Why have we allowed this unmitigated football gluttony?

The lesson of the "they've paid 62 quid a ticket" linesman: there will be no dissent in sport's plutocratic playground.

After witnessing Arsenal once again succumb to one of the Premier League's many sporting mafias, this time Man City - whose trademark is a uniquely tacky blend of conspicuous consumption with the sprinkling of a Middle Eastern business despot's Midas touch, and whose team resembles a crudely assembled professional footballer human centipede, stuck together with molten bullion and the harvested tears extracted from the children of less financially well endowed clubs, clubs unable to compete within a financial nuclear arms race that seeks to accumulate the best footballer human capital on the planet…but I digress - a symbolic media event occurred.

A post match video soon emerged of a blasphemous linesman, John Brooks, angering the plutocratic gatekeepers of football's money cult. His crime? Merely bearing witness to an empirical reality: that away fans had paid 62 quid for the privilege of the ball-centred spectacle, and that players would be better off spending time celebrating with them than with himself, a humble linesman.

This is hard to deny. A 2011 study by Dave Boyle for the High Pay Centre found that the cheapest ticket to watch Manchester United in 1989 cost £3.50 – with a Liverpool ticket costing £4 and Arsenal £5. Adjusted for inflation, those tickets would still have been under £10 in 2011. Instead they went up between 700 per cent and 1,025 per cent, or as one senior Premier League club executive morally pronounced, "we maximise every seat for the highest amount we can get". So there! Yet as soon as the media latched on to the linesman video, the evident implication even as they silently relayed the footage without commentary was clear; the linesman's words were an underhanded attack on money in football. The response to this "transgression" by football's financial demigods was depressingly predictable.

After seeing the video I tweeted:

"This linesman is a hero, although I can't help but think he might take a figurative bullet for this comment..."

And sure enough, the next day or so, with horrible inevitability, the Sun's headline read:

"62 pound lino axed - The Professional Game Match Officials Limited removed the assistant from the third round clash at the Hawthorns and replaced him..."

So first of all praise be to Funnell, I am Nostradamus reincarnate. But secondly, how marvellous that the lino John Brooks, a man actually employed to uphold fairness and competition in the game, is effectively sacked for merely alluding to a commonly recognised injustice - obscene ticket prices - within the un-mucked-out zoo that football has become. In the aftermath to the incident it was widely reported by Sky Sports, the Sun and the Guardian that John Brook had been stood down for his next fixture as “punishment” for his remarks. Yet in the days that followed the organisation Professional Game Match Officials (PGMO) claimed it wasn’t a “punishment” but was to remove him from the limelight because he's young. This excuse is dubious at best. Why is it necessary to remove a linesman from the limelight who has expressed a popular sentiment? Fear of abusive praise from cash strapped fans? Does a linesman who possesses a disinclination for high ticket prices pose a threat to impartiality in his adjudicating? More over, if this linesman can’t handle the limelight, then why is he employed by the Premier League to work in some of most toxic pressure cooker situations on the planet?

So naturally, who were the finders of this biggest scoop since the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? Of course, none other than Sky Sports, who dutifully picked up on the story in their vintage shit stirrer style, jabbing their cameras and microphones in to the private post match formalities like an unauthorised colonoscopy and discovering the offending utterances. After all, this is Sky's self-ordained role in football. They've funded the games inglorious decline in to financial obscenity, pumping it full of coinage like a foie gras goose with all the predictable undesirable consequences: arsehole egomaniacal footballers, terrible ostentatious hair styles, diving and of course, most fundamentally, the cleansing of historically working class communities which originally gave football a soul and sense of meaning. Such folk are now priced out of stadiums, or bankrupted for the pleasure, due to a combination of the Premiers League's documented End Game: to open football to the middle classes, coupled with exponential rises in players wages that demand increased ticket revenues. This trend was set in motion by the authorisation of unrelenting competition in the player market (no wage caps) and endless increases in TV rights payments, which allows players to plead "please sir, I want some more" year after year. The Premier League has essentially, insidiously, presided over football shape shifting in to an unregulated wild west to fill the troths of the rich and, as is custom, human solidarity and general decency are the first victims to fall. After all, the premier league themselves have stated that they are "an association of interests" (financial) who have allegiance to "shareholders". So thanks SKY and the Premier League - two thumbs up.

