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  • Writer's pictureBFCN

The Soul of Football

The iconic Estadio Azteca at night, during the rain.


This will be a relatively shorter piece to what I'm used to producing.


Those close to me will know I'm steadily falling out of love with the beautiful game. It's been a long, gradual process, but when each new threshold is broken, there is no coming back. What has happened to football? Our game, the people's game, from its working class roots? We're never going to get it back, but for people like me, it has become our entire lives. How do we move on?


Coaching

Once an inspiration to many, Pep may now be leading a team several are citing as causing the death of football.


The competitive coaching industry has become rather depressing. Coaching is treated like an entry level job, with entry level pay, but almost CEO levels of responsibility, and qualification requirements befitting a surgeon. Clubs paying £15 per hour for coaches with a UEFA B and a degree know that they can short change us because the supply far outweighs the demand. If you don't take the job, there are thousands just like you who will, so if you want to get into the industry, you better be prepared to suck it up.


What's even more disheartening is seeing appointments like Wayne Rooney at Plymouth Argyle. Most of us without a pro background know what we're not likely to get those kind of jobs, and that if we did, and we had a management record as poor as Lampard or Rooney, we'd be exiled in the same way Steve Kean was.


Coaching has now become a route into football employment, as the career paths for coaches nowadays tend to veer towards admin or sales being a huge part of the job. We all want to be on the grass with the players, but that doesn't pay the bills. The most viable route upwards becomes head of the community trust, working within the foundation, selling camps and clinics etc. as these jobs are the ones most likely to pay a wage that can support growing a family.


As we've seen before, the average academy coach in England is a childless white male between 25-35, typically unmarried. Often these jobs have an annual salary that is not far off working at a supermarket. Ironically, it costs about a year's wage to acquire the qualifications required for the job. A supermarket job has a better work-life balance, requires far fewer qualifications, zero responsibility, and allows you to switch off at the end of the day and not take the mental burden of the work home with you.

"If Messi is the world's greatest player, and he uses mannequins, what's the problem when coaches make seven year-olds run around them?"


To further add salt to the wounds, there is a growing body of unqualified private coaches making a fortune by selling dreams to kids at £40 an hour. They coach in local parks so don't pay for field rental. They talk about the grind, about desire, about motivation. They love a pre-academy, and will make sure to get in any photos the kid has if they go to a real academy for a two-week trial. Their Instagram and TikTok videos are full of some of the most useless drills you will ever see, but they use all the right hashtags and cool effects in their editing, that it bamboozles parents. Their recommendations coming from parent run Instagram accounts.


Unfortunately, if you're like me and have a conscience, you can't resort to that kind of thing.


Being a Fan

Are there more good times than bad as a football fan?


I'm a Blackburn Rovers sufferer of three decades. The club has twice been relegated on my birthday. Rovers aren't unique, and represent a struggle faced by lots of Football League clubs up and down the land. Where's the hope? With dwindling attendances, as kids in the area choose to support one of the top six, no money to invest in the playing squad, and some of the most dull football known to man, where's the incentive to go to games? Away days are often ruined by Green Street wannabes, with the words of their Year 11 teachers already gone from their minds, engaging casually in every ism going, because there's no adults in the room to tell them off. And during a cost of living crisis, why would anyone pay for this experience? To get covered in beer by some teenager who modelled his fashion sense on Liam Gallagher, uploading his performative reaction to a goal being scored in his Instagram story?


Rovers are currently the highest ranked team in England to have not played at the new Wembley. When it was first built, we were one Morten Gamst Pedersen header away from being the first team to compete an FA Cup final there. Football has its ups and downs, and no club has a divine right to be at the top competing for trophies. The glory days are gone, as they are for most clubs, but the appealing thing about sport is having a chance. You want an opportunity. Now, with Manchester City winning four league titles in a row, using a nation state to fund the creation of the best team ever assembled, under the shadow of 115 charges that their lawyers can delay and delay, where is the chance? Jack Walker types are no longer useful in football. A local businessman investing in his local club will go nowhere in the modern game.


It's kind of sad to see watch parties for Man United or Man City fans in all different parts of the country. People with no connection to the club, who can count their visits to the stadium on one hand, throwing beers around, taking selfies, in the bars of Kent and Cornwall. There's no shame in being a glory hunter nowadays. The shame has shifted, as "fans" who can name about twelve Premier League clubs will ridicule the fan of a team they've never heard of.


I mean, you support a club that considers itself working class and a "club of the people," yet will pay its thirty-one year-old striker £350,000 per week. You're a customer, not a fan. For a bit of perspective, the house in Liverpool costs £185,000, in a city with a 7% unemployment rate.

Football is broken. The players aren't going to say no to lottery win wages, so that won't change. And much like the nuclear arms race, no club is going to decide to pay players less, because wages are directly correlated to points. This is why the price of everything is so high. That new England shirt for the Euros is £125. That's obscene. What was wrong the with shirt they used at the World Cup in Qatar only recently? Or the women's kit that was released in between for the 2023 World Cup in Australia?


