Envy, myopia and looking the other way: Why we don’t all applaud when a football club is successful

PREDICTABLY, not everyone was overjoyed when Manchester City leapfrogged season-long title chasers Arsenal to win their third successive Premier League crown. Some City fans were upset that their team was not getting the credit they deserved, while the club’s critics devalued the achievement owing to the financial advantages they have from being effectively owned by a nation.

City’s dilemma is they are owned by a state that is very different from cultural, social and political perspectives compared to the United Kingdom. Some of the differences are considered unacceptable by the west and therefore, any club in the hands of such a regime will inevitably attract criticism and be taken to task on their morals and values. In football, most fans of clubs that have questionable backing will overlook these issues and begrudge anyone casting doubt on the water. City are not alone by any means – the same arguments can be aimed at Paris Saint-Germain, Newcastle United and, in the past, Chelsea. In the near future more clubs, such as Manchester United and Liverpool could find themselves owned by the middle east.

Some of the more animated and vitriolic protests about City can also be attributed to basic inter-club rivalry and of course, plain and simple envy. When Liverpool won the Champions League for the sixth time in 2019, there were as many bricks thrown at the club as bouquets. Supporters of Liverpool’s closest rivals, notably Manchester United and Chelsea, begrudged the success of the Reds, using all sorts of excuses for why they had won the competition and, unable to be too negative about a good team, turned to criticising the fans and their behaviour. 

Liverpool are not universally disliked, but when you have big bodies of fans like United and Chelsea bitterly denying the club any success, it must seem like the world is against them. Certainly, the incessant abuse of a club guarantees that siege mentality builds-up and those on the end of constant criticism become the victim. In some respects, it strengthens their resolve.

Football fans spend too much time “hating” their rivals or enemies and not enough time extolling the real virtues of their own club. Just watch Arsenal fans during a game and how many times they refer to Tottenham, not least in demanding that everyone should “stand up if you hate Tottenham”. Interesting, given that Arsenal have been extremely more successful than Spurs over decades and therefore shouldn’t be too worried about them if they were confident of their own standing.

An assured club shouldn’t fret about a local rival as it would be far more “grand” to not worry about the fortunes of another club. Do Real Madrid and Barcelona worry about their neighbours, do Bayern Munich get all bent out of shape about TSV 1860?

But it is unlikely to ever be any different in football. Why? Because the game is, essentially, a very simple function – win, lose or draw. One goal changes everything. The objective is to kick or head a ball into a goal, there’s nothing very sophisticated about it – football is, after all, an illiterate game. Therefore, the result of a victory for one, a defeat for another, becomes the catalyst for taunting, goading, abusing and poking fun. All very basic emotions adopted by the masses. Losers envy winners and try to explain defeat with a dose of “what aboutism” or envy of the victors’ greater strength.

From the very top of the game to grassroots level, football is a sport where the green-eyed monster of jealousy comes to the fore time and time again. The game has always been one where competitive imbalance has governed who wins the prizes and who struggles – the current landscape is extreme, but you can go back 100-plus years to find examples of clubs having financial advantages and wealthy benefactors. Rarely, if ever, has football been a democracy, but it has had “eras” where clubs have risen to the surface – such as Preston North End in the 1890s, Huddersfield Town in the 1920s, Arsenal in the 1930s (where “lucky Arsenal” began), Manchester United in the 1950s, Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s and United again under Sir Alex Ferguson. The most recent drivers, of course, are Chelsea and Manchester City, the most obvious examples of inflated investment in the English game. Newcastle United will be the next resented club.

Manchester City are the subject of envy, as much as Liverpool are, but for different reasons. Liverpool, along with Arsenal and Manchester United (the traditional leaders of English football) have demonstrated envy more often than any other club, regularly bleating about the injustice of clubs with heavy investment. It’s easy to see why, for after decades of being the game’s royalty their position at the summit was undermined by Chelsea, initially, and City. They choose to ignore the fact they have all enjoyed the spoils of being better financed and, effectively, bigger than their peers for many years.

Liverpool fans, equipped with their banners proclaiming their history and ethos, like nothing more than to tell the likes of Chelsea or City that they have “no history”. Actually, before Bill Shankly arrived at Anfield, Liverpool had seen better days. Likewise, Manchester United’s cupboard was bare before Matt Busby was appointed as manager and Arsenal were nothing before Herbert Chapman moved down from Yorkshire. Each club has its pivotal moment when they become transformed from average entities to serial trophy winners – in most cases, the spark for success has been created by an outstanding managerial appointment. 

For Chelsea and Manchester City, the seismic moment in their history came from the arrival of cash-rich owners. No matter what some fans think, both clubs certainly “have a history” but it’s just that it wasn’t very successful until their circumstances changed. If, to quote an old football cliché, you’re only as good as your last result, then Chelsea and City have been very successful over the past decade. But only opponents will talk openly about the source and nature of any owners’ money.

Envy in non-league football is intriguing. Any club that has a new ground invariably has its detractors complaining about new stadiums, no atmosphere and not enough this or that. Usually, such criticisms are because club X’s ground is ramshackle, falling down, but sells itself on “character” and “unique ambience”. Furthermore, club X’s fans and officials might try to dismiss their own club’s lack of progress by giving you 101 reasons why a similar venture could not possibly be successful at their club. The envious fan will also suggest rivals with bigger budgets are the beneficiaries of cash from a dubious source. Today, that might be money laundering, drugs, tax evasion or property development that attempts to game the system.

Of course, the non-league playing budget is a subject of great contention and rarely is the truth known. A club official with any integrity would not/should not reveal a team’s budget to an opponent. However, the budget becomes something that can massage the ego, either to boast of how much the club can afford, or to play it down and suggest they are getting value for money from a modest outlay. Either way, you cannot believe much of what is said about budgets.

