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Football needs a theology of liberation

May 31, 2011

Born a few miles from Old Trafford, I am fated to be a lifelong supporter of Manchester United. Admittedly, that hasn't been an especially onerous burden in recent years and being soundly beaten by what is indisputably the best team in the world in the Uefa Champions League final on Saturday night was a lot less painful than a kick in the shins. Even in middle age, I still derive immense pleasure (albeit now from an armchair) from those uniquely elevating moments of excellence that constitute the beauty of football: the luminous, driving energy of a Lionel Messi, the tactical mastery of a Paul Scholes, the explosive precision of a Steven Gerrard, the elegant guile of a Dimitar Berbatov, the commanding athleticism of a Petr Cech. Yet the millions who delight in seeing the beautiful game performed at its very best are being systematically let down by those who profit most from its unstoppable global expansion. The legendary quip of former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly – that football isn't a matter of life and death, "it's much more important than that" – is becoming truer by the season as the game gets sucked ever more deeply into the ruthless vortex of commercial greed. I say this with no sense of schadenfreude, since Manchester United is as complicit in this corrupting descent into commodification as any other club. Others – even Buddhists – have rightly warned that footfall increasingly resembles a religion. Yet behind the more visibly cultic features of the current game – its performative public rituals, its identity-forming power and its capacity to inspire awe – lies a quasi-religious force of vastly greater power: the impersonal, hegemonic system of global financial capitalism that cares nothing for the game's distinctive excellence or the people who practice or enjoy it, and is driven by a worship of profit, power and status. The symptoms are plain for all to see: the grotesquely inflated salaries of top-level players and their infantile melodramas paraded before and egged on by a culpable and sensationalist media; the gratuitously unjust distribution of revenue from TV rights between top league clubs and the cash-strapped ones below them; the astronomical levels of indebtedness currently held by European clubs, topped by the English Premier League (EPL); the relentless takeover of EPL clubs by foreign billionaires; the damage to the families of obsessive and indebted fans; and, almost inevitably, the debilitating allegations of endemic corruption at the very highest levels of Fifa. But the results of this destruction of football's soul are also seen week by week on the pitch, as the relentless demand for success imposed by investors threatens to override a commitment to professionalism and sportsmanship: player intemperance toward referees; the deceits of diving and other forms of fakery; rapid player turnover, disrupting stylistic continuity and eroding local loyalties; overcrowded fixture lists; petty vendettas not only between players but also managers; peremptory sackings of seasoned managers at the whim of impatient and success-hungry owners; and unaffordable (and, increasingly, unsold) tickets that in effect bar low-income supporters from ever witnessing a live EPL game (tickets are much cheaper in Germany). The truly amazing thing in all of this is that for much of the time the game is still hugely rewarding to watch – the credit for which must go to the skill, dedication and level-headedness of the majority of players and managers, as well as to the amazing loyalty of supporters in spite of these almost irresistible countervailing forces. Here's a selection of the remedies needed to address the deep pathologies of the game: laying down strict rules on club indebtedness (as urged by Uefa); diverting a significant proportion of top-league TV revenues to clubs in lower tiers; securing agreement on a drastic cap on player salaries (players in their mid-twenties such as Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez could probably scrape by on £200,000 a year); tightening restrictions on the transfer market, both to slow the pace of transfers and to reduce the proportion of foreign players in any one club; enforcing rugby-style player respect towards referees; demanding a comprehensive overhaul of Fifa, backed by the threat of withdrawal from the next World Cup or even the creation of a rival international body from nations verifiably committed to integrity, transparency and financial moderation. The beautiful game is just that: it's not a matter of life and death. And it urgently needs to escape from the clutches of a corrupting religion of global financial capitalism. Most people probably don't know that modern football first emerged out of late 19th-century church urban mission. Many might nevertheless agree that what it now needs is a 21st-century theology of liberation.