How Stirling Albion and FC Barcelona Show the Way Forward for Football
Football is probably closest to our opiate of the masses. There’s plenty of social commentary on how football reflects our society. I’m certainly intrigued by how it grew in significance for British people at exactly the time that our society began to retreat. The launch of the Premier League in 1992 was a direct result of the money culture ushered in by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Far from the statement by great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly that “the socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share… it’s the way I see football, the way I see life,” football was about to become a giant jamboree of cynical individualism and self-enrichment. Wives and Girlfriends (WAGs) of squad members even managed to overshadow England’s 2006 World Cup sqaud with a series of extravagant shopping trips.
Football: From Shankly –
To WAGs –
For the first time the full marketing prowess of the Murdoch media was put behind football. Players earnings climbed steadily from the handsome to the astronomical. Audiences grew. And finally in 1996 football assumed the key role as a channel for collective expression. That year’s European Championships in England consolidated football’s transformation from a gritty, working class interest to a collective vessel for the expression of national identity.
I remember how, all of a sudden, girls at school had started supporting Chelsea. People far too cool to like football suddenly acquired a team. Living in Belfast this was almost never a local team. They were still mired in sectarianism, played in appalling stadiums and certainly didn’t have dreadlocked Dutch utility players.
This wasn’t all bad. Football in the 1980s was marked by hooliganism, racism and in some places sectarianism. Football matches weren’t spectacles of genteel entertainment. The revival in the 1990s made the game more inclusive, more attractive and less of a hotbed for bigotry.
However, at the same time as football rose to prominence the number of functioning community groups dropped. Those that remained saw the numbers of participants fall. People worked harder, with the number of jobs increasing. Average meal times moved from 6pm to 8pm as women moved from domestic to paid work. The New Economics Foundation calculated that national well-being peaked in 1976. Despite increasing incomes and higher consumer spending happiness has steadfastly refused to increase.
Just as people’s connections to their real communities withered under the need to hold down two or three jobs to a household, so their connections to well branded football teams increased. Football began to fill the void left by the move to more paid work and the move away from community and social groups. It became what we might call an imagined community.
Just as football compensated for the failure of our economy to deliver real happiness it became dominated by the same powerbrokers who dominated the economy. In the 1960s most football clubs were run by boards made up of local businessmen. In many ways this was similar to most cities. City Councils were run by local grandees who’d done well for themselves and wanted to give something back.
This transition in football is well characterised by the involvement of Jack Walker in Blackburn football club. A local man made good through his involvement in the steel industry, Jack Walker was like hundreds of football club owners before him. The difference was he’d made so good that he could buy the Premier League title for Blackburn. He opened the door to moneymen much less rooted in their communities to invest their footloose capital in football.
In the 1990s football became much more like the businesses that have dominated our economy since Thatcher destroyed manufacturing and created a haven for big business. Football clubs are now owned by multi-millionaires. Not out of a sense of duty to the community, but out of an interest in making money. In some cases the clubs are status symbols, as is Manchester City’s purchase by Oil Barons. In other cases it may be protection against the fickle politics of their home country. That’s certainly the case with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic.
Football ownership bears a striking relationship to the economy in which it functions. And when that economy breaks down, so does football’s ownership structure. That’s why clubs like Rangers, Man Utd and Liverpool are now in financial dire straits.
And that’s why it’s interesting that Stirling Albion have decided to abandon that style of ownership and become a cooperative. While it’s not the story that it would have been had Rangers become fan owned, it’s still a significant change in the structure of football ownership.
Of course, even had Rangers gone fan owned (and who knows they might still) they wouldn’t be the biggest mutual club in Europe. Barcelona, currently world club champions are fan owned. And that reflects a political culture of resistance by Catalans to the corporatist encroachment of the state in the mid-twentieth century. Even if Barcelona didn’t pay the wages last month their team means so much more than success on the field.
Barcelona Football Club is in many ways representative of the Catalan nation, oppressed under the fascist dictatorship of General Franco between 1939 and 1975. For that reason mutual ownership seems appropriate – they are owned not by an individual, nor by a board, but by the nation as a whole. Their success, as with the success of many organisations in the Basque and Catalan nations points to a different way of doing things.
Football clubs in mutual ownership can still excel, as Barcelona do. But they will become again representatives of the communities from which they emerge. It’s telling that some of the most marked resistance to the globalisation of football, franchising and debt-laden takeovers has come from fans. The creation of clubs like FC United of Manchester (against the Glazer family takeover of Man Utd) and AFC Wimbledon (against the football franchise that took Wimbledon from London to Milton Keynes) show that many fans want a return to a more organic football. They want a game with a link to place and to community. They want a game not beholden to the fabulously rich. In many places that spirit of connection to the community has survived – in fact that’s what the vast majority of football clubs are. But a very large number of the new fans are fans of mega-brand football clubs.
The return to grassroots football shouldn’t mean a return to the bad old days of racism, sectarianism (though that’s still with us) and terrible grounds. We can retain the atmosphere that football currently enjoys with community and mutual ownership.
The opportunity to create a new model of business based on social good, links to the community and a real sense of identity is here. And perhaps this time it’s football that will lead the way in popularising a new way of doing business, rather than becoming victim to it.