Cultured Football: Bonus Edition #01
No, this is not about the Super League. Well, not directly.
It was, from a marketing point of view, probably the worst day to launch a new football book. Yet, strangely, it was also the most fitting day to launch this football book.
Michael Calvin’s new book Whose Game Is It Anyway? landed on the 19th of April – the day after the announcement of the Super League – and sees the best-selling author looking for reasons to keep on believing in the game. It is also in part a manifesto for the future of football and god knows we need people who are truly passionate about our game to put forward their vision.
Whose Game Is It Anyway? was always going to be a compelling read – most of what Michael writes is – but recent events have transformed it into a must read especially, if like me, you’re wondering whether it is all worth it.
A few days before the launch, I met up with Michael for a quick chat about his feelings towards the game that we all love. I mention that because as you will see, some of his replies – they have not been edited after what has happened over the weekend – have proven to be incredibly perceptive.
What made you fall in love with the game of football? And what keeps you in love with it?
It allowed me to dream as a child, and has sustained me, emotionally and professionally, ever since. Being a Watford ball boy at the age of 11 was a pivotal experience: we changed next to the home dressing room, in a laundry area that was suffused with the smell of football, liniment and the slight sourness of stale sweat. We could hear the murmur of the crowd through a frosted fanlight and the muffled shouts of the players next door. Being so close to them on the touchline, we could feel their tension and hear their alarm. I was hooked.
I was in danger of losing that emotional connection due to the hijacking of the game for commercial gain. It is too easy to become cynical and jaded, but the death of my father in law during the pandemic, a key element of my decision to write Whose Game Is It Anyway?, reminded me of football’s ability to generate a common sense of identity, and provide a bridge across the generations in individual families.
As a kid I felt the power of football as a source of community pride and unscripted joy. I’ve used my own experiences – it still doesn’t seem real that sport has taken me to more than eighty countries – to try and give an insight into the nature of our heroes, and the lessons we can take into our everyday lives. As the old tabloid masthead read: all human life is here.
If you could bring about one change in football, what would that be?
At the risk of boring you (because this issue has been discussed ad nauseam) I would scrap VAR in its current manifestation. It is fundamentally changing the nature of the game, through a combination of institutionalised ignorance and arrogance. It is a pedant’s charter which lacks consistency and credibility.
The system’s founding principle, that it was an unobtrusive way of eradicating clear and obvious mistakes, has been ignored, because politically certain administrators have concluded it cannot be seen to fail. Football is a game of marginal error that involves acceptance of human fallibility. It is not a trigonometry class.
Problems are confounded by officials, on and off the pitch, making mistakes under pressure. Players are not helping, because they are conditioned to overreact. The length of time it is taking for decisions to be confirmed is stripping football of its essential joy. Technology should be an aid to the game (as in goal line calculations) and not its master.
Is there a model where clubs can be successful (financially and on the pitch, which seem to be interlinked) and still sensitive to their fans?
The obvious example is the Bundesliga 51% model, but that is coming under increasing and, I suspect, decisive pressure. Private equity investors, many from the US, are hovering, and their presence will inevitably come at a price, in terms of a dilution of a once-sacred principle that the game belongs to the fans.
Modern football is in the process of being distorted by vulture capitalists like the Glazers at Manchester United, the Fenway Group at Liverpool, and Stan Kroenke at Arsenal. It has already felt the influence of state-supported clubs like Manchester City and PSG. These predatory forces, combined, are pushing for the elitist, self-serving, Super League model.
My hope for the future lies in supporters of the bigger clubs rejecting their new role as ‘consumers’, to be exploited financially in stadia which resemble superstores. I have faith in traditional blue collar clubs, the likes of Cardiff, Swansea, Millwall, Portsmouth and Bristol Rovers, retaining their appeal through tribal loyalty.
Fan influenced, or fan run clubs, represent an alternative future. The phoenix clubs will find their own glass ceilings: most will probably not recreate the progress of AFC Wimbledon, but all will be successful in their own terms.
Do check out and buy Michael Calvin’s book Whose Game Is It Anyway?