Drugs, rape, group sex, grievous bodily harm, drunken driving - there is no end, it seems, to what tabloid newspapers, licking their lips, call "the shame of soccer". But kicking a ball about is a harmless enough pastime in itself, and young men of all professions and classes can behave badly. What we are seeing is the degradation and corruption that result from an uninhibited market - the shame of capitalism, rather than of football. The heavily jowled, pugnacious-looking men whose picture bylines adorn the sports pages call for the game to clean up its act. In the same way, film reviewers demand less violence in movies and "lifestyle" columnists demand that retailers stop selling sex to small girls. But why would anybody clean up an act that is making money?
Over the past half-century, football has become part of the global entertainment industry. This was inevitable. Football is the simplest of team games and two boys (and increasingly girls) with the minimum of equipment can practise basic skills in their backyard. Any male child on the planet can fantasise about becoming a star and, thanks to satellite communication, can watch role models on television. The clubs and players are now global brands like Coca-Cola or Nike.
Everything follows from that. Just as food retailing is now dominated by four giant chains and TV (after the latest merger) by three companies, driving smaller and more locally based rivals into extinction, so football is increasingly dominated by a handful of big clubs, which erode loyalties to home town teams. The gap in earnings between David Beckham and the typical player in the lower reaches of the English league is colossal because Mr Beckham has a potential audience of billions, while Bloggs of Bloggsville Town will be watched by just the few thousand who turn up at the ground.
So nothing else matters except that ability to control a leather ball. As is evident from the case of Rio Ferdinand - the Manchester Utd and England player who failed to take a drug test - clubs will spring to the defence of their star players no matter what the misdemeanour. Abuse of referees and linesmen, lethal tackles on opponents, nights on the town hunting down Asians, drunken altercations in nightclubs, gang-bangs in central London hotels - anything goes because nobody wants to sack a player worth millions. On the contrary, drama and scandal often add to football's appeal. A mass punch-up may be the best "talking point" for the TV pundits in a goalless draw; a player guilty of bad behaviour will get tens of thousands for a tabloid interview; the appearance on the pitch of a rumoured rapist boosts the armchair audience; marketing the players as testosterone-fuelled hunks pulls in the young female viewers. Even the clashes between gangs of "supporters" on the streets are good for business in their way, since they help to embed the game in the national consciousness. The point of football is to arouse intense passions and tribal rivalries; it is not, whatever the aficionados say, an art form, and the matches are often neither beautiful nor exciting. It suits the industry perfectly well that the violence it cheerfully promotes has now exported itself from the grounds, so it damages other people's property, disrupts other people's lives and demands policing at public cost.
Nobody dares to regulate the money-makers of football - not the Football Association, not the government, barely even the courts. When players are traded, for absurd sums, from one club to another, bungs, bribes and phoney invoices are common, as the journalist Tom Bower showed in a recent book. Transfers are an example of how an unregulated market generates activity that is of no possible social or economic value: greedy agents feed to the press bogus stories (which are always printed) of "unsettled" players in the hope of sparking a move with a transfer fee from which they will get a cut.
The maximum wage in its old form will not return. Players are entitled to exploit their talents for high rewards: their careers are short and often curtailed abruptly by injury. But things need not be like this. The football authorities can limit the amount that each club spends on players' salaries. They can forbid clubs to turn into shareholder companies, traded as though they were soap powder manufacturers. They can make greater efforts - in the distribution of TV revenue or in the regulations for signing up players - to give smaller clubs a chance to compete. They can take stronger action against violence on the pitch, misbehaviour off it, abuse of officials and corruption in transfer dealings. But they won't. At the top level, football is doing very nicely, thank you. We have created a society where money is the only criterion for judgement, and football is a fine example of it.
A firm guarantee: we'll fail
It is autumn, the season of mists and mellow excuses for trains delayed by leaves on the line. With characteristic British politeness, we all refrain from asking why other countries seem unaffected (apparently they lop the trees). But we need worry no longer. The train companies, showing a genius for institutionalising failure, are to introduce special timetables so that trains are scheduled to take longer in autumn. Presumably working on the same principle whereby the Royal Mail dropped second deliveries so that we could have a reliable first delivery at roughly the time we used to get a second, the companies think we shall welcome the certainty that trains will always be late. Why have others never thought of this? The Guardian could schedule 12 misprints a day; banks could promise to lose one cheque a month; and your local police force could save you the trouble of summoning a constable by reliably guaranteeing not to find burglars.