Kicking the c**p out of the competition...co-operatively

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Ipswich Town fan Grant Bage explains that there's more to this football carry on than just kicking the c**p out of the opposition. Sort of. This piece first appeared in Tractor Boys fanzine Turnstile Blues - get your copy here.

Our tabloids love turning a game into a fight. Headlines from a recent, single Sunday say it all about those sickening, sensationalist sub-editors preaching football mayhem. ‘Tigers are a cut above to ravage sorry Cottagers,’ screams The Star. ‘Everton manager in fixtures fury,’ bawls The Express. ‘The manager’s cry…’ claims the Mail Online is to ‘…bring me a hit man’.

Putting to one side the legal dangers of that last transfer policy, our media’s messages are clear. Football is a cut-throat competition managed by sociopaths and played by villains.

Comrades! Socialists! Labour voters, lapsed Leftists, consumers who occasionally shop at the Co-op, some of you nice Liberal Democrats, Greens (but not Green and Yellows) alongside ALL fellow football fans: this article controversially argues that such vile allegations are only partially true.

Yes, football is about winning. Yes, football operates in a free market and ok, there really isn’t much point in playing or following football unless you are totally committed to winning. But the fact remains that football is as co-operative as it is competitive and here are 10 reasons why:

  1. Football is played by teams. A team wins more games when its members pull together. Think of a successful side as being a sort of ‘workers’ co-operative’ but with a lot more over-sexed bigheads. ‘You’re a one man team’ is a traditional football insult, particularly when the 11 donkeys in your team are miles behind a brilliant racehorse in their team. Yet one fantastic player, even eight or nine really good players, hardly ever beat 11 moderate ones. Football, like Soviet socialism, is essentially about sticking together to stifle somebody else’s brilliance. Management gurus bear this out. Even taking into account our East Anglian spelling there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’, eh?
  2. Teams are picked from squads. This is a sound egalitarian principle because everybody not picked for ‘the team’ is equally disappointed. Then all the second-raters are forced to sit on the same wooden bench, pretending to be happy. This is a perfect example of communism in action.
  3. Squads of professional players not only train together every, single, bloody day of the week; and then have to pretend to like each other on Saturday to stand any chance of winning. They are also supported by other and numerous comrades in the traditional Syndicalist venture of ‘attempting not-to-be-as-crap-as-last-time’. Or as a liberal bourgeois might term it ‘my eternal quest for narcissistic self improvement is not only about me’. Just like in that feather bedded welfare state we keep reading about in the newspapers, professional footballers in practice rely on lots of different people even to turn up for training. There is the dietician to structure their breakfast, the laundry worker to wash their kit, the physiotherapist to cut their toenails, the sports psychologist to tame their egos and the agent to ensnare their employers. Everybody working together for a common and glorious cause: who could paint a happier socialist picture? Apart that is from the Red side of Parliament actually advocating something useful, like a re-nationalisation of the British railway system?
  4. Football isn’t football without agreeing to the rules. Most libertarians, quite a few Conservatives and all hippies would have you believe that rules are a statist conspiracy. That is almost certainly because they were not made to play sufficient football as children. Rules underpin all of life and any game: and if it wasn’t for Charles Alcock and lots of other slightly weird Victorian men, who drew up agreed ways of doing decent things with a large round ball, then on Saturday afternoons we would all be doing pointless activities such as shopping, ironing and gardening. Football’s codified rules signify a massive victory for communal co-operation, over self-centred housework.
  5. The fact that the egalitarian ideal of everybody ‘playing to the same rules’ swept association football from muddy fights in 1860s Sheffield, to world sporting domination around fifty years later just goes to prove that football is essentially democratic as well as co-operative. All those countries voluntarily conforming to a single way of doing things has never been achieved in any other sphere of global activity: not in Cold War politics, the North-South economic divide or inter-continental song contests. Even Sepp Blatter’s leadership has not prevented 208 Associations from subscribing to FIFA. The United Nations boasts only 193 members. Who needs global justice and all those translators? The internationalism of football represents a much more tangible victory for the forces of world progressivism.
