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Expect no charity from football’s elite

One of the greatest ironies in the sports world is the socialist bent underpinning most American leagues. The United States — where not that long ago suspected communists were hunted down and put on trial — has a sporting disposition unmistakably rooted in leftist thinking. Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne may have said “Families are always rising and falling in America”, but that’s certainly not true on the pitch or the court.

Within those confines, there’s only so far one can fall. There is no relegation and every year the worst-performing teams are given the first pick of the brightest talents in the upcoming generation. Throw in salary caps and wage-bill limits and, theoretically, no side feeds off the bottom eternally and no dynasty rules indefinitely.

It has long been whispered that global football might do well to think about adopting some of these practices. At the very least, it seems prudent to borrow some of the financial restraints — if for no other reason than to prevent the multibillion-pound market from imploding. 

The reality, however, is that football, particularly among its elite European practitioners, remains the embodiment of the most ruthless kind of capitalism. In true Adam Smith tradition, all decisions are governed by pure self-interest. There is rarely time for any other consideration.

Which is why the expectant calls of the past week for Premier League clubs to intervene in the fate of those below them is so surprising. 

After the arrival of the second wave of Covid-19 infections in the United Kingdom, its government has had little choice but to abandon plans to begin reintroducing fans to stadiums in October. As it stands, the soonest we can now hope to rid ourselves of artificially pumped booing and replace it with the real thing looks to be March. 

Clubs like Garrison Gunners and Woolpack Wanderers are hit the hardest by the pandemic. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Death sentence

For some clubs in the lower echelons that’s as good as a death sentence. To them, the continued TV money is negligible and doesn’t begin to cover operational costs of supplying a live experience to passionate fans in small English towns. Fans, former players and high-profile former officials have said as much in a letter to culture secretary Oliver Dowden asking for assistance and warning of the impending collapse of the lower leagues. Dowden himself, meanwhile, has insisted that the mega-rich Premier League has a duty to step in and offer assistance.

A public official thinking a veritable conglomerate will step in to absolve him of his headache is rather hopeful — and possibly delusional. Unless Premier League clubs can figure out a way to monetise such an altruistic gesture, it’s unlikely we’ll see any support beyond the superficial condolences that will surely follow. 

This past weekend managers had to dodge questions about what they thought would be a good plan to rescue those below. Most answered in typical noncommittal and diplomatic form, but all surely knew that their clubs would not compromise their potential for success to assist anybody else.   

The elite, after all, must compete with one another and constantly live in fear of falling behind the ever-moving pack. In a world with no limits — one that is packed with owners that range from oligarchs to literal countries — a club’s caste is by no means a lifetime bond. 

Those same billionaire owners have also blatantly demonstrated that they can’t be relied on to help even their own people during these tough times. Champions Liverpool attempted to furlough their staff, and Arsenal retrenched 55 of their nonplaying staff — to name just two examples. The latter have also yet to find actual work that £350 000-a-week Mesut Özil can do in between doodling cartoons on his favourite bench seat.

That’s capitalism for you. Dirty, unfair and relentless. We choose to ignore its ugliness because we are so enamoured by the Beautiful Game. There’s arguably nothing wrong with that wilful ignorance, except when it leads us to think we might ask the money-churning beast to act against its nature. Unless we entertain ideas of reform, perhaps even something in the mould of the Americans, there is no floor to how far we may watch the less fortunate fall.

Football’s financial chasm

Although the current conversation has shifted to concern for lower league teams, there has long been an acknowledgement that some in the cushy country club of the Premier League will be hit particularly hard by the invisible hand of capitalism during the pandemic.

Could any fixture encapsulate that discrepancy as perfectly as this weekend’s clash between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur?

United are — to borrow a term from actual American financiers — too big to fail. Such is the size of their global empire that events on the pitch rarely move the needle on their financial wellbeing. After every recent mediocre season, the Red Devils have been right back at it: competing in the transfer window and looking to recapture their former glory. 

Spurs, by contrast, are running on borrowed time. As admirable as their plot to become self-sustainable is, the vessel by which they planned to drive that strategy now stands a gleaming white elephant. The Tottenham Hotspur stadium is now unable to fill the 61 000 seats it had hoped would fund its lofty ambitions for years to come; instead, its debt will limit the flexibility of José Mourinho to bring in his preferred targets.

He has managed to scoop up Gareth Bale on loan but with the Welshman immediately greeting the exemplary Son Heung-min on the treatment table, his options are stretched a bit thin. That’s before we mention the staggering fact that Sunday’s duel will be Spurs’ fourth match in eight days. 

The draw against Newcastle United was unfortunate last weekend but it has nonetheless left little runway to err and still think of competing at the very top once more. In that context, Mourinho can afford no mistakes against his old slow-to-start United on game week four. Then again, even if he did flop it’s not as if Spurs would be able to pay his severance package.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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