renaissance has come about through a big money injection into the sport, jump-started by a multi-million Sky television deal for live soccer and the large back pockets of rich supporters like Jack Walker at Blackburn and Freddie Sheppard at Newcastle United.
Players have become obscenely rich, clubs have become more and more business-oriented. Fans are exploited as cash cows shelling out for increasingly higher price replica shirts, TV subscriptions and a match tickets. (When I first saw Manchester United in the early 1980s it cost me £2. Today the cheap seats are ten times that, and tickets for United are one of the cheapest in the Premiership).
It should perhaps be no surprise that it is at the club where commercialisation has been pushed the furthest — United — that fans have reacted the most radically. When Sky tried to buy the club a few years ago, Shareholders United and the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association reacted angrily and were instrumental in keeping the club beyond Murdoch’s reach.
When Nike were announced as shirt sponsors, Shareholders United became the best portal on the net for digging the dirt on the sweatshop giant.
But the Glazer takeover marks a new period in the history of the club and the game. To get it in perspective it is worth looking again at CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary. This is probably the most interesting sports book published, even for people like me who have no interest in cricket at all.
James vividly describes the West Indian cricket scene with its club rivalries that reflected class and racial politics. Queens Park, the home of Trinidad’s elite, was mainly white and played a gentlemanly game on a fine pitch. Stingo on the other hand was the club of the island’s plebeians. Their game innovated, bringing in athletic, young black players who felt more culturally free to break the rules.
James argues that the 1932-3 Bodyline Series, in which English bowlers caused an uproar by breaking the gentlemanly code of the game and bowling directly at the Australian batsmen was not just about England captain Douglas Jardine being an individually ruthless tactician, attempting to deal with a superior opposition. The Series was, according to James, “the violence and ferocity of our age, expressing itself in cricket”. In the early thirties fascism and Stalinism were emerging out of the mustard gas clouds of World War One Europe.
Similarly, Malcolm Glazer, Roman Abramovich and even Jose Mourinho’s detached pragmatism can be seen as “our age expressing itself” in football.
Lenin characterised the Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers party”, a party supported by the working-class and run by bourgeois. Football contains a similar paradox. It is a working class sport. It is played and supported by working class people. There is something of the spirit of the picket line or the mass meeting about the terrace culture.
Football has even provided the stage for the playing out of many working class rivalries. For example there is the sectarianism of Celtic versus Rangers. Much of Scottish (and sometimes English) football has this Catholic versus Protestant theme. In Italy, rival clubs were traditionally supported by fascist or Communist supporters — Inter Milan were traditionally the fascist club, whilst AC, now owned by Berlusconi, were once the favourites of the city’s Communist workers.
But this mass, mainly working class, support has long been attractive to the capitalist class seeking mass marketing opportunities. The World Cup is a huge marketing opportunity with companies like Coca Cola, Nike, Budweiser and McDonalds associated with it. In Brazil, football and politics (and corruption) are tightly bound, with club owners using their clubs nakedly as a base for a political career.
That a rich businessman with no apparent interest in the game should bid to control a major club is therefore no surprise. That he should choose United, the club with the biggest following and the biggest brand appeal, is only logical. That United’s new main rivals, Chelsea are owned by a Russian billionaire who made his fortune on the backs of Russia’s miners in the immediate post-Soviet privatisation rush, while poverty, unemployment and rocketing mortality rates was all that Russia’s workers could look forward to, is also coldly logical.
We live in a society where the corporation is king and the bottom line is the definer of our moral code. Our society says that it is okay to privatise a developing country’s water system, and extract the profits, while people go thirsty or catch diphtheria drinking from streams. We are told it is okay to invade Iraq on the basis of patently made up reasons. We have a Labour Government that treats the organised working class with open contempt. Why should football, a multi-million pound business, be immune from the morals of the market?
These morals affect everything including the nature of the game itself. A more cautious, conservative style of play is now in vogue. Teams sit tight and go for the counter-attack, rejecting beauty for efficiency.
So much so normal. But it is also normal and right that fans such as United’s should fight against the encroachment of the market, using direct action and mobilisation, arguing for fan’s ownership and control of clubs.
The ruling class can only oppress us for so long and for so far before our opposition becomes visible. The corporate pirates who sail in professional football can only sail so far before the fans mutiny.
The “violence and ferocity of our age” will meet the radicalism and vibrancy of the movements which oppose the existing political order of our age. In my view they will both find their expression in football.