  6. 11 players versus 11 players, picked from larger squads in which everybody gets an equal chance of playing, supported by a range of caring fellow professionals and competing within an agreed set of national and international rules: football is beginning to look like THE practical, co-operative alternative to the cannibalistic extremes of capitalism. And that is without even mentioning those unsung proletarian heroes the referees. Premier League officials are paid an annual salary of only £70,000. Assistant referees receive merely £600 per game AND they have to give their flags back. These warriors of co-operation battle the forces of extreme individualism armed only with a whistle and quite complicated offside laws. 
  7. And then of course there’s the pitch. Grassroots personified. Dug, levelled, cared for by honest manual workers, open equally to sun, rain, drought, frost, snow and getting trampled on by lots of rich people. The universal truth persists that apart from in South Norfolk’s Sunday League, a pitch is a level playing field. And even when it isn’t those cunning communist foot-balling lawyers have decreed that two teams should spend their time equally, in each half. They even achieve this by ‘swapping ends’! Not through misappropriating the other end, under-valuing it via private equity, tax dodging behind the lines, stripping its assets, buying the land cheaply through the manipulation of hedge funds or beating the opposition down with a few thousand strike breaking coppers. No! In the happy co-operative of football we choose to swap ends, like nice children. This is democratic socialism in sporting action and clear proof that we should try it more often.
  8. We now have the players, the rules, the ref, the pitch and assorted hangers on all ready for a fair game. Where will it take place? At that secular cathedral of modern co-operation: ‘the ground’. In a forward-thinking club that ground is probably designated as an ‘asset of community value’, in case this year’s millionaire owner wants to turn it into a car park. In an even more progressive club like Ipswich, its turnstiles will also have been painted each summer. Meanwhile a people’s army of hot dog sellers, terrace sweepers, bored police constables and alien beings in white plastic programme booths will have descended upon the same location, at more or less the same time, single-mindedly to participate in a highly significant communal activity. ‘The stadium’ and the game wouldn’t function without co-operation. Indeed the ideal of democratic socialism working within a market economy is proved possible by a pretty universal phenomenon taking place every couple of weeks. Namely that 20,000 people can travel safely to a football ground, drink beer, sing songs and buy a horrible hamburger; and most of them won’t get food poisoning, or even arrested.
  9. None of the above would surely be possible if football wasn’t more co-operative than it is competitive? The nearly ultimate proof (point nine of 10 so hang on in there) is that despite knowing in advance we are going to thrash them to within an inch of their lives, the opposition turn up on time. If the away team wanted to spoil things, if their only desire was to annoy us, if they operated to true free market principles then the opposition wouldn’t show up at all. Just ‘not being there’ would be posted as their ultimate, individualist act of defiance. Yet out they trot every other Saturday at 3pm, having travelled hundreds of miles to run around in the rain: in the leftist Utopia that is football, even the opposition co-operates. 
  10. But it is not just the players, the managers, the officials, the bar staff, the bright orange stewards and that odd but truly great guy, shouting home-made songs outside the ground through his blue and white megaphone; it is not only these people who somehow manage to agree to fair competition by arriving at the same place, for the same thing, at the same time. It is also we, the other people; the small people. We are Spartacus. Or should that be Spartacii? Anyway, we are proud to call ourselves Spartacists because we share a single, communal ideal. We want, fairly and co-operatively, to kick the stuffing out of another community’s 11 players. Our shared, solemn aim is to send their fans home feeling sad, humiliated and slightly annoyed at having spent a lot more money than most of them can afford. We do this in the spirit of equality and egalitarianism, knowing that a little later in the season they will be attempting to pull the very same trick on us.

This comrades, is co-operative socialism in action. This, my fellow fans, is football…

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.