In December 2010, FIFA announced that Qatar had been chosen to host the 2022 football World Cup. Not so much a footballing hotbed as just hot, it remains a controversial choice. Qatar has an appalling record of human rights but still, it fills the FIFA coffers, so that’s all right.
Closer to home, players earn not-so-small fortunes – this year Manchester City paid Emmanuel Adebayor £100,000 a week to play for another team – and the FA Cup final kicked off over two hours later than normal just to suit the television companies. Throw in leading players accused of racial abuse and it’s hard to dispute that the game has lost its soul.
And yet…perhaps things look a little different when we take a more childlike perspective.
Through my son’s eyes
My eldest son’s first visit to see our team, Fulham, was back in November 2009. 1-0 down at half-time, the second half saw Fulham constantly attacking the end we were sitting. Tension grew as Bolton defended doggedly while Fulham searched for an equaliser. Finally, late in the game, Damien Duff drove the ball low into the corner of the net, prompting an eruption of joyful noise all around us. It was a great introduction to the range of emotions that football brings and a memorable first match for Peter.
Even more memorable was Peter’s reaction as we took our seats. Climbing the steps at the back of the Hammersmith End and stepping out wide-eyed at the top of the stand, the whole stadium was laid out before him. Peter took in the lush green turf, framed on four sides by mountains of steeply-banked plastic seats, and gasped. On the way home he said he hadn’t expected the scale of it, adding that it was big enough ‘for two giants to lie down on’.
The bad old days
The bright, modern Craven Cottage that captivated Peter’s imagination was very different to the one I regularly visited in the early 1990s. Back then Fulham weren’t a Premier League team on the brink of a European final – we were a mediocre lower division side fallen on hard times. The ground had seen better days too. I used to stand – not sit – behind that same goal back then. Opposite stood the Putney End, where pockets of away fans huddled together on a vast concrete terrace, praying for fine weather (we had a roof, they didn’t). Towards the back and sides of the terrace, weeds pushed through the concrete, some growing into sizeable bushes. As I said, the ground had seen better days.
Roots of renewal
Those weeds have something to say to current events in football. On the one hand, they speak of a game in decline, uncared for and shabby. On the other, they are a sign of life, blooming against all the odds. For all the egos and money and cynicism of modern football, something of the game’s soul still breaks through the concrete and grows.
My contention is that despite the scandals that dog the game, there is still a healthy resistance to the materialistic onslaught.
If fans sometimes descend into tribalism, they are just as capable of community and bond-building. When Wimbledon FC was moved lock, stock and shin-pads to Milton Keynes in 2002, disgusted supporters started again in the grass roots. The return of AFC Wimbledon to the Football League in 2011 shows that activism can still work.
On an individual level, players (and not always the one’s you would expect) devote hours to charity work and social projects. Organisations like Kick It Out use football to widen understanding about racial issues, to end ignorance, prejudice and discrimination.
Everywhere the renewal of football is breaking through the concrete. The signs are all around us; football is alive and – yes – kicking, for those with eyes to see.
Steve lives in Bournemouth with his wife Ann and their two football-mad sons Peter and Daniel. He works as a writer and editor for the Damaris Trust.