In the coming weeks, the eyes of the world, at least the football world, will turn to the Republic of South Africa. The World Cup is not only a huge sport event but also a gigantic organisational and business effort. Modern football is a very successful money making machine, controlled mainly by commercial television networks and corporations. Not all football fans welcome this situation.
One month ago, 11 million football enthusiasts had their grand holiday. That is the estimated number of FC St. Pauli fans. Last May, the club earned promotion to the top division in Germany. What is the reason for this small club from the Hamburg red-light district being so popular, without ever winning any national championship or cup?
The club is supported by fans from alternative circles. When going to a St. Pauli match, one is likely to see leftist symbols and anti-racist banners, as well as hear loud and spontaneous roars of support and the AC/DC song “Hell's Bells” accompanying the team as it enters the field. There are no advertisements for sexist magazines on the boards along the edges of the pitch. The fans, who are the reason the club exists, did not allow for them to appear. They raised funds and organised concerts by counter-cultural bands to save St. Pauli when the team was facing bankruptcy. Today, they make sure the club does not detach itself from the local circles to become a profit-centered industry. The fans of the “Pirates” are at the frontier of the European “Against Modern Football” movement which opposes the radical increase in ticket prices, the dictates of the pay-per-view TV networks and the oppressive safety regulations aimed at fans who actively support their team from the bleachers.
The supporters of Austria Salzburg witnessed the consequences of commercialised football when their club was taken over five years ago by the Red Bull concern.
Founded in 1933, the Salzburg club is one of the most titled teams in the history of Austrian football. When in 2005 it was bought by the energy drink producers, the fans of the “Violet-Whites” were full of optimism and hope. They were soon disillusioned. The name of the club was changed from Austria to Red Bull. The emblem, relating to the team's decades-old tradition, was simply replaced with the company's logo.
The new owner decided to leave the tradition of Austria Salzburg behind and announced that Red Bull Salzburg is a brand new team. Dressing the goalkeeper in violet socks was meant as a way of silencing the protesting fans. That was supposed to be the only reference to the team's history. The fans eventually ceased their negotiations with the corporation and founded their own Austria Salzburg. The team entered the 7th League. More than two thousand fans of this real Austria team attend its matches and actively support it. There is also an ongoing “Eine Heimat fur die Austria” campaign, with the fans raising funds for a stadium for their team.
Poland also has its own example of the corporate market model being introduced in a football club. A few years ago, the media group ITI took over the Warsaw team Legia. Football fans, commentators and the players themselves were overjoyed with the atmosphere of the matches at ?azienkowska Street. Loud support, effective organisation and safety encouraged the national team to play at Warsaw's Polish Army Stadium. Today, however, the bleachers are empty and silent, due to the club employing an anti-hooligan policy and thus antagonising its fans.
Still, it seems that fighting hooliganism is not the issue here. It is all about creating a new audience. The corporate Legia's brand new stadium, built using public funds, is meant to be a venue of entertainment for the new middle class. This is where the high ticket prices come into play. The average citizen cannot afford them. This also explains the unusual advertising campaigns directed towards an audience never interested in football prior to the new policy. The stadium is to become a multiplex structure and the fans are to be replaced by wealthy customers who are the best target for advertisers and can spend more money during a match (for consumption and original—thus expensive—gadgets) than the boys from block neighbourhoods. Reduced tickets for young people are being replaced with family tickets. Children are far more likely to make their parents spend money at the stadium. What is more, the owners of Legia openly declare that fans should not influence the policy of the club as it is the exclusive right of the people in charge. The fan is to be a customer who pays for their service.
Is there a chance for this strategy to become successful in Poland? It seems very unlikely.
“The idea of changing the audience, promoted by the Ekstraklasa and part of the media and performed under the veil of fighting the often imagined stadium hooliganism, has no real chance of success in Poland. Firstly, we still do not have a so-called new middle class, typical of the age of globalisation, which would have the financial means, the free time and the interest in football, required to regularly attend the stadiums. Also, the level of Polish football will disable it from competing with the sport's financial giants, just like Polish millionaires still remain the poor relatives of Abramowicz or Berlusconi,” says Rafa? Chwedoruk, Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Warsaw, football expert and Legia supporter.
“The audience at the Polish stadiums is socially and financially diverse and on a general level remains without an alternative. The essence of attending league matches is faithfulness, not fad, as it is typical for volleyball or basketball,” he adds, also pointing at the fact that clubs such as Lech Pozna? or Górnik Zabrze, who cooperate with their supporters and do not introduce prohibitive ticket prices, have the highest attendance in Poland.
It is best to turn to England, the homeland of football, to see the mechanisms behind audience exchange at the stadiums and the commercialisation of football, along with their consequences.
“The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it's the way I see football and the way I see life.” These words come from the legendary manager Billy Shankly, the man behind the mighty Liverpool of the '60s and '70s. This famous coach always stressed his working class origins claiming that it was his duty to provide entertainment for workers. His death in 1981 was honoured with a moment of silence at the national Labour Party conference.
“Football in England (and even more so Scotland) is far more than just a leisure activity. Football has a central significance in working class culture in Britain,” says Gavin Rae, Ph.D., sociologist at the Ko?minski University in Warsaw and Aston Villa fan. He adds: “The ritual of attending a match, meeting friends, having a drink before, etc. is one of the longest and most popular cultural activities in Britain. It is also one of the main topics of conversation, helps to define different subgroups in society and perhaps, as society has become more secular, has taken on a religious meaning: the regular attending of a match, the feeling of togetherness, singing.”