Yet this is completely consistent within our paradigm of "the market is inherently good" in which any squalid outcome, no matter how much it self evidently offends our better judgements as sentient beings, is not only correct, but holy and inevitable. The market has spoken, Allah, Rand, Thatcher, Reagan, Greenspan be praised! Now, as the grotesque spectacle unfolds in front of us all - with Harry Redknapp only this week describing football agents parasitic behaviour as reminiscent of "gang warfare" - Sky skip around gleefully like Willy Wonka directing his own big budget porno. Sky document the decadent carnage they've helped to unleash on a handheld camera, then audaciously sell a self created scandal involving a linesman acknowledging high ticket prices (therefore their enemy) like fish food to the dribbling (and once again paying) masses via their sister news outlets. Thus Sky is the ultimate self-sustaining profit shit machine and make no mistake, despite the economic apologists protestations, football is worse for it, just ask John Brooks.

My nostalgia for football's good old 'the grass was greener before Sky' aside, what does this case illustrate about sport and football today? For me it's simple; football's foundations are rotten from the saturation of the corrupting capital it's hooked to like a crack addict; it's incredibly undemocratic and its authorities are shockingly unaccountable and unrepresentative (The FA Council has only one female member for example). The whole purpose of the game now is unfettered subservience to profit making mechanisms and its self proclaimed right to endless growth by extracting from fans, one overpriced hotdog at a time. As such, dissent, even from an obscure linesman (who didn't strike me as a part time Socialist Worker seller) is unacceptable.  Yet his nonchalant ticket price reference was a symbolic affront to the financial monopolists and cronies that dictate and own the now ugly game. Too much is at stake for this kind of '62 quid a ticket' insubordination to stand and when real power structures in our society are challenged, however subtly  (in football or elsewhere) the consequences are swift and brutal. Because sympathetic sentiments lamenting the plundering of sports fans' wallets could feasibly lead to sustained protests, reform, revolution! Sparks have to be extinguished before they blow up the fireworks, and so the linesman got whacked JFK style; Sky's camera may as well have been a sniper rifle.

And yet none of this is at all surprising. A few weeks ago the respected American Sports hack, Dave Zirin, said on Democracy Now "sport is like a weather vane for the wider political and economic culture". He's right, and so sport serves as an early warning system for the rapid decay of our communities, who continue their unstoppable free fall in to the cold grasp of an unholy alliance between profiteers and their unaccountable apparatchiks they both breed and depend upon. We need to reclaim football and subject it to a little idea called 'direct democracy' (a little bit like the Germans) and stop privatised tyrannies holding the reigns to something that should belong to us all and rightly or not elicits so much emotion.

Even today as I finish this article I notice Britain's most radical revolutionary body, the UK Parliament, has released a document calling for measures in the spirit of what I’ve described. When parliament acknowledges there's a problem with something, you know it be must rotten and its reform probably should have occurred decades ago; the UK Parliament, the eternal sea anchor to any meaningful progressive change in anything.

But for allowing this unmitigated football gluttony we must look at ourselves. As an executive of Supporters Direct put it: "Clubs have continued to exploit this reservoir of goodwill, but we have to ask ourselves whether we're prepared to continue to allow that to happen." If we don't take ownership of our democracy in sport, the economy, or civil society, we tend to become owned by others. So we must ask ourselves, why do we collectively express false outrage at drug doping cheats, and yet wilfully turn a blind eye to the greatest sports enhancing drug of all, money? John Brooks speaks for us all and he should be defended as such.

Editor's note: this article originally included a quote from a former executive of Supporters Direct; it has been updated to include a more current perspective.

A young Manchester City supporter sits among the flags at The Etihad stadium in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue