Football continues to be the nation’s favourite sport and 2014 has given fans plenty of highs and lows to enjoy. The culmination of mostly competitive leagues across Europe, a Brazilian World Cup, the start of new league campaigns and the qualifying rounds of European club and international competitions to mention a few. However, over the last few weeks football has appeared almost as much on the front pages of newspapers as much as the back. It seems that what happens in football (in this country at least) shines a light or holds a mirror up to many wider social issues and provides opportunities for very public debate. Not a bad thing for a sociologist to consider.
The following, in no particular order, is just a very brief litany of recent football stories that has elicited interventions, comments and generated much heated debate and which can be interpreted as reflecting ongoing arguments and analyses in a broader social context concerning amongst other things discrimination and governance.
1) Ched Evans – The professional footballer convicted of rape has expressed little contrition since his release from prison. The decision by the club that he was contracted to at the time of his offence, Sheffield United, to allow him initially to train at the club following a request from the Professional Footballers Association raised the prospect of him being resigned as a player for the club with a view to him resuming his career.
The club has since come under intense pressure from patrons (including Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and musicians), Rape Crisis England & Wales and the End Violence Against Women Coalition and more than 165,000 members of the public who signed a petition rejecting the clubs move. The club has now revoked the offer of training facilities for the player as a response to such opposition.
Amongst the many issues this case raises is the impact that high profile footballers have as role models, the seriousness and pervasiveness of violence against women, what is appropriate employment for the rehabilitation of sex offenders, how can public opinion be organised to enact change.
2) Malkay McKay/ Dave Whelan/Wigan: The appointment of Malky McKay as Wigan manager despite being investigated by the Football Association for offensive texts (of a sexist, racist and homophobic nature) raised many eyebrows not just in football but in wider society. Dave Whelan the owner of Wigan FC in an interview attempted to justify the signing of McKay but expressed views and used language that has led him also now to be accused and investigated for racism and anti-Semitism.
Is this just another example of ‘Banal’ sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism to be found in everyday workplaces as ‘banter’?
Is it representative of the unreconstructed nature of some/many areas of society?
Should we be optimistic by the strong reactions it has invoked?
3) The appointment of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on 13th November as manager of League 2 Burton Albion highlighted that there are now only 3 black and ethnic minority (BME) people in top management roles in the Football League and that there are only 19 (BME) coaches in the 552 'top' coaching positions at professional English clubs.
Does this suggest, given the number of BME players in clubs in all divisions that there is a form of institutional racism at play in English football that stops players becoming coaches and managers. If not, what other factors can account for this disparity in opportunity? Is there a level playing field when it comes to appointments in top jobs (and not only in football) or is there a need for legislative action to ensure it?
4) The Report of the Investigation into the Bidding Process and Competition for Fifa’s World Cups in 2018 and 2022 has been published. This resulted in something of a farce when the independent investigator, US attorney Michael Garcia, contradicted the findings of the chairman of the adjudicatory chamber, German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, just 4 hours after the report was released.
Whilst accusations and counter accusations have been levied against the English FA, a failed bidder, and FIFA about the probity of the bidding process and the accuracy of the findings, what remains is a sense of distrust and lack of transparency in the organisation of world football itself and in particular it’s President, Sepp Blatter.
Given that the chief whistle-blower now fears for her and her family’s safety what can we believe or trust can we have in those who have organised and participated in this process?
Does this sorry state of affairs in footballs world governing body tell us something about corruption, governance and transparency in similar global corporations?
Is it indicative, given the levels of proven misdeeds among many global financial institutions and banks, of operating procedures and practices that appear intrinsically unsound, dishonest, sleazy and fraudulent?
5) The first Scotland - England match to be played north of the border since 1989 and certainly since the recent Independence Referendum saw some good football and goals and relatively speaking a fine England performance.
However, the reporting of the match also focussed on a small section of England fans who thought it appropriate to use the England supporters' band as background music for sectarian anti-IRA chants and songs.
Whilst much has been done in Scotland to try to address sectarianism in football and in wider society in recent year it appears that such mindless, tasteless and offensive chanting is sadly still too familiar for a section of England fans.
Does this reflect an inability for some people within Britain to move forward or does historical and religious conflicts live on?
What will be the result if present conflicts continue to fester and inflame centuries after they have taken place?
Are divisions and differences in society appropriate fodder for football terrace rivalry?
6) Last week saw the publication of the annual ‘state of the game’ report in which amongst other factors the number of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh players contracted to and given playing time on the pitch was analysed for clubs in leagues across the UK.
Whilst there was much hand-wringing and soul-searching following England’s early exit from the world cup in the summer (mirrored in Scotland by the inability to qualify for such major tournaments) some of the focus and suggestions for improving ‘the national game’ has centred on the number of ‘foreign’ players who populate British clubs team sheets and squads versus other successful leagues in Europe.
This has led to some to call for a ‘quotas’ of home-grown players and the restriction of EU and Overseas players registered and playing for UK clubs
This reflects perhaps the financial success, power and popularity of English Premier League football but it also mirrors current public debates and political party posturing over immigration, multi-culturalism and the future of the UK.
7) The financial success of the English Premier League and its knock-on consequences for the game throughout the UK is based on the huge revenues that are generated by the televising of the sport. Whilst some may argue this has been a good thing and brought many positive changes to the game there is a sense of unease about the costs to fans of the TV packages that provide the basis for the revenues that Premier League clubs benefit from. The price for the latest rights deal - covering 2013-16 - rose by 70% to £3bn when it was announced in 2012.
Last week saw the launch of an investigation by the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom into the process by which the Premier League sells its live TV media rights to matches in the UK. Virgin Media has lodged a complaint that more matches should be available for live broadcast.
Whilst it could be argued that Virgin want a piece of the lucrative pie that SKY and BT have the role of pay-tv in the organisation, scheduling and financing of football reflects the fundamental importance of media organisations in the promotion and consumption of the not only football as a commodity but in wider debates about the power and influence of media corporations in the global fields of the communication and production of information, knowledge, leisure, culture and politics.
As a fan of football at times I find it difficult to juggle my love of the game with the way in which it is organised, presented and consumed as a commodity. Whilst I may not go as far as Bill Shankly in stating that "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that" I would say that football matters because it reflects and illuminates important issues in society.
Thus the tropism that sport and politics don’t mix has I think been well and truly laid to rest by such recent examples (I haven’t touched on gender and homophobia here I have only focussed on stories/events that have been reported in the last two weeks).
However, my argument here is not that football should be made a scapegoat for the ills of society not that by fixing football we will solve social problems. It’s only a game after all.
What I would argue is that football, as the most popular spectator sport in the country, as a mass participation sport, with a very high media visibility and with the ability to engender intense emotions, loyalty and commitment can provide a mirror or window into social issues and problems (and perhaps also suggest solutions) that reflect wider society.