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22 September 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:47am

Football is escape, not a moral maze. Isn’t it?

It is not the job, we are told, of those who regulate football to regulate football. What?

By Martin Cloake

“I wanted them all to go home happy just this once, and for a great football story to happen, however compromised by all the money.” David Conn’s description of his feelings on Sunday 13 May 2012 as he stood in the crowd watching his team, Manchester City, win their first league title for 34 years, encapsulates the conundrum of modern football for football fans. To win the big prizes your team needs big money, and when the money needed is a big as the modern game demands, it comes at a price.

Conn has written more than most about how the game has been misshapen by money, about the growing wealth gap and the failures of governance. For years he has kept pricking at the collective football conscience in the way the best journalists do. What makes him able to this so effectively is the fact that he is a still a fan, that he understands the passions of fans. In his book Richer Than God he explores what being a fan means in the age of mega-money, and questions the nature of football clubs and what it means to be a supporter. Like many of us, he finds himself compromised.

I’ve written a lot about community and identity, about what makes football clubs the attractive commercial enterprises they are. But, really, is that just a load of old romance? I sometimes wonder whether I am supporting an idea that ceased to exist a long time ago. I’m not alone in that, but I also recognise that many fans scoff at the idea of thinking that hard about it at all. Who cares where the money comes from if it delivers entertaining, winning football? Football is escape, not a moral maze. Isn’t it?

It’s a subject Times columnist Matthew Syed has addressed (£) when he questioned why many Chelsea fans not only do not question the way their club has been bankrolled in modern times by Roman Abramovich, but get positively irate about anyone who does. While accepting that some fans “love the club but bitterly regret the identity of the owner”, he condemns the “egregious” justification offered by many others that football “is an escape” and they “don’t want to get bogged down in thinking about politics”. He concludes: “This is offensive because it goes to the heart of a wider malaise in football. It is the idea that football is subject to a different set of rules to everything else.”

The article not only prompted huge debate, it also provided further evidence that football fans often don’t help themselves by hurling abuse and descending into partisan point-scoring when there is a bigger picture to focus on. Syed drew attention on Twitter to some of the viler abuse he received, further underlining his point about the shortcomings of football fans. But while I certainly don’t condone the abuse, I do take issue with the thrust of his argument.

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I do so for two reasons. One is that, as Syed’s Times colleague Gabrielle Marcotti (£) argued, football’s moral compass is not so different from the rest of society’s. He points out that there are plenty of companies – the banks or BP to take just two examples – that have done bad things but who we keep doing business with. We do so, he says, because “we run our own cost-benefit analysis” and “figure that it’s in our interest to keep them around because they contribute more than they take.” Abramovich plundered the assets of a nation state in a rigged auction, BP ruined the Gulf of Mexico, but if you’re a Chelsea fan needing to fill up the car on the way to the European Cup Final what are you going to do? Football reflects wider society.

My second reason for taking issue with the thrust of Syed’s argument is that, once again, it makes the problems in the game the fans’ fault. I’ll admit to being slightly sensitive to this line of argument, a state of affairs I attribute to having seen fans blamed for pretty much everything that has gone wrong in football for over 30 years. One of the comments under Syed’s piece asks: “Why should your average football fan take a stance when the authorities have deemed it OK?” And that brings in the perspective missing from Syed’s argument.

In most instances, fans have absolutely no say in who owns their clubs. They could, of course, vote with their feet and not watch any team funded by money of dubious origin. But arguing that fans should simply boycott not only displays a total ignorance of how fandom works around football clubs, it’s about as much practical use as Wolfie Smith shouting “Power to the people” in the middle of Tooting Broadway.

What would be productive is to look first at the football authorities, the people who run the game – with the current definition of ‘run’ seeming to be “don’t run”. The standing joke about the current fit and proper person’s test for prospective owners is that it consists of two questions; 1) Are you a fit and proper person? and 2) Have you got lots of money? A simple yes to both parts is required.

It is not the job, we are told, of those who regulate football to regulate football. What’s more, the free market cannot be interfered with and it is not for the game to make judgements on how its benefactors made their money. All of which is, in my considered opinion, baloney.

It is not only possible but desirable for the people running a sporting competition to enforce whatever set of standards they want. It is also possible to deploy ethical judgements in business, it happens on a regular basis.

The argument that hard-headed reality eschews ethical or wider issues is too often left unchallenged. So by all means encourage fans to question ownership structures and to start to bring those ethical pressures to bear. But do that alongside pressure on the people running the game who are in a position to deliver real change.

The football authorities can set whatever framework of values they like. They do so in Germany, for example, where the authorities issued a statement that the game “should not place its social function in doubt” and operate within an understanding of the bigger picture. And yes, I know I always go on about Germany, but that’s because the German game is living proof that the There Is No Alternative line peddled in England is bunkum.

In the conversation that is raging about the game’s future, we need to start drilling into some detail. A good starting point would be work out how to make fans the genuine stakeholders modern customer-relations-speak insists we are. That would encourage those fans who do care about those wider issues Syed regrets are too often ignored, and start to convince those who doubt there’s anything that can be done.

It’s got to be better than blaming the stupid fans. Again.

Martin Cloake’s latest book, Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars, is out now

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