Review: The Game of Our Lives

David Golblatt C Heinrich Boell Stiftung2

BOOK REVIEW: Writer David Goldblatt's latest work, The Game of Our Lives: The Making and Meaning of English Football, is "indispensable" to anyone who cares about the future of the game, according to Dr Charles Robinson of the Metropolitan University Prague...

Association football, or soccer, really is “the people’s game”, a statement evinced by the remarkable fact that over one billion people around the world tuned in to watch Germany beat Argentina in last year’s World Cup final. The game is starting to take root in the USA, a country traditionally thought to be largely immune to the beautiful game and in which the sports landscape has been dominated by baseball, American football, and basketball.

In spite of a largely disappointing experiment with the North American Soccer League (NASL) ending in the 1980s after just 16 years of existence (and this despite the presence of international superstars such as Pele, Johann Cruyff, and George Best), Major League Soccer (MLS) has so far proven to be something of a success, and soccer remains the most popular participant sport among school children. Even in India, a traditional cricketing preserve, the recent Indian Super League drew numbers of spectators, television viewers, and sponsorship deals never seen before in the history of Indian football. 

Football is about the only universal cultural practice that remains the same for everyone. In his first book, The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt says that even though other global cultural practices are almost infinite in their diversity, football is played by the same rules wherever it is played. Quite apart from rising television viewing figures, the number of people who play football around the world is simply remarkable – FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, estimates that one billion people regularly play the game in some formal or semi-formal way. As Goldblatt points out, that means “50 million referees, balls and pitches, and 25 million kilometres of white lines, enough to circle the earth over a thousand times.”

How often do around one billion people simultaneously enjoy the same cultural or sporting event? Since the games rules were first standardised and formalised in England in the 1860s, how can we account for the spread and continued popularity of the sport? In fact, “popularity” is probably too feeble a word for the status of football – it is capable of generating emotional attachments rarely seen in other sports, as well as emotions that can lead to violence and death.

Cultural heritage

One would think that football was the perfect subject of historical, sociological, and anthropological analysis, and lots of excellent work has been done in these areas over the last few decades. And yet one never quite escapes the feeling that the game remains a historical footnote for many serious academics. For example, can the written history of England be complete without an account of the growth of football from a folk game in the Middle Ages to one of the country’s dominant pastimes? Goldblatt argues that sport is entwined with history, politics, power and money to such an extent that to deny it would be negligent: “No history of the modern world is complete without an account of football. No history of football can begin to disclose its meaning or describe its course without shadowing the economic, political and social histories of modern societies.”

In his penetrating and polemical new book, The Game of Our Lives, Goldblatt explores these interconnections in the context of the history of British, and more specifically English, football. His sober and often pessimistic analysis of the game on the British Isles begins with the decline of British industry and the changing role of the working class in British life, alongside the rise and rise of neoliberalism and an increasingly rapacious capitalism. The English Premier League, created in 1992 after the country’s leading clubs decided to break away from the rest of the Football League in an attempt to increase their income, remains the most potent symbol of the changes that have occurred over the last two decades, along with the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent Taylor Report that advised whole-scale changes to the way football was administered and “consumed”.

Premier League breakaway

In the early 1990s, the game was all set to become the cultural phenomenon that it is today. The enduring image of Paul Gascoigne crying during England’s 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany and, in 1992, the publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch remain defining moments. Sources listing the exact figures vary, but in the same year (1992), BSkyB agreed to pay the Premier League an astonishing £300m to show live matches for five years. That figure now looks insignificant compared to the most recent TV deal, which in total is now worth an eye-watering £5.5bn.

The top clubs in the country have benefited from selling a product that already has over one hundred years of accumulated cultural capital. One would think that Premier League clubs would therefore be in a position to improve their financial stability, and yet, as Goldblatt shows, debts have risen exponentially. Analysis shows that in 2010, the net debt of Premier League clubs stood at £2.6bn, and there is no reason to suspect that in the last few years that situation has improved. The simple reason for this is that football clubs, and not only those in the Premier League, spend more money than they make, and they do so in order to either stay in or reach the Premier League.

The obvious assumption here is that the game has been corrupted in many ways by the money that has flooded into it, and by the countless opportunists who have appeared out of nowhere in order to take advantage. In the book’s central chapter, Goldblatt consciously echoes J.B. Priestley’s English Journey and details a long list of criminals, asset-strippers, property developers, shady and anonymous hedge funds, and megalomaniacs who have taken many English football clubs to the brink of financial disaster and, unfortunately in too many cases, beyond. Goldblatt’s passionate antipathy towards the commercialisation of the game and creeping deregulation marks the whole of the book. There are echoes here of Michael Sandel’s thesis that we have moved from a market economy to a market society, and that free market principles have invaded areas of life, in this case football, for which those principles are alien and inappropriate.

One reason for this, Goldblatt suggests, is that football clubs are community assets that should not be subject to the vicissitudes of the market, and that “in the absence of powerful local government or strong provincial civil societies, football clubs have become a vital component in sustaining distinct urban identities.” Neoliberal economics and the destruction of traditional communities has shattered our sense of identity. However, the recent creation of supporter-owned clubs, such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, also amply demonstrates the new-found confidence and community-minded spirit of football fans in the face of rapacious club owners at, respectively, MK Dons and Manchester United.

Pricing out

Supporters need not be the captive audience, suffering ever-increasing ticket prices, that club owners assume them to be. Goldblatt is especially concerned that young football supporters are already priced out of the game, leading to many crowds at the big clubs to be full of football tourists. In a chapter that begins with mention of Guy Debord, Goldblatt deplores the sanitisation of the game – subdued crowds due to the replacement of the old terraces, booming PA systems directing the crowd, anodyne match-day programmes, generally awful food for those of us in the stands, goose liver parfait for those in the executive boxes – but notes that moments of humour and spontaneity have not been eliminated as supporters resist the sanitisation of the match-day experience.

Of course, this process, which began with the publication of the Taylor Report in response to the Hillsborough disaster, has made the match-day experience safer and more pleasant. The sort of hooliganism that discouraged families and ethnic minorities from attending matches is now a rarity, and racist and homophobic songs are far less prevalent than they once were. The under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in all areas of the game remains a significant problem, and football still lags behind social attitudes to such issues – as I write, there are only four black managers working in British football – but groups such as Kick It Out have made remarkable progress.

The modernisation of British football has been a mixed blessing. While ticket prices have risen at rates that far outstrip inflation and player wages reach obscene and absurd levels, it is also true that attending games has become a safer experience for all concerned and the game’s governing bodies are waking up to their wider responsibilities by involving ethnic minorities and women more and more, although more needs to be done.

Goldblatt’s book covers these issues in depth, adopting an academic yet informal (and often playful) tone. For those of us deeply concerned about the future of the game, the book is indispensable. Goldblatt helped to change the landscape of serious football writing a decade ago, and his searing insights into how the game has been corrupted by market imperatives makes it of significant interest to philosophers of sport who see the same processes at work in other sports, and across society as a whole.

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Thanks to Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung for the image used in this blog, reproduced here under CC license.