The conference asked: “At a time when the billionaires of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Russia are treating themselves to some of Europe’s biggest clubs, should football still be viewed as a fully fledged Olympic sport? Is it even a sport at all, or just another business? And has the beautiful game been tainted by this influx of money?”
Williams, who will be returning to the French Institute in April to talk about hooligans in sport, argued that despite its obvious strengths, the British game faced some deep-seated, consequential and debilitating problems – ones rooted in failings in the funding and maintenance of the economic infrastructure of the domestic game itself.
There are a number of key indicators on the scale of the problem, said Williams:
• Since the satellite TV-funded Premier League club breakaway in 1992, on an unprecedented 54 occasions have football clubs in England and Wales been declared effectively bankrupt and placed into administration. In Italy, Spain and elsewhere there are tales of economic problems, but perhaps not on this scale.
• Significantly, the recent impetus for applying potentially fatal pressure on financially failing UK football clubs has come, increasingly, from public as well as private sources. Since 2009 alone the UK tax authorities HMRC have issued 26 winding up petitions against a selection of Football League and one Premier League club. Football clubs seem no longer to be protected from economic realism because of their identities as important ‘community’ assets.
• The financial gap between the Premier League and the Football League has induced middle-range clubs into excessive, short term risk taking – sometimes to near disastrous effect.
• Also, according to PFA figures, in 1992 average basic weekly earnings of players in the English top flight were £1,482, compared to £320 a week in the lowest professional tier. By 2009/10 average basic top football wages in England had increased some 15-fold to £22,353: but lower-end wages had only just more than doubled, to a very moderate £747. Most professional footballers today actually still have more in common – economically and probably culturally too – with skilled manual workers than they do with the huge endorsements, sponsorships and global football celebrities featured on the magazine circuits.
At the top end of the sport in England today, local millionaires and family supporters are gradually being replaced by global multi-millionaires or even billionaires in the boardrooms. These include heads of state, global capitalists, or faceless corporate investors who hope for a return – psychic or material – on their investments in English football.
“Living, as we do, in what criminologists call the ‘now society’ in which gratification is seldom knowingly deferred, both ‘jam-today’, success-hungry fans and the game’s official guardians, seemingly, must take offers of external benevolence and commitment largely on trust. In straightened times, who can afford to look a deregulated gift horse in the mouth? ” said Williams.
Williams argues that most football supporters in England today display a remarkably resilient and realist acceptance of the game’s new commercial traits: while managing, at the same time, to hold on to their own affective, non-market understanding of their identities as committed sports fans.
At many smaller English football clubs, new patterns of involvement of supporters in running, or even owning, clubs, in the shape of government-backed Supporter Trusts, has produced a potentially progressive new dynamic, with a focus on local community input as an alternative to the conventional commercial football model.
Finally, William argued that there may yet be glimmers of regulatory hope beyond British shores. UEFA’s proposed new licensing regime aimed at producing ‘financial fair play’ by limiting the spending and debt of top European clubs, offers perhaps the most viable prospect of a much needed trans-national form of future ethical football governance, one aimed against financial exploitation and recklessness.
He concludes: “But this also raises the crucial question: can UEFA really afford to eject its star television names from its elite competitions for alleged financial excesses? After all, which football supporter does not what to see his or her club pay out the largest transfer for the best player and hang the wages – and the future? We wait, as they say, to be amazed.”