Pet Peeves: The Premier League Plinth
It is a fair enough criticism to suggest that we here at Twohundredpercent can have a tendency to eulogise the past a little. It wasn’t all great, of course. The facilities were in a state of collapse, hooliganism stalked the game like a dark shadow, and the football was, as often as not, terrible. It’s difficult, however, not to be seduced by the images of the past, of the shots of huge terraces, seething masses of humanity that swayed with the motion of the match.
That human element to football, however, seems to be on the wane, and it can be applied across the board. Younger readers may not believe me when I say this, but there was a time when football matches weren’t the single most important thing in the world. They were something that you went to on a Saturday afternoon for a couple of hours, primarily to get away from it all. We all had teams that we wanted to win, of course, but without the twenty-four hour a day, seven days a week din of social media to amplify it out of all proportion, football was something that we could put down after matches.
Somewhere along the line, though, football has decided that it is important, and this seems to have been a decision that many – if not most – supporters have gone along with. There is a problem with deciding that you are important, though. It leaves you open, as a bubble of self-importance to be pricked. Last month, I shared my bile at the anthems of the Premier League, of UEFA, and FIFA, those pieces of music, equal parts the soundtrack of an evil empire and the smooth jazz sounds of Kenny G, for their ubiquity at the start of matches, and for what they said about professional football’s current feelings of self-importance.
This isn’t, however, the only manifestation of this very phenomenon. Indeed, it isn’t even the only manifestation that takes place before kick-off. Once upon a time, pre-match rituals were somewhat looser than they are today. Players, mostly wearing ill-fitting tracksuit tops and with balls that seemed to have been recovered from railway sidings under their arms, would run out on to the pitch one team at a time. Sometimes there would be a wave to the crowd. Occasionally, there would be footballs kicked into the crowd as gifts to be fought over. The main event, we could easily rationalise to ourselves, was to follow. With its anthems, its handshakes for fair play – because that’s worked out just brilliantly, hasn’t it? – the event is now the event. Being at the football is more important than the football itself. And nowhere is this seen more sharply than in the very existence of The Premier League Plinth.
Establishing the whereabouts of the match ball used to be one of the smaller joys of the pre-match ritual. Usually, the referees would emerge from their broom cupboard of a changing room with it under their arms, but every once in a while all concerned would have one of those moments when everybody assumes that everybody else was carrying it, leaving the referee standing in the middle of the pitch, wondering if or when he was going to ever be supplied with the one thing that he needed in order to blow his whistle to mark the start of the game.
In the modern era, however, all traces of human fallibility at football matches must be erased. At the start of last season, the Premier League introduced a plinth, to be situated near the entrance from the players’ tunnel, from which the ball should be plucked by the referee as the players march out onto the pitch. Like a crown prior to a royal coronation, this is the football as a fetish item, not to be handled until the time is right. In this case, the Premier League is following FIFA’s lead. Plinths were introduced for match balls for the 2010 World Cup finals, and it might be argued that their significance was lost amongst the high excitement of France’s implosion at that tournament and England’s goalless draw with Algeria. In 2013, however, they were introduced by the Premier League as well. So now, the referee has to remember to pick the ball up as he passes it on his way to the remainder of the steadily growing number of pre-match rituals that he has to remember.
Seriously, though, is there anything that could ever better sum up the absolute self-importance of modern football than the idea of putting the match ball, which will spend the next hour and a half being kicked around, being placed on an actual plinth before the start of the match. What is the reasoning behind this? Is the Premier League worried that referees might forget to take one out onto the pitch with them? Are they concerned that, if they’re not monitoring the whereabouts of the ball closely from the off, some nefarious terrorist or other might replace it with a bomb? Or might it just be possible that a competition the trophy for which features not one, but two lions wearing crowns, might be collapsing under the weight of its own hubris to such an extent that it’s incapable of recognising irony any more? Give it five years, and the damn thing will be suspended in thin air, spinning slowly and with a spotlight on it as the referee types a secret code into a computer to allow him access to it.
So, this is where we are, in terms of the condition of football in the second decade of the twenty-first century. This isn’t a game any more. It doesn’t really even constitute a sporting event. The Premier League inhabits its own planet these days, and its orbit is moving further and further away from the rest of the game. Having a plinth to collect the match ball from before the start of each fixture is just one manifestation of this. But it is a highly visible one, perhaps at the moment the most visible of all. It represents the pomposity of the modern game, the sense of self-importance that could do with a little deflating. I’m in two minds over whether it goes as far as fetishising the actual object that is a football in itself. That feels, no matter how much I might wish it to be true, just a little too much of a stretch to be true.
There are few merchandising opportunities for a plinth. This is unlikely to end up for sale in Sports Direct at any point in the near future. It is, therefore, entirely reasonable to wonder what its exact purpose is, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is little more than a moment of self-aggrandisement, whether deliberate or unintentional, on the part of the Premier League. But if the last couple of years have seen a large number of people either accidentally or deliberately revealing their id to the entire world, then this, surely as much as anything else, represents the id of the Premier League. It’s not the biggest issue in world football, which is why I can only describe it as a “pet peeve”, but it symbolises a wider body of changes to the game, far from all of which feel particularly healthy.