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Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Since the earliest days of professional football, football clubs have been run as businesses, to ostensibly operate on profits earned from gate money gathered up on a Saturday afternoon. Then came an increased interest in the game from the media outlets of the day, which has continued and indeed snowballed in recent times. Clubs, meanwhile, moved from gate money being their only source of income to augmenting it with refreshments, operating coaches, brakes, special trains (not to mention charter flights and so on), and then came merchandise and membership of an official supporters' club.

Now, we have match-day packages, paying for tickets via credit-cards, priority lists for tickets, subscriptions to club TV channels and much, much more, all costing an arm and a leg. The media, meanwhile, has moved on down the ages from providing match reports to player profiles and - in the gutter press, for the most part - salacious details on the off-field activities of many a player, past and present.

Football clubs and the media have been gaily tra-la-laing down the football trail together for a long time now, recognising that they both need each other to survive. Any newspaper which contains football content will sell more copies than those without. Television stations do their damnest to spice up any football coverage. Clubs will bend over backwards to assist any journalist who gives them good press. Everybody wins. Apart from the supporters.

Ticket prices have rocketed over the past 20 years or so, especially in England's Premier League, pricing out many lifelong supporters in the process. With the advent of purchase of tickets via credit-card with, quite often, a requirement to join a priority ticket list, going to a football match (while wearing your brand new, overpriced replica shirt) at the highest levels of the game has become a leisure activity which only the most affluent can now regularly afford to do. Clubs pay inflated transfer-fees for ridiculously over-paid (and, more than occasionally, over-rated) players, and the supporters inevitably pay the price..literally.

The tabloids (now more commonly referred to as "red tops"), meanwhile, ensures that football features heavily on both the front and back pages, and even the "quality" press is not always immune. In the UK during the early 1990s, the then fledgling BSkyB organisation quickly realised that football was their big cash-cow in waiting, and with their multiple Sky Sports channels, snazzy graphics and segments with backing rock/dance music, moved in in front of the BBC and ITV television networks to snap up the television rights for the Premier League. 

So, since then, to watch live English league football on TV entails shelling out hundreds of pounds for the privilege. This is, of course, not exclusively an English/British phenomenon. Witness Silvio Berlusconi's Mediolanum organisation's domination of the Italian media. Canal+ in France (and Turkey, amongst other countries), Premiere in Germany, Eredivisie Live in Holland and a cast of dozens of other sports channels from all over Europe - and we are only focusing on Europe here - have also assumed positions of dominance in their domestic televisual markets at the expense of the terrestrial stations.

Football on television has reached saturation point, and the quality of the overall package on offer (football included) is, at best, variable. For example, the Beeb's football output merely imitates Sky Sports in many ways, and, like that of their non-terrestrial counterpart, is often vacuous. For instance, take a look at their Saturday afternoon Football Focus programme. It almost always starts off with the aforementioned segment detailing the programme's content, to the background of the inevitable pop music. Before every story that the programme covers, it's a case of "more of the same", with a couple of quotes thrown in.

Get rid of the nonsense, that's what I say; scrap the slow-motion goal-scoring arty action stuff and the dodgy hip-hop/R&B accompaniment and instead include another report. The BBC are not the only guilty party - every television station which thinks that it's worth its salt is equally culpable - not by any means, but they are quite possibly the worst of the lot when it tries to "sex" up its coverage. I don't want to watch previews for snooker tournaments during a football programme, either. Forget the graphics and the (over-used) "punditry"; let's have some football and proper football-related content.

The newspapers, meanwhile, like their televisual counterparts, regularly jump on any bandwagon passing by. What say you over goal-line technology, for instance? This topic will be covered here shortly, but it has been more than somewhat overdone. When lineswoman Sian Massey (correctly) kept her flag down just before Liverpool scored at Wolves a couple of years ago, it became a big "media moment." Various television programmes focused immense amounts of time on the decision, and on the girl herself. Sky Sports' "experts" Andy Gray and Richard Keys talked themselves out of a job after comments they made about Massey and Birmingham City chief executive Karren Brady were picked up on microphone. (Gray and Keys eventually got what they deserved - a show on the TalkSport radio station.)

