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Who Stole the Soul of Manchester United?
ireland / britain | culture | opinion / analysis Saturday May 21, 2005 21:17 by Dermo - WSM pers cap DrGroove at eircom dot net
A smash and grab raid on our culture
A personal view of what it means to be a football fan in a world where football has become another commoddity in the ever growing Marketplace.
P>Who stole the Soul ?
Outside the empty football stadium they congregated to express their anger. They burned season ticket renewal forms, a sad and pointless gesture because you knew that there are plenty more where they came from, to show that they, the fans, weren't happy at some rich highly indebted business tycoon named Malcolm Glazer getting hold of over 70% of the shares in their club. But the battle for control of that club was lost 14 years ago when it first floated and went down the road to being a PLC. The myth was circulated then that the fans of the club could buy the shares, and in that way be connected to the club. Of corurse the natural dictatroship of the marketplace ensured that didn't happen, and the club became the preserve and playground of the bosses, as various ones played at securing control of it. It was a ego thing, and it's about football being transformed into business, big business at that. Glazer will end up borrowing £265 million to place Manchester United on his mantelpiece.
Let's go back a bit here and see if we can explain the phenomenon that football, and certain clubs have become. I've written before that sport is the modern day drug of the people, and football is definitely in the 'Class A' category. I attended my first football match when I was about 8 years old when my Da took me to an Irish league game. It was between two neighboring towns. There was some crowd trouble, but the whole event had me fascinated. A bright sunny afternoon, the roars, the abuse for the referee, the players in their coloured strips chasing a bag of air around a very bumpy pitch with visible hollows in it. So it had the same effect on me as it's had on thousands and literally millions of people all over the world. I found it addictive.
Football is established as the working class sport. If you go back in history, you find that the initial idea behind setting up the F.A. Was to impose some sort of rules on a game that had evolved from the mean of neighboring towns and villages assembling in a place to have an almighty showdown involving a ball. It's a game that's evolved. By the time I got to see my first game, it had evolved into a spectator sport, although some of the fans liked to take part by having a scuffle with opposition supporters.
The other aspect to it is that it's a game that you can play anywhere in the world, all you need is a ball and a relatively flat piece of earth. I've played the game on beeches in Morocco and in parks in California. It is a common touch point for us all, but in playing it you have a realisation of the poetic beauty of what great players do, and how great teams play. But invariably the greatest players, the majority of the supporters come from the working class. It's a indicator, what team you support, but it means that we all know what it's like to play the game in the street, to kick a ball though a window and have to runaway. That primordial soup of experience is in all supporters. The game belongs to us and we never like to see it become the playing of the bosses.
The teams themselves grew from workers getting together on a Sunday to play the game. Manchester United started life in 1878 as a team called "Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Newton Heath" which became know as the Heathens. It turned professional in 1885. That gives you an insight into it's origins and needless to say in the intervening 120 years people have supported them for generations. I was brought into the fold by my Father explaining the great players that played for them in the past, the Irish ones in particular like Liam Whelan, who died in the Munich Air disaster, or the legendary George Best, a poor kid from Belfast who mesmerised thousands in the sixties and of whom Pele called the best player he'd ever seen. I was branded from an early age into the Red and white army. Years later I got to go to Old Trafford and see the Stretford End for myself in all it's glory. The Stretford End is the traditional end for the hard core supporters who've been witness to all the triumphs and losses over the years. For many, and even to this day, the highlight of a week spent in some dull job is to go to see your team play on a Saturday at three pm, along with 67,499 other people. Now, I'm going to ask you again, who do you think that club belongs too. A lone US businessman or the guys and gals who've flocked through those turnstiles for generations. You could bask in the success or learn how to deal with the losses. You were saying I'm part of this tribe, this is the pack that I run with, and the way the play the game says something about the type of bloke I am.
It's been hard to watch what's gone on over the last decade or more. Huge sponsorship deals with Nike, the flotation, the high profile stars holding out for £165,000 a week deals (most of us would be lucky to earn that with half a lifetimes work.) and now this.
A taxi driver, and fellow fan said to me; "All that history, that pedigree, the stuff that we've all gone through as fans of the club, you can't buy that." The sad truth was someone just had.
But if we want to look for an example of how it might be otherwise, we just have to look East again, to the continent and to Spain and Germany. The examples are Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. The two Spanish giants of football have memberships of 102,000 and 85,000 respectively "are non-profit making and fully democratic organisations, holding quadrennial elections at which a president is mandated to run the club's affairs."
That's not the end of the story. It's abut much more than how the club is run. Really what we are seeing is that there is no end to what they will plunder to make a buck. The they is the bosses, and they will raid vault of our (working-class) culture and identity in order to further exploit it for yet more profit. We in turn cannot let go, and can't stop supporting the teams that have been handed down to us from previous generations. It's a battle for identity and it's only really begun. The lesson that I take away from it is that we must smash the marketplace, the one that cheapens everything to the net worth of a company, in order to see the true value of what we have. They are our clubs, it's our culture that they've grown out off, and the bosses may control them now, but it will only be for a while. Form is temporary, Class is permanent and we are going to get them back.