Sport

Greed which consumes itself: lessons from Chaucer for the European Super League

Geoffrey Chaucer was a 14th century English poet and author, best known for The Canterbury Tales. These collection of stories are told by a motley crew of fictional characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. My favourite one is The Pardoner’s Tale.

The Pardoner is a malevolent and hypocritical character. He swindles poor people out of money, selling fake religious relics on the premise of pardoning sins and ensuring a better after-life.  He is an expression of the corruption of the medieval Church.

But he tells a great story…

Avenging death

His tale is about three friends who are drinking and gambling together in a tavern when they hear about another friend who has been murdered by a thief called ‘Death’. They know he has killed many others before.

Emboldened by drink, they go from the tavern with the intent of finding Death and killing him to avenge their friend. They meet an old man who tells them they can find Death at the foot of a nearby oak tree.

At the tree, rather than a person, they find a large stash of gold coins. They promptly forget about their search and plot about how they will use their new found wealth.

Murderous plots

They agree to sleep by the tree overnight and then take the money in the morning. One of them goes to get food and wine while the other two wait with the treasure.

But when their friend has gone, the two at the tree decide they would rather split the money in half than three-ways. They agree to kill their friend when he returns with the provisions, and share the money between them.

But the one who has got food and wine has similar thoughts. He decides he wants all the money for himself.  So he adds rat poison to the wine that he has bought to kill the other two.

When he returns, the other two attack and kill their friend. They then sit down and drink the wine he bought. They die slow and painful deaths.

So what does this have to do with football?

I recalled this ancient story when listening to the news about the proposed European Super League. The richest football clubs in the world are seeking to create a money-making monopoly, cream off profits for themselves at the expense of their fellow clubs. 

It is just like what the characters in the story do to split their spoils between less people.

The owners of these top clubs are billionaire businessmen who are hard as nails. Money, power and prestige is what motivates them. Tradition, history, authentic competition or sporting integrity mean little.

Murky morals

No professional sport is pure and least of all football. This latest controversy has not emerged out of nowhere. Over the last 30 years, its morality has got more and more murky with dodgy owners, dubious financial structures and paying players and agents obscene amounts whilst treating fans and club staff with contempt.

The willingness of the game to allow itself to be saturated by gambling sponsorship particularly aggrieves me because I know how easily gambling ruins lives. Professional football’s pretence to care about young people’s mental health while endlessly promoting such destructive and addictive ‘products’ sickens me.

Goodwill and dedication

But this Saturday, I watched my son play football in a hotly contested top-of-the-table clash in the FA U16 South London League. Some of the young men playing are in club academies and still harbour ambitions to ‘make it’ in the professional game. But this is football completely dependent on the good will, dedication and enthusiasm of volunteers. And it’s fantastic.

Grassroots sport is all about healthy rivalry, bravery, commitment, endeavour, teamwork, fun, bridging ethnic divides, accepting defeat and shaking hands with your opponents whatever the result. These are great lessons for young people.

I love my son playing football and am so grateful to the coaches who give so much of their time. And he loves it more than anything (sadly even more than cricket, but that’s another story…)

Heart trouble

So however unhealthy, football does still have a heart. Its arteries may be clogged by greed and it may even need a transplant, but perhaps it’s not too late for a recovery which can see decent values restored at the heart of the game.

The furious response of fans, pundits, politicians and the ruling bodies give some hope. Maybe this is a battle that the money-men will lose.

The way of death

The message of The Pardoner’s Tale is that greed is the way of death. Ultimately, the lure of money corrodes what is good and ends up consuming what it is dependent on.

1300 years before Chaucer, St Paul wrote:

‘The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’.

There is no wisdom more relevant to this proposed Super League. It is an idea rooted in the love of money, rather than any real love of the beautiful game.

9 thoughts on “Greed which consumes itself: lessons from Chaucer for the European Super League”

  1. Beautiful, Jon. Spot on with the Chaucer reference., I’m reading Canterbury Tales at the moment, so timely 🙂 and a lovely description of the heart of football. I always enjoy your posts.

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  2. Great post Jon. I’ve got a book called “Thank God for Football” which explains the origins of many of the clubs (including some of the ‘big six’) and how they were started by local churches or Christian organizations. What began with real faith, value and community spirit has been distorted and abused by empty godlessness, greed and selfishness. Where Christians saw redemption from the vices of urban poverty and football was promoted as a healthy alternative to drinking, gambling and fighting, corporate greed today rapaciously steals what is priceless, caring nothing that this destroys lives and communities.

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  3. Thanks Jon. Spot on. Could you also reflect for us on your other passion, cricket, and the dangerous effect that The Hundred will have on the integrity of cricket.

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    1. Thanks Mike for reading and commenting! I love being asked about cricket! Well, I must say I am sitting on the fence a little about the 100. I think its fundamentally different to ESL because it does not damage the integrity of sport e.g. competition and a level playing field. It may be gimmicky but I think that possibly focussing on 100 deliveries to face may help people understand what is going on. I confess to being quite ‘mission-oriented’ when it comes to cricket – I don’t personally like T20 much (and I am hopeless at it) but I am glad it exists because it is so popular and has improved Test cricket I think. I don’t think Ben Stokes could have played that Ashes winning 135* if there had not been T20 because of the range of shots it has led to. So lets see with the 100. I guess the thing it could lead to is the dissolution of the county game – is that your key fear?

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  4. Hi John! Thank you for this insightful and challenging post! Chaucer is not someone I am very familiar with, so it was great to learn about his life, and the application of that to the recent news regarding the Super League. I also recently posted an article on my blog about the Super League, but with the lens of focusing on the power of the fans in leading to change and overcoming the power of billionaire team owners. If you have time, it would be great if you could check out my post and let me know your thoughts! Wishing you well 🙂

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