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, obtained personal photographs and what not from what they called a "friend" of Massey's. Some friend, you might say. The opinions of respondents to the "article" seemed to veer from the point of view that she was doing a good job to those which had the girl down as a wanton hussy. It feels as though very time a marginal decision/goal-line technology/video technology is discussed on television, images of Sian Massey and the "Wolves : Liverpool controversy that wasn't" are bound to appear. All of this said - and says - more about Gray, Keys, those they left behind on television, sections of the printed media and some of their readership than it does about Sian Massey..who is doing a very good job indeed.

Then, there was the "racism" controversy featuring Liverpool's Luis Suárez and his Manchester United counterpart Patrice Evra. Everybody knows the story by now, and everybody knows the outcome. However, the media did not come up smelling of roses. The Daily Mirror, for instance, ran with the back-page headline of "Racist", referring, of course, to Suárez; a headline which could be regarded as inciteful, not to mention libellous.

Hacks from other newspapers, joined in what quickly became little better than a witch-hunt against the Uruguayan, and forums all over the place became meeting-places for the anonymous to basically write whatever they wanted about the man, safe in the knowledge that they could get away with objectionable comments about a man they did not know. A number also did the same with regard to Evra, and much of the abuse heaped upon both men was undoubtedly fuelled by the media. The Sun ran a somewhat inaccurate report of the day its correspondent met Suárez's gran.

This blog, like every other blog, has a statistical section which is for the blogger's eyes only. Some days ago, someone trawling through Google typed in the following: "Is Patrice Evra gay?" and ended up reading this blog. Evra is not gay, apparently, but does it really matter? According to a great many people involved in the game to whatever degree, the answer is, unfortunately, yes. The media have been half-hearted at best in their treatment of homosexuality in the game, which is a subject which shall (hopefully) be dealt with here in some detail at a later date.

The ex-England international Graeme Le Saux could probably say a lot about how he was harassed and abused by team-mates, opposition and supporters alike when rumours persisted that he was gay. The rumours, if one believes the legend, all started because someone spotted Le Saux carrying a copy of The Guardian while he was on holiday. Le Saux was an abrasive, yet intelligent player and is a highly articulate man, by all accounts, yet, because someone started a baseless rumour, it got to the stage where he felt (in his own words) "physically sick" at the thought of going into training.

Every so often, the BBC, amongst others, will show an article or even a programme dealing with the subject of homophobia, but the media's handling of the subject never appears convincing. As for the clubs, well, one can only say that if they were at all serious about making football a genuinely all-inclusive sport, they would have done something worthwhile by now apart from signing a charter to which most of them are merely paying lip-service.

Now on to more recent developments, such as the near-tragedy that befell Patrice Muamba, and the tragedies that befell Gary Speed and Piermario Morosini, not to mention the unfortunate Stillian Petrov and the disaster that wiped out several of the Etoile Filante team in November. Who, you might well ask? Well, eight people travelling in the team's entourage were killed when the team-bus crashed and fell down a ravine on the way to a league game in Togo. News of the crash was reported for a brief few hours (and at no great depth) on CNN and the BBC until news of Gary Speed's death began to filter in less than a day later.

From then on in, it was wall-to-wall coverage everywhere of the Welsh manager's death. No more mention of the hapless Togolaises on TV, only a few paragraphs in the newspapers were deemed sufficient. The Sun "newspaper" couldn't even get a report on the tragedy done to a decent standard; someone in their office Googled an Etoile Filante badge and pasted it above the article. Unfortunately, the badge didn't belong to the team from Lomé, capital of Benin, but to the team of the same name from the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. Shoddy, but that's News International/News Corporation for you..

The British (indeed, global) footballing community came out in force to show their support for Speed's family, and this was good for dozens of hours and thousands of pages of coverage. However, it seemed that some media organisations, not to mention players with various messages of support on T-shirts, clubs and sets of supporters, were trying to outdo each other with fawning gestures of grief that, to put not too fine a point on it, oft bordered on the crass.  