To the top clubs, you are a number. You are a source of revenue, nothing more. Three kits every season, at extortionate prices. Match day ticket prices rising and rising. More and more tickets put aside to tourists. Why is there no atmosphere anymore at the big grounds? Because a significant portion of the crowd is made up of people going for their first and only game. They don't know the songs or the chants, and are too busy enjoying their selfies and merchandise to join in. Because for these fans, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity, the clubs will charge much more for the price of the ticket. This fan will also eat food on the concourse, at the marked up price, and will spend a couple hundred quid in the club shop. The season ticket holder usually gets a discount, paying a lower rate for their games. They also won't eat the overpriced stadium food, opting to go to their local instead, as it's part of their match day routine. Will they go to the club shop? Why would they? They still have that shirt from several seasons ago, that's in good enough condition.


Social Media is the Final Nail in the Coffin

A complete nobody, two-footing the great Kaká during a charity match, to gain social media clout.


People who watch people on YouTube watch games are not football fans. Watching some fully grown man prance about his bedroom, screaming that Ten Hag should be sacked, forcing tears when United lose, jumping about like a deranged chimp when they score is not football. It's car crash entertainment. The YouTuber knows the sillier they act, the more the twelve year-olds watching will interact with it. Clicks count. It doesn't matter if they are positive or negative, all they need is your views and engagement.


How have we got to a stage where people like Speed and Thogden are not only showing up on my timeline despite not following them, but are also going to big games and events. These are obnoxious people that are a net negative for the viewing experience of any football fan. Somehow, their antics draw a crowd. I remember back to the days of Big Brother, where absolute nothing people made a career out of being on TV briefly. A show would advertise "celebrity guest stars" and the phrase "famous for being famous" emerged. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, who add nothing to our lives, became household names. I always thought football would be immune to this, because you actually have to be good at football to make money from football. But much like the fate of American sports, the sport is no longer the product. The whole event is a show. Twelve year-olds think Speed grunting at people is the highest form of comedy, and the algorithm decides to include it within my football coverage.


How much are fans to blame? I ask this, because I regularly see fans on social media rage tweeting when their club doesn't win. The manager should be sacked, the players should walk home, the Brewdog sponsored podcasters spout off opinions you didn't think a functioning brain could produce, and the replies to club social media posts are full of insults and threats. These same people also make the two following claims, which completely baffles me, as I see them as part of the problem.


Football is too expensive; Yes it is. So stop giving the big clubs your money?


Football is too boring and predictable; Yes it is. But you decided to support Man City at fourteen?


I remember after Liverpool lost a game, the same people on Twitter were making two points;

  • Games at Anfield are too expensive. That's why there's no atmosphere.

  • "Break the bank to buy Mbappe." Spend £300,000,000 to sign him, to ensure we don't lose by one goal at home ever again.


Surely I'm not the only person that sees the issue here? I get that fans say stupid things in the heat of the moment, but their viewing and purchasing habits are what inform the clubs of their commercial strategies.


Manchester City

"Where were you when you were shit?" The soul of football searching for dollars abroad.


According to Twitter, City are boring and have ruined football. I can see the validity here, yet I think it completely misses several points, which I will try to address here.


"Jack Grealish used to be such an exciting player when he was at Villa. Pep has killed him."


I think this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of football as a sport. Not only was he the guy at Villa, and now is in a team of stars at City, they also had different game plans. Man City control the game through their possession. This causes teams to sit back in a low block, meaning there is less space in behind. At Villa, they would be able to counter attack more. Where Grealish receives the ball for City, and where he received the ball at Villa are very different parts of the pitch. How many opponents he has between him and the goal is also very different at the two clubs. Therefore, he can't exhibit those same behaviours that he used to previously. The two teams have very different tactical demands placed on them by the relative strength of the opponents they face, the quality of the players they have, and to a large extent, their fixture schedules.

"Erling Haaland is just a tap-in merchant. He used to be insane at Dortmund."


The cynic in me believes someone making this point would likely not have watched the Bundesliga, and would routinely refer to it as a "farmer's league." However, again, the clubs and leagues have very different demands.


The overall point they're trying to make is that players are too safe and predictable these days. They take less risks, they do less tricks, they rarely shoot from outside the box, and they have less flair. I was just a kid, but thinking back to the 1990s, the entertaining teams that played with excitement and flair were Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, and Spurs. I'm sure Leeds would have happily swapped those Tony Yeboah goals for the silverware haul of Manchester United in that decade. Southampton had perhaps the ultimate flair player in Matt Le Tissier, yet were relegation candidates each season.


Yet, despite their relative lack of success compared to Man United, these teams still sold shirts and still had fans. Though the tide was definitely turning. Lots of kids at my school pretending to have a relative from Manchester to justify their support for United. You'd see their parents at the end of the day, often two of the most Southern people you could imagine, with the dad supporting literally anyone else. Even back then, we had an issue with glory hunters, but people were okay with contorting themselves with these mental gymnastics, and outright provable lies, to be able to claim the success of a football club from the other end of the country as part of their birth right. This was the decline of shame.


