Imagine what you could do with a million pounds: yes, £1,000,000. New house, new car, trip around the world? Your life would never quite be the same. Now imagine giving 85 people the same chance of freedom from financial hardship. That’s a lot of very rich people. Or better still, imagine being able to invest £85 million in the education system or health service (that’s more than R$300 million if you’re a Brazilian). New hospitals, new schools, better-paid nurses and teachers. In some countries it could make a huge difference to the welfare of the people.
Now come slap bang down to earth. One football player has just been bought for the princely sum of…yes, you guessed it, £85 million. Welshman Gareth Bale was sold by Tottenham Hotspur to Spanish giants Real Madrid. Who paid? The fans, of course, some of whom struggle to pay for the latest club T-shirt (£95 pounds-worth of nylon, made in China for about £4). But who cares? Football players have always earned pots of money. It’s all part of the “beautiful game” we know and love.
When I was a kid there were the boys (not girls) who liked football and those who didn’t. That seemed normal. Now if you don’t support a football team and are unable to rattle off the names of this season’s top scorers and the latest transfer news you are boring – a bit weird, actually. And that includes women. They have realised two things: firstly, that knowing a bit about football will get them in with the lads (ie totty) and secondly that footballers themselves are gorgeous specimens of manhood. Well, some of them.
Yes, we have to admit football is the new rock ‘n’ roll. But aren’t we becoming blind to what is really happening? The Marxist academic Terry Eagleton said recently that anybody who really cares about political and social change has to agree that football must be abolished. But that’s preposterous I hear you say. It will never happen. Maybe. But to even mention the idea takes some courage. Why?
Football stadiums have become our places of worship. Fans all in blue or red rub shoulders together like members of a tribe, grunting and shouting at their gods like Romans in the amphitheatre. Humans seem to have this need to join a band of brothers and then find another rival band to taunt and leer at. It’s a cultural need. Now that communal rituals have disappeared, we meet the other members of our tribe in the stadium (or rather in the pub beforehand to drink a magic potion and feel the fighting spirit). We also have this need to let out all our natural, instinctive aggression. We used to do it fighting wars to annihilate the enemy and protect our king and country. Now the enemy is the people in green or brown or purple.
But all this fun costs money. Poor people used to give their hard-earned cash to the church, believing it might buy them a place in heaven. Now they spend thousands of pounds on season tickets and expensive TV packages so they can pay homage to their new idols. Nobody seems to realise that football clubs are sucking the marrow out of local communities. Fabulously rich football players regularly drive their luxury cars out of the stadium, only to pass streets full of decaying houses where the occupants don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
When football began, more than 100 years ago, footballers used to live in the local area, near the ground which served as a kind of community centre. They lived in the same kind of houses as the fans and often drank in the same pubs. Now no footballer would be seen dead in the mean streets where the fans live, unless they were in a blacked-out limousine surrounded by body guards. What does that tell us about the modern game?
In Porto Alegre where I live, one of the local clubs, Grêmio, has just built a magnificent stadium a little way out of town. The aerial view is breathtaking. But the people who live next to the stadium will never be able to go inside. That’s because they are living in squalor; their dwellings are little more than shacks cobbled together from tin and old bricks. When you drive to the stadium the locals stand in a long line next to the road, swinging their arms and urging you to park your car on their patch of litter-strewn scrubland. The saddest thing is their appearance: many look malnourished or deformed. It’s a shocking disgrace.
Thousands of football fans will descend on Porto Alegre for next year’s World Cup. The FIFA promotional video for the city shows a more glamourous side – naturally. Because if tourists saw that an ambitious football club had been allowed to drop a jewel in the middle of a human swamp they would stay away.
Forget the beautiful game: football just got ugly. Or, to put it another way, beauty and the beast are the same thing.