Every now and then (and all too often) a horror story of racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, homophobia or even criminal activity raises it’s ugly head to tarnish Football’s reputation; but what IS the reputation Football should have?
We all know the stories of poor, dis-advantaged kids who have no hope of ever lifting themselves up until it’s discovered that they can kick a ball well. Many of us know how the list of “original clubs” is a rag tag tail of Old Boys Clubs of Public Schools, Work Place Social Club Teams and Church Teams. But few of us ever stop to think what football’s role in society is.
Professional football didn’t just spring into existence. It grew from hundreds of communities over the years. They came together to form teams that grew until a national association was formed to regulate it and leagues formed to provide purpose for them. Those clubs grew into the giants of the game we know and love today. In my case, the team I love went from a little church team to an internationally recognised brand, for football is no longer just a sport. Football is a business. Yes, there are still amateur league teams where football is about getting out and playing a game you love and having fun with mates, but once you’re in a league there’s a ton of paperwork, fees and registrations to deal with, putting it more on a par with a not for profit organisation than a kick about with friends.
Like all businesses, football can only be successful when it has the confidence of the public buying it’s services. However, unlike most businesses, football needs not only the patronage of it’s customers, it needs it’s active participation.
Any of you who have ever been involved in a game forced to be played behind closed doors that would normally have had spectators knows what a soulless experience it is. Anyone who’s stood on a touchline at 10 am on a cold winters Sunday morning knows, even then, you can’t help but get involved. So what does football owe such passion?
Any business needs to be run responsibly if it is to survive. It has to be financially sound. Well, the overwhelming evidence is that a vast number of clubs have failed in that regard, even the most successful ones.
Any business must stay within the bounds of the law and pay due care and attention. Even here football has questions to answer.
Businesses must supply a product that people actually want to buy. Well, this one has mixed judgments; individual clubs have to answer to their fans and do. Those that give them what they’re looking for get good crowds and sell plenty of merchandise; those that don’t see it in their receipts.
The reality is, no matter what various consortia, venture capitalists and investment adventurers want to think, football isn’t just another business. Football relies on it’s customers to not just pay up and like the brand, they need the fans to care about the outcome of each event, they need them to love the club; It’s more akin to a marriage than a shopping experience. And it is precisely because of this (in my opinion) that football, especially the professional side of the game owes not just a duty of care, but a duty to reciprocate that love. It owes the communities that it came from and that now support it “pay back” for that love and support.
So how should football be doing that? It’s my opinion that it has to be from the ground up. By this I don’t mean the stadia, I mean the “grass roots”. This must be done in stages that are clearly defined and different from one another but run alongside each other.
1) Investment must be in place for children to both play the game and watch it in safe and suitable environments. And that must be for ALL children who want to be involved. Whether it is a kid from a poor, run down estate or from the very wealthiest background. Regardless of whether that child it is a Girl or a Boy, or from the native ethnic group or a minority. If the child is disabled, suitable adjustments must be made to allow them to take part whether it’s by providing wheelchair access at grounds, induction loops for those who are hearing impaired or live commentary feeds and braille signs for those with visual impairments. But more than that, opportunities to PLAY football for disabled people must too be a part of that pay back to society that football owes it’s fans. The great advantage football has by doing this is that it not only gets to be “the good guy” but it get’s to nurture a new customer and perpetuate it’s future with a new generation of lovers of the beautiful game.
2) Swap the word Child for adult and do all of the above for those Men and Women who love the game. That MUST include making games affordable. At the moment, the FA is in the middle of a massive overhaul of the womens game. Until we see those changes happen I’m going to reserve my opinion, except to say that the Game Changer Document ( http://www.thefa.com/News/2012/oct/game-changer-womens-football.aspx ), whilst being an exciting prospect, is a little vague in targets and how it will achieve them.
3) Make up for the failings of the past.
When I was a little girl, females were not allowed to play on FA sanctioned grounds. I remember watching my Dad’s Sunday league team, afterwards we (me, my sister and 2 brothers) were having a kick about with him and some of his team mates when the Referee told him that he could have my brothers on the pitch, but not me or my sister as “the rec” might loose it’s right to stage league matches if they found out girls were playing on it. I also remember the delight when that rule was done away with and I got to play an organised game of Women v Men for charity on the very same pitch I’d been kicked off of a decade before. If you’ve read the “Game Changer” document the FA produced ( http://www.thefa.com/News/2012/oct/game-changer-womens-football.aspx ) you’ll see that the FA is finally admitting to it’s failings and trying to improve things. And if you’ve read LCAB’s piece on Dick Kerr’s Ladies ( ) or Everton Ladies ( ) you’ll see the history of womens football did not begin with the FA’s involvement in the National Team in 1993. It’s my belief that this disinterest (to be generous) badly damaged the image of football as a game for women. That coupled with the sexism that was prevalent in not only football but society made football an all boys club for far too long. Women have a lot of catching up to do.
Equally, football has had a very chequered history when it comes to Homophobia, disability discrimination and Racism. There may not have been such a visible backing for these bigotries or blocking people from minority communities from being active in football, but there have been failings in dealing effectively with bigotry of all origins. The Kick it out campaign is fantastic, for what it is, but it’s hugely underfunded and has been criticised for being far to symbolic and not pro-active enough. It’s time for football to make amends.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think bigotry is footballs fault; football does not stand alone in society. However, the attitudes in football can be a heightened reality in which attitudes persistent in society are presented. It is footballs place to fight those heightened bigotries and reflect in a fairer and more realistic way the attitudes society has and is trying to achieve.
So, what IS the reputation Football should have? What is football’s role in society?
If I were writing a report card for football I would say “Could and MUST Do Better”.
In England, I believe the future is looking better; The FA is trying to progress but not soon enough and not fast enough. In Scotland there are many problems that the SFA seem reluctant to deal with. The same too for Wales and Ireland.
As for the wider football community, until FIFA they get their own house in order, I have no faith in their ability to effectively tackle, prevent and punish the failings of either National, Regional or Continental confederations/associations.
Football’s reputation is that of the Worlds favourite sport but it’s Governance’s reputation is one of failures and corruption. It’s largely justified. There are beacons of hope and examples of good practice, but too few to stave off the stigma of failure.
What is football’s role in society? In my opinion, football must be a leader. The sport is so popular and so dominant in TV schedules across the world that I don’t think it can afford not to be.
Here in England particularly, it is so deeply entrenched in so many communities that is must work harder to reflect, improve and be inclusive of those communities. Why do I believe that? Because football can’t survive without the support of those communities, even if a club becomes the personal dominion of a wealthy individual.
So unless it remains relevant and active, those communities will see the beautiful game as something that once was part of their lives.
Unless it is affordable and accessible to its fans, those expensive playthings will become worthless properties.
Without fans it ceases to be a spectator sport and half the fun of football is sharing the joy of a win with strangers you call a friend, courtesy of a shared passion for 11 people kicking a round ball.
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