Newcastle v Manchester City underline the problem inherent in football | football politics

IIt was another week of soul-searching for football. What is the game, what is it for and whose is it? With nine Premier League games postponed in the past week and Dr. Nikki Kanani, medical director of primary care for NHS England, suggesting that attending matches is an unnecessary risk, a return to reduced attendance, matches behind closed doors or even suspension have become clear possibilities.

The return to Project Restart protocols may be enough to quell the spread of the virus among players, but if it doesn’t, there’s no justification for continuing. Brentford’s Thomas Frank has already requested a circuit breaker, but it’s not easy to push the end of the season into the summer due to the season being cut short to accommodate a World Cup in November. In football, as in so many other areas, the pandemic has exposed the dangers of greedy short-termism and bodge-job solutions to systemic problems.

What is clear is the desire for football. During the 100-day suspension in the first lockdown, just like in the second world war when the league stopped, only for local leagues to open in a month, the need for football as entertainment and distraction, as a communal event to give us something to discuss, soon became apparent. CS Lewis noted that we read to feel less alone; in modern times, football has a similar function.

That is the romantic justification for football’s dominance in modern media and culture. And there is something remarkable in that, all over the world, people will tune in to Tottenham v Liverpool on Sunday afternoon. Express skepticism about Cristiano Ronaldo or Jose Mourinho and the abuse will come from all corners of the world. Football is truly universal.

But that also makes it both potentially lucrative and influential – which is why so much of the game is so unappetising. Hearing the selfish bellow of several top clubs after the fan-led review called for an independent regulator ridiculed the idea that every owner has the wider good of the game at heart. And that was the other theme this week: the grim consequences of football’s appeal as an instrument of soft power.

First, there was the news that Abdullah Ibhais, the former media manager at the Supreme Committee of delivery and legacy for the 2022 World Cup, has been locked up in Qatar for three years. He was initially sentenced to five years in April for bribery after a confession he says was coerced.

No evidence was presented at his trial and he claims he was denied access to a lawyer. He appealed and was released, but was then re-arrested just before speaking with Norwegian state broadcaster NRK. The magazine josimar has reported how his first arrest came after he refused to run a story about migrant workers going months without pay in a WhatsApp exchange with senior members of the High Committee.

A Manchester City fan holds a counterfeit banknote with the face of Sheikh Mansour in 2008
A Manchester City fan holds a counterfeit banknote bearing the face of Sheikh Mansour from 2008. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Leaving aside the personal horror of Ibais’ story, the WhatsApp messages cast doubt on official claims about the safety and treatment of migrant workers. No one should believe that next year’s World Cup represents anything other than football being used as a status symbol by a repressive state in which homosexuality remains illegal and women’s rights are severely curtailed.

Then there was the news that US cryptocurrency speculators are planning to invest in Bradford City and offer a new ownership model based on non-replaceable tokens. For all the sentimental talk of “community storytelling,” that community is the global investors, not the local fans who have supported the club for decades – another civic asset sold to an investor with no sense of Bradford, its history, or its environment.

Sunday, meanwhile, marks Newcastle United’s first meeting with Manchester City since that match turned into a battle between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. There should be outrage that two proud local institutions have been taken over by foreign states (OK, a foreign state and a public investment fund that is absolutely, categorically not the same as the state and the Premier League has legally binding guarantees to prove it) for reasons of diplomatic attitude.

But so far, we’ve retreated into self-centeredness that fans welcome their distant overlords, despite their horrendous human rights records, for promising top football. The price of a fan’s soul? The appointment of Eddie Howe and the scent of James Tarkowski.

Blaming fans, however, is only addressing the most visible symptom. There is a problem inherent in football: when you win, you get more prize money and more people want to watch you, which in turn increases revenue through tickets, television rights, merchandise, sponsorships and advertising. More money means better players means more success means more money and, with no salary caps unless there is some sort of redistribution, a self-fulfilling cycle until only a handful of clubs can compete.

The only way for a club of outsiders to bridge the gap is through a sugar daddy, and so they are welcomed as unlikely anti-capitalist disruptors, even if they have bones in their pockets. The current crop of owners is so distasteful that the hedge funds have come to seem like the good guys; it’s enough to make you long for the cynical haulers and scrap merchants of yesteryear.

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But these two aspects, the massive popularity of the game, the necessity of the game as a common touchstone, especially at a time of global crisis, and the deals football has made with the infamous, are intrinsically linked. If football weren’t so popular, it would be less attractive to the very wealthy or those looking to whitewash their reputation.

As a result, on the one hand, there is a global army of social media warriors enthusiastically doing the work of bot farms and propagating for distant states. And on the other hand, as the Omicron crisis deepens, the need for our fix on football, that usual burst of fantasy and narrative, is becoming more acute. Welcome to modern football: it stinks, but we need it.

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