One remembers seeing Sheffield United shirts hanging outside Bramall Lane with the message "Speed - SUFC Legend" written on them. Now, Speed was a popular man, both on and off the pitch, with a seemingly ceaseless amount of both talent and determination, but to describe him as a Blades legend after spending around a season playing for and a couple more managing the Steel City team was a bit much. And that was only a couple of supporters. The hyperbole reached astronomical levels elsewhere.

Speed himself has been, is, and will continue to be, missed, most of all by his family and friends. However, the week following his death evolved - or should that be regressed? - into nothing more than a tawdry spectacle thanks to TV, newspapers and those indulging in the anti-social media. The Togo disaster - and let's face it, it was a disaster: for a club, for a country, but, more importantly, for at least eight sets of families and friends - was quickly forgotten about, as much for the fact that it happened in a small African country as much as it happened the day before Speed's tragic death. On to the next tragedy/atrocity/disaster. Such is the nature of modern-day life, alas.

Patrice Muamba's horrors were captured on film for all to see (and remain visible for voyeurs of every shape and size, thanks in no small part to YouTube), and the media fairly whipped up a frenzy over the young Bolton Wanderers player's state of health. Supporters immediately started converging on Bolton's Reebok Stadium..and began laying scarves, flowers and all sorts of paraphenalia outside. This went on after Gary Speed's death; Muamba was - and, happily, is - still very much part of this world, but everything that comprised yet another nauseating media-led spectacle (in comparison to the dignity and compassion shown by Bolton and Owen Coyle, the club's manager) made me think about adulation and grief.

When faced with situations such as Muamba's or Speed's, how much of any grief expressed is genuine and felt from within, instead of being imposed on us by the media, and our own urge to be seen to be doing something better than everyone else? Chris Hayes, author of the Forfar 4 East Fife 5 blog, recently wrote a marvellous piece entitled "The art of grieving without grieving." He got it absolutely spot-on, and here's the link to his blog:

Out of all the tragedies and near-tragedies which have occurred recently, the on-field death of Livorno's Piermarlo Morosini is perhaps the most tragic of all. Morosini, 25, was on loan at the Serie B side from Udinese and died during a league match a couple of weeks ago. To say he had had a difficult life was an understatement. His two older siblings were disabled and they were all left orphaned by the time Morosini was 17. He battled on and eventually represented Italy at Under-21 level. Sadly, misery returned last year when his older brother committed suicide.

Livorno and Piermarlo Morosini's parent club, Udinese, showed much class when the former announced that they were opening a fund to care for his older sister, retiring his number 25 shirt and re-naming one of the stadium's stands in his honour, while the latter have stated their intention to look after her. The FICG directed that a minute's silence be held before the start of the next round of matches taking place in every level of Italian football.

A much different, a much more dignified, scenario than Manchester United's minute's silence for Morosini before their home game with Aston Villa. What was the difference between that and arranging a minute's silence for the victims of the Etoile Filante bus-crash, for example? (Does anybody at Old Trafford have a connection with Morosini?) Have clubs - and the media - decided that they have become the arbiters of where, when and which football fans should pay their respects? And fans laying flowers, shirts and other Patrice Muamba-related stuff outside the Reebok? That, I am sorry to say, was much too over-the-top. Why not just send flowers to the hospital or a card at the club's reception-desk? What next? The call to prayer across Twitter for a player suffering from an ingrowing toe-nail?

In the intervening months between the tragedy in Togo and Mulamba's distress, have some clubs and the media decided that a minute's silence for every single football-related death signalled in the anti-social media has become a requirement of the pre-match routine, along with the tediously stage-managed "handshakes all round" thingy? Sadness and sympathy for Muamba, Petrov, Speed, Morosini and his sister, and those of Etoile Filante who are lost to us, but grief? How the media handles these situations, and how the rest of us react, has all become too intrusive, yet too impersonal.