Leon Trotsky himself was aware of the phenomenon of football popularity among workers when he wrote: “The revolution will inevitably awaken in the British working class the deepest passions which have been diverted along artificial channels with the aid of football.”
In Poland, the story is a bit different. “Polish football evolved just like anywhere else, from an elitist leisure activity for middle class young people to the most plebeian and mass sport it became after the Second World War. However, its role in Poland was not as important as in other countries, mostly due to the belated industrialisation, which served as a natural background for the growth of football, and the post-szlachta-intelligentsia cultural ethos, which distanced itself from anything that bore the markings of common people. This does not mean that no intellectuals or social elites were involved in football. Some of the pre-war clubs earned themselves a somewhat unwarranted reputation of “intelligentsia” or “bourgeoisie” clubs. It is worth remembering though, that the attendance at the Polish Ekstraklasa matches in the Second Polish Republic was, when compared to other countries, quite meagre,” explains Rafa? Chwedoruk.
Near the end of the 20th century, due to commercialisation, British football began to loosen its bonds with working class culture.
Football in England changed dramatically from around 1992 when the Premier League was formed. Before then, the clubs at the top subsidised the lower league teams and some form of cohesion in the sport was kept. Money was not as important in the game. This meant that although for example Liverpool dominated the English league in the '70s and '80s it was possible for smaller teams to challenge. I remember in the '70s and 80s teams like Derby and Forest won the championship alongside Villa and Everton and teams like QPR, Ipswich and Southampton were able to get second place,” reminisces Gavin Rae.
The development of the SKY pay TV network injected a huge amount of money into the English League, to be collected mostly by only a number of clubs. Football became a source of media entertainment with celebrities (such as Beckham) receiving large pay-checks. A huge gap has also developed between the few richest clubs who could afford buying the best players, and the remaining, less fortunate teams. This resulted in the matches simply becoming boring to a lot of the fans. One can easily pick the teams which will play in the championship finals out of the three or four possible contestants, before the season even begins.
A large part of the Premier League clubs has been taken over by millionaires outside of the British Isles (Arabian sheikhs, Russian oligarchs or the American business clans), who very often tend to treat their acquisitions instrumentally. That is why the supporters of Manchester United, one of the wealthiest clubs in the world, are actively protesting against Malcolm Glazer, the current owner of the “Red Devils”, who put them in debt. The fans want Glazer out so that a more democratic method of governing the club, one which takes the opinions of supporters into account, is possible. One such opinion is that ticket prices are too high and serve as a barrier for many fans from the working class. Along with a change in the audience, the English stadiums have lost a lot of their once famous atmosphere.
A year ago, the German TV channel WDR broadcast a programme about two English football fans who preferred to fly abroad to an FC St. Pauli match rather than attend a league match in their own country. Melvyn Dearlove and his son, Jack, state that the journey costs them less than driving to a much closer London and buying a ticket for a Premier League match. They also notice that England no longer has the atmosphere one can feel at Bundesliga matches, especially when the Hamburg “Pirates” are playing. Melvyn knows this since not long ago he was working as a youth team coach in the famous Liverpool and could see the changes taking place in British football from up close.
“I know some people who have stopped going to Premier League matches. They may watch it on television but have started going to lower league football matches instead, because of the cost and because they believe the atmosphere is better. At Premier League grounds, with more middle class supporters who want to be treated as customers, the atmosphere can sometimes be poor,” confirms Gavin Rae.
Supporters all over the continent, regardless of their political affiliations, are leading a campaign against high ticket prices, the omnipotence of commercial TV stations, repressive stadium regulations (such as the one forcing supporters to sit during the match) and the destruction of bonds between clubs and local circles. Banners with “Against modern football”, “No al calcio moderno” or “Contro el futbol negocio” written on them are becoming increasingly common at football venues.
“The whole of Europe is a battleground for the form and social content of football stadiums, with Poland surprisingly becoming one of the pioneers. The battle is for stadiums being available to everybody, thus it is all about ticket prices. But the combatants are at the same time concerned with elementary civic rights, with the question whether the few civic rights that are left for supporters at stadiums will be eradicated by the industry under the veil of fighting hooliganism, when in fact it aims at depriving the fans of the option to voice their opinion publicly on political or social matters, or simply criticise the owners of the club. Europe is now full of fan protests in various forms, seemingly different but actually regarding the same two aforementioned issues. Salzburg, Warsaw and Manchester are the various manifestations of those problems. The conflicts between fans and clubs are also showing up in European institutions in the form of supporter lobbying,” says Rafa? Chwedoruk.
The above-mentioned Bill Shankly stated once that football is not a matter of life and death – it is far more important. Today, the battle is on regarding whether football will become completely bereft of its unique aura and transformed by corporations into yet another commodity on the consumer market, furthermore one available only for the rich.
A few decades ago, after witnessing Liverpool's victory in a football match, one of the supporters threw a club scarf at Shankly. A policeman guarding the stadium grabbed it and threw it back. Shankly's immediate response was to address the officer: “Don't do that, this might be someone's life.” Today, the great industry serves as the policeman.