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The Gentrification Game

This week, a most beloved institution put both my loyalty and my patience to the test. I have supported Liverpool FC since conception. Mother dear might have held a palm to her swollen belly to feel my random kicks as I came to life. But the truth is, I was listening to radio commentary from beyond the womb and cheering each and every goal knocked in by Keegan and Toshack. Sadly, Liverpool were one of the six English teams who signed up to the dastardly, qualification/relegation free, and now happily stillborn European Super League. Proponents tried to point to games such as Liverpool’s famous 4–0 win over Barcelona in 2019 and gushed. ‘Now you’ll be able to watch special games like that every week instead of once a decade’.

They entirely miss the point. Those games are special precisely because they only happen once every ten years. The real point of the ESL plot was, of course, cash. Lost and lots of it. Stacks of truly filthy lucre. Real Madrid’s president tried to argue that they were saving football. He did so with the sincerity and credibility of Iraq’s Comical Ali, who twenty years ago tried to convince the foreign press that the Americans were committing suicide at the gates of Baghdad. Whilst tanks could be seen rolling through streets in the background. I could almost visualise wheelbarrows of banknotes being trundled into the Bernabeu behind Florentino Perez as he spoke.

I began plotting my own breakaway scheme. I could pick a new football club to cheer on. One that better represented the traditional values of the sport. I’d done it before. Sort of. I supported Mexico City’s Cruz Azul for six years during my prolonged stay in the city. It’s true to say that their successes didn’t evoke the joy and euphoria that I experienced watching Liverpool on their great European nights. But nor did their failures leave such a trail of soul crushing heartbreak in their wake. And I enjoyed the football. And perhaps this is no bad thing for most fans, given that football is 99% disappointment, punctuated only occasionally with fleeting moments of glory. I’d likely have plumped for Crystal Palace, but it became an unnecessary exercise. The European Super League was effectively dead within two days. I went to bed having heard the news that Manchester City and Chelsea had withdrawn. I fully expected to wake up to discover the other English clubs had followed suit. I wasn’t disappointed.

Fans of the Super Duper Six celebrated the victory of the little man against the uncaring, money-grabbing corporate giants. Football is the game of the blue collar working class, they insist. But I think they’re wrong. It’s not, and I don’t think it has been their game for some time. The truth of the matter is that football, like Brixton, Shoreditch, Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Bromley, has been gentrified. Just as with the inner city flats and houses, streets and neighbourhoods, football has been refurbished, rebuilt and successfully marketed towards a white collar/middle class audience.

The process began back in the late 80s. Most football stadiums were neglected and falling to pieces, too many supporters were violent and uncouth, crime was rife and ‘decent people’ and families didn’t dare show their faces on match day. Heysel, Hillsborough and public outrage were the catalyst for change. Terraces, and cheap standing tickets, were out. Season tickets, fan databases and increased security were in. Stadiums were refurbished or rebuilt. The Premier League was created to further drive improvements in English football. Television revenue made clubs rich. The best players in the world started to join English clubs. Ticket prices skyrocketed, but so did demand for them.

The demand didn’t come from men working in factories, plants and warehouses. They found themselves increasingly squeezed out, with just a hardy few hanging on by their fingernails. The new demand came from men and women from office blocks and fancy studios. And they brought along the rest of the family. Gristle pies and gravy were swapped for prawn sandwiches and Perrier. The gentrification timeframe and process of the inner cities and football were identical, and for the same purpose — to make things better and — most importantly — make more money. It’s very difficult to argue that they didn’t succeed.

The attempt to set up the posh gated community of European Super League failed, but not because of the little man. It failed because the clubs owners failed to read the room. There is genuine love for the beautiful game across all classes. It’s a love that values the uncertain, roller coaster ride of their chosen team. It’s a love that cherishes the occasional sensational upset, that sees the importance in giving the little guy a fair shot at glory. It’s a love that was shown over the last two days through the rage of players, managers and fans of all stripes. It was the emotional investment that people have in their football clubs that the ESL bigwigs were relying on. But it was the emotional backlash that ruled the day.

Come Saturday, the footballing world will return to normal. And come the end of the pandemic, middle class fans will leave their middle class town houses and posh flats and go to their middle class football clubs to see, hopefully, some world class football. The blue collar fans will watch on televisions in their living rooms or in pubs. They will aspire to possessing a season ticket in the same way they aspire to that nice end terraced property in that nice neighbourhood as advertised on Rightmove. And someone, somewhere, is no doubt dreaming up the next big thing for football. The next cash cow. The next phase of the gentrification of the beautiful game.

A bloke, attempting to transition to chap. Always wanted a weekly column with The Times. Have settled for this.

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