The tension between clubs fuels envy more than any other aspect of the game. There’s nothing wrong with healthy rivalry, it’s an important part of football, but ultimately, it should not deny the winner the spoils – each contest is a two-horse race and there are over 2,000 of them each season in the Premier/Football league. There’s nought so myopic as the committed one-club fan and even the most intelligent football follower gets caught up in the pettiness of what amount to playground spats. Basically, it is all about aspiration – the little club wanting to be Manchester United. Everyone, in their own way, wants the same thing, but the problem with football is that when somebody actually reaches the finishing post, the sniping starts. As Morrissey sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful”.

Ultimately, anyone connected to a football club should be open-minded enough to challenge the structure they are supporting. The prospect of success should not cloud reasonable judgement about the wrong type of owner. If the game continues to sell itself as a series of community clubs that attach themselves to causes and movements, how can real and very serious issues be ignored just for the sake of a few silver pots?

Football clubs need a voice

THE FRAGMENTATION of top-level football has been challenged by the creation of the Union of European Clubs (UEC), an organisation that doesn’t yet have any official members but is gamely attempting to create a forum for the clubs outside of the elite band that are dominating and over-influencing the game in Europe. In theory, UEFA should be filling this role, but there is general disenchantment with football’s governing bodies and it is easy to see why. 

There is a conflict of interest in any body that has individuals who have their fingers in many pies. Take the head of Paris Saint-Germain, who is not only on the board of UEFA, but is also deeply involved with Qatar Sports Investments and Bein Sports – both parties that operate and compete for attention in the football industry. Given Qatar’s controversial World Cup and the continued endorsement of the state, an unhealthy situation is already at play. It is inconceivable that UEFA should have a board member with such connections, if only for the sake of fair play.

Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, has spoken out about the lack of support offered by the European Club Association (ECA), which appears to have become the tool of the rich and famous, for the vast majority of clubs. Never afraid to voice his opinion, Tebas believes the small and medium-sized clubs across Europe need proper representation. This has been endorsed by club officials such as Crystal Palace’s Steve Parish, who considers his club have no true voice on a European level. 

The UK government, in its Tracey Crouch-led initiative, concluded that an independent governance model for football was needed in England, but while most fans, tired of the increasing imbalances and ownership issues, were in agreement, some clubs were less enthusiastic, seeing restrictions that could be a threat to future profitability and expansion. 

Football is clearly not a democracy, the market leaders are mostly free market advocates with little concern for the little man or indeed their immediate rivals. Survival of the fittest – or richest – is the name of the game, even though football’s breadth and depth, the combination of the big and small, the rich and the poor, is what makes it such a commercial and social attraction. As Crouch said: “The introduction of a new independent regulator of football will strengthen our incredible pyramid, giving investors, fans and communities confidence in the governance of our clubs, enabling them to thrive.”

UEFA and FIFA don’t really help or drive any attempt to “level up” the landscape. UEFA, for example, in paying out € 22 billion in recent years, gave 34% of the money to 12 clubs and a total of € 11 billion was awarded to just 24. Just to be clear, there are around 1,500 clubs that do not qualify for European competition. Little wonder that the underlying feeling among football people is that little clubs are getting smaller and the big entities are just growing more powerful by the year. There is a huge swathe of clubs, more than 90% of Europe, that are not enjoying the full benefits of inclusion. 

The founder of the UEC, Dennis Gudasic, the executive director of Lokomotiva Zagreb, commented at the launch: “It is crucial that small and medium-sized clubs gain a voice. Over the past decades football has become increasingly a game of the elite, this trend needs to be reversed or the beautiful game will suffer irreparable harm.”

Unsurprisingly, there are fears that if the current trend continues, football may face existential threats. The smaller clubs have long been the lifeblood of the game, often providing the raw talent that later becomes expensive human assets for the crème de la crème. But we have seen in recent years how the top leagues have become so polarised. 

Using the just published Sportico list of the world’s most valuable clubs, the top 10 have won 35 of 50 “big five” leagues (70%) in the past 10 years, with Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Barcelona leading the way. Juventus, who are just outside the 10, have won seven of the last 10 Serie A titles. This top 10 have also won the last 10 Champions League competitions.

Look at the composition of the 2022 World Cup squads and the picture is slightly different. These top 10 clubs provided 14% of the players for the competition, which demonstrated how multi-national squads have become in domestic football, but also the value of players from smaller clubs. The top 10 also have the most highly valued players in global football; according to Football Benchmark, 31 of the top 40 players by valuation are playing for these clubs, with Manchester City, Real Madrid and Liverpool all employing five apiece. The domination continues into the transfer market; since 2018-19, Sportico’s top 10 have spent (gross) almost € 7 billion. Chelsea, at € 1.23 billion, have the highest gross outlay in the period.

Around 40 clubs have expressed an interest in the creation of the UEC, including Aston Villa, Brighton, Brentford, Crystal Palace, Watford, Valencia, Sevilla and Borussia Mönchengladbach. The next stage will be actually joining this fledgling association but presumably, everyone is waiting to see who moves first. 

How will it impact the ECA and could it reignite the concept of a European Super League? The idea of the UEC is a worthy one, because all clubs should be appropriately represented, but could it also be interpreted as a sign of submission, that reforming the ECA to be more inclusive should have been the optimal direction? Will it merely push the elite further away from the rest of the football community? 

Having various governing bodies points to further fragmentation and could possibly act as a ring-fence for the elite. The UEC has said that it wants to fill the governance gap in Europe, surely it would be right and proper to fill the gaps with reorganisation of existing structures to ensure the game thrives on transparency, meritocracy and unity?