I Reluctantly Declare The 2019/20 Football Season… Open
The pre-season used to be a time of optimism for supporters. For a couple of months, we could luxuriate in a state of suspended reality, blessedly removed for the the myriad ways in which our football clubs could let us down. Whole days would pass by with no mention of them – sometimes even the game itself – in the national press, until the pre-season previews started rolling out a few days before the start of the new season. Simpler times and, with the benefit of reflection upon a few days during which other sports have excited millions, arguably better days.
The internet has, of course, rendered the entire concept of ever getting a break from anything obsolete. The news cycle is now relentless, with every possible transfer talked up as though it’s the latest episode in a long-running soap opera, a role that the game itself appears more than happy to play in its desperation to stay in the public eye. And for a game so against encroachment that it now issues referees with cans of shaving foam to ensure that players are the correct distance back for free-kicks, the game itself has found no issue with encroaching earlier and earlier into the summer, with pre-season friendlies now routinely scheduled to start from the beginning of July and the global brands already on their global merchandising tours.
The squeeze doesn’t only come in one direction, either. The UEFA Champions League final was played at the start of June, just a few days before the start of a handful of international confederation tournaments including, somewhat inexplicably, the final stages of the Nations League, whilst the new season’s Champions League qualifiers started on the 25th June, barely three weeks after the previous season’s final. Such is the nature of this squeeze that the very notion of a “close season” feels broadly redundant, and even on those rare occasions when there are no matches being played of any description, there’s always the perpetual churn of transfer “news”, from speculation that ranges from “idle” to “completely unfounded” through to unnecessarily forensic analysis of every new signing made.
Association football, the biggest attention-seeker of all sports, now demands that we look at it for the entirety of the year. Whether through social media, smartphone notifications, television news reports or newspaper websites, there is no time for so much as a few days off any more. And it’s not only that. Association football demands that we all take it deathly seriously, all the time. The humour in the game has been boiled down to a dense core of schadenfreude and spittle-inflected mockery, with no place for reactions that aren’t as extreme as our vocabulary allows. To this end, it’s really little more than a reflection of the world in which we live, a world in which not being that bothered is no longer an option, in which all that matters is winning and rubbing the faces of others in the dirt.
Last weekend, of course, saw the collision of three different significant sporting events in this country, none of which were football, with the British Grand Prix, the Wimbledon finals and the final of the Cricket World Cup all taking place over the course of two days. All three were subtly different in their tone and narrative, of course. The motor racing ended with Lewis Hamilton becoming the first person to win the British Grand Prix six times. The tennis saw Simona Halep shock Serena Williams in the women’s final with a convincing win on Saturday, whilst on Sunday the men’s final saw two old stagers play out a match that neither really deserved to lose before Novak Djokovic finally defeated Roger Federer in the first men’s final to be decided by a tie-break.
And then there was the cricket. Now, we all know that fans of other sports crowing about how superior they are to those commoners and their soccer should be fired from a cannon into the sun, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t things that we can learn about how to actually enjoy watching the final of a major sporting event. Winning it helps, of course (even if it required several ladles of good fortune to get England over the line), but something about the attitude of all involved – the players, the broadcasters, the die-hard supporters for whom this match may have been considered the most important of their lives – was refreshingly different to the noxious gas that seems to settle over any football match of consequence.
The beaten New Zealand team were rightly lauded for their herculean effort, and England’s eventual win was acknowledged to have been fortuitous without anybody seeking to demean their achievement of having won the trophy in the first place. It was enjoyable, and it felt as though it would have been equally so had New Zealand edged the match rather than England, whose celebrations could hardly be said to have been curtailed by the narrowness of the win. It mattered in that way that sport matters, but there little sense that This Is Important, in that chest-beating, self-aggrandising, pompous way in which football carries itself almost all the time, nowadays.
This isn’t a matter of fatuous arguments about role-models or whatever (cf on the muddiness of that particular debate: Ben Stokes), more a reflection upon the fact that, despite many stomach-knotting moments throughout the match, the Cricket World Cup final was enjoyable. And it can often feel as though a lot of people who profess to be “supporters” don’t even seem to like the game itself very much, these days. A proportion of those people don’t even seem able to cope when their team isn’t winning every week, all of which makes you wonder whether they’ve been making the right choices with regard to their leisure time these last few years.
For a good number of us, though, football is already in the last chance saloon, albeit for entirely different reasons. Some (perhaps many) of us are being priced out of going to live matches or even holding the television subscriptions required to stay in touch from home. Others see the way in which the game seems to be heading – a playground of the ultra-rich in which the rest of us only “matter” as background context for their hobby-horsing, sports-washing and money-grabbing – and are finding it increasingly difficult to level very much about the game with their own moral compasses. Yet more are sick and tired of being treated as little more than open purses or wallets, to be rinsed every couple of weeks and otherwise considered little more than a vocal interloper in the love affair between the professional game and pay TV.
Yet here we are. Like junkies outside the methadone clinic an hour before its doors unlock, we’re huddled outside waiting for our fix, a cold sweat starting to form on our collective brow as withdrawal turns slowly to cold turkey, whether we like it or not. Professional Football knows about the depth of this addiction. That knowledge is the basis of the way in which it treats its customers. Professional Football can charge as much as it likes for tickets because we’ll buy them anyway. It can schedule kick-offs for televised matches to inconvenient times for fans because we will bust an arm and a leg to get there anyway. It can play a major cup final in wholly unsuitable cities on the other side of the continent to both competing teams because these occasions are considerably more about the sponsors and corporate partners than they could ever be about the great unwashed. Professional Football routinely takes our loyalty, sticks the name of a gambling company that none of us even heard of on it, and sells it back to us for as much as it thinks it can get away with. And we let this happen. Welcome to the new football season. Like the rest of the world at the moment, it’s going to stink.