It would also appear that the English press has become enamoured with Scottish football. What else could be the conclusion after, er, Celtic manager Neil Lennon receiving death-threats (and much else) in the post, a set-to between he and Rangers manager Ally McCoist followed by a fracas with a Hearts supporter, and now the hoo-hah over the 'Gers' financial troubles? Just being facetious, of course, but, then, you knew that anyway; the English sporting press wouldn't normally go near Scottish football with a barge-pole. Oh, yes; Kilmarnock beat Celtic in this season's Scottish League Cup Final at Hampden Park..but most of the coverage relating to the final shown on national news programmes across British television centred round the most unfortunate and untimely death, just after the final-whistle, of the father of Killie midfielder Liam Kelly.

Back to McCoist again, and his opposition of the recent transfer embargo and fine imposed on his club by the SFA has been noted, as has his somewhat coloured opinion that Celtic and Rangers should be treated differently than other clubs playing in the Scottish League system. He did say that he could "understand fans up and down the country, who don't support the Old Firm, saying that [what he said] is rubbish." Believe it, Ally, not only Scottish non-Old Firm supporters are saying the same thing..

There was a protest march by Rangers fans on Hampden last week, while the Rangers Fans Fighting Fund , perhaps driven on by elements within the club itself, issued a statement announcing that it would take "appropriate action" against clubs who voted to impose still harsher penalties on the Ibrox club. Sounds like a boycott of all the smaller SPL clubs by the Rangers support is being called for; the bullies are trying to take over the SFA classroom and they do not intend to compromise. ("Hello, hello, we are the Bully-boys..") There was no sign of dissent from the Rangers board, McCoist or the club's fan-base when Gretna were put into administration, docked ten points, fined and relegated to the Scottish Third Division in 2008, just before the tiny provincial club folded, was there?

Rangers Football Club is a member club of the Scottish Football Association, and are aware of the rules and regulations of the governing organisation. Regardless of who was responsible for not settling the tax-bill and other expenses at his club (surely more people than just the chief executive were culpable), for McCoist to indulge in some blatant psychological warfare when he said that he did not blame the SFA for taking the decisions they did, but saying that the SFA's rulings could kill the club was an opportune moment for yours truly to indulge in some head-shaking.

What was good enough for Gretna (and also for Livingston, by the way - yes, they were in the First Division at the time) should also be good enough for Rangers and that section of their support who think that a little bullying will go a long way. Suck it up, folks. Then again, Rangers could apply once more for membership of the Football League in England (they would surely have to start at the bottom and work their way up)..

We haven't even touched on corruption in FIFA and elsewhere (Italy, the Caribbean Football Union and more), the assertion that the Chumpions' League is the be-all and end-all of club football - closely followed by the Premier League - rampant bigotry, racism and sexism in the game and among its supporters in various parts of the world, the smaller clubs and associations constantly being trampled upon by their richer and larger counterparts, the inept organisation of the game in many countries..

It all paints a rather gloomy and depressing picture of the world game, and deservedly so. And, we football fans put up with it all. Why? Because in spite of everything, we still love football, and because we love football, we let ourselves be taken for fools. We still allow ourselves to be fleeced by clubs, national associations and continental federations. We allow ourselves to be seduced and swayed by an often mendacious media and those within and without football who indulge in some good old knee-jerk reactions, and we take these opinions as gospel.

If fans could move a little away from blind loyalty and look at the bigger picture once in a while, one which involves the spectre of a game, a game having lost its soul eons ago and which is now on the edge of implosion, we could make a difference by just refusing to go along with it all. Or are we all just happy with things as they are, watching Football Lite? If that is the case, then we have the game, and the coverage of it, that we deserve.

HELP BILLY WALK APPEAL: The Help Billy Appeal, ongoing since last year, aims to raise enough money to enable a young 3-year-old boy, Billy Douglas, who comes from a village just outside Belfast and who suffers from spastic diaplegia, to undergo an urgent and potentially life-changing operation. Should you wish to know more, Billy's plight has been highlighted in a recent entry here on Pat's Football Blog:

Or, of course, for those who might want to bypass the article and go straight to goal, the appeal's website address is:

If you can donate, please do so. If not, kindly post either link on your Facebook page if you have one and share, or tweet. Many thanks.

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