So why do Man City play such "boring and predictable" football? It's because they have assembled every part required to become a trophy winning machine. They have two world class players at every single position. Their second eleven could also win the league. They hoover up every young talent possible in the hope that one of them becomes good. They buy average English players to meet quotas, and to stop rivals from getting them. Their backroom staff have everything at their disposal. They pay Pep an absolute fortune.


So they need results.


Coaches at all levels talk about "controlling the controllables." Football is a game with a large element of randomness. It is possible to mitigate risk only to a certain point. Having eleven better players than your opponent will reduce the risk to near zero. Making sure your players have the finest chefs, hotel rooms, physios, S&C, and analysis will bring that risk even closer to zero. But it will never be zero. Until they change the offside law and make the goals bigger, football will continue to be a low scoring game. This means that over the course of ninety minutes, despite dominating possession, action areas, pass competition, chance creation, the other team can still score one lucky or dodgy goal, and take the points.


Why don't we see dribblers anymore? Defenders are too good. Skills that go viral on social media work against stooges that have the defensive posture of a coffee table, but they don't work against elite defenders. That's why freestylers make their money nutmegging distracted tourists along the Champs Elysees, and all Messi ever does is drop the shoulder.


Why is the game full of sideways and backwards passes? Shorter passes are less risk. Losing possession is a risk. In order to break down elite, organised defences, teams like Man City have to pass the ball around (move the ball to move the opposition) until they can find a gap or a pocket. They patiently probe, looking to attract pressure, to draw an opponent out of their shape. It's no longer a game of giving it to a good player and hoping they do something, or spamming crosses into the box until your big striker heads one home. It requires precision and patience, which can make the game feel slow and boring.


Why does nobody shoot from outside the box these days? The goalkeepers are too good. The chances of scoring a worldie from outside the box are too low, it's rarely worth it. If you miss, you give the ball back to the opposition. Teams are so good at keeping the ball, it might be a long time before you get it back again. This means the team in possession will elect to keep the ball for longer, until they can work a chance with a much higher probability. Five shots inside the box are worth more than twenty shots from outside the box.


These are all conscious, tactical decisions, that are about limiting risk. Make the game as safe and predictable as possible. A game with risk benefits the weaker team. The weaker team wants to create chaos, as it gives them a chance to attack from turnovers leading to counters. They can only win by smash and grab, so don't allow them the chance to do so. If you want your team to win trophies every year like Man City, it's going to be boring. Get used to it. The price you pay for success is less flair, more structure.


Are there Alternatives?

Aldershot Town. A real club.


There's a growing sentiment regarding lower league clubs. "You get all the same highs and lows as Premier League football but at a fraction of the cost." You can still have a pint with your mates, sing songs, buy merchandise from the club shop. It's considerably less glamorous, but then it's real. For a long time, I've been an advocate of the WSL, but then the strength of the top teams compared to the rest is too far above, that it makes games unwatchable. It will be 3-0 at half-time without the opposition even entering the penalty area, which is not an exciting spectacle for the neutral.


What's affordable? I won't bang on about futsal. I will say it's much more entertaining than football in lots of ways, and there are lots of free games from around the world broadcast live. If you want football, have you considered foreign leagues? The Singapore Premier League broadcasts live for free on their YouTube channel. Many of the games are around lunchtime in the UK. The level is low, but it feels real. It's charming. Last season, there were no 0-0 draws in the entire league of nine teams. Lots of leagues out there have something that would appeal to you. Maybe it's the fan culture, the history of the club, or even the colour of the kit. Ever gone on holiday somewhere, bought a shirt from a local club, then followed their socials to keep an eye on them? Why not see if you can stream their games? It's still real, and hasn't succumbed to the circus that is destroying much of English football.


Football is for Everyone

Ultra Culture. Seeing how American authorities deal with Wydad Casablanca fans would be worth the price of admission.


I love football and have to make peace with the fact it's never going to be the way it was. There's no going back. Like an old friend or partner, with lots of fond memories, you have now gone down two different paths. There's no reconciling, and too much indulging in nostalgia can become harmful. I want to see the World Club Cup in the USA next year. It might be the most money grabbing tournament in the most money grabbing country, although a game like Real Madrid v Chelsea does not appeal to me. Maybe a bit of Wydad Casblanca v Palmeiras? Perhaps Benfica v Mamelodi Sundowns? Al Ahly v Urawa Red Diamonds? Al Ain v River Plate? Monterrey v Auckland City? Those are the kind of games that appeal to me.


Regarding coaching, I certainly don't get the same thrill I used to years ago. Maybe it's because I know we could be doing much better as a community to provide better for the players. We're still having games called off in England due to the weather. Pitch fees are still too high. Referees are still being abused. Young kids are still being screamed at by their coaches. Maybe it's the optimism that's gone? Years of experiencing the same problems in multiple countries, with the answers staring us in the face, and nobody in charge ever addressing the issues. Maybe futsal is just better in so many ways and that has massively altered my perspective?


I don't think I'll be coaching an adult football team any time soon. And my fan status barely even passes for casual these days. Life changes and things move on. We cannot halt the progress of time. So I choose to use my time differently... for the time being at least.


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