Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Fouled! How Football Hijacked Our Culture: Tens of Millions of People in Britain Have No Interest at All in Football. So, amid Fresh Allegations about Bungs, International Corporate Crime and Sexual Excess, Should We Call Time on Our Obsession with the Once Beautiful Game?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Fouled! How Football Hijacked Our Culture: Tens of Millions of People in Britain Have No Interest at All in Football. So, amid Fresh Allegations about Bungs, International Corporate Crime and Sexual Excess, Should We Call Time on Our Obsession with the Once Beautiful Game?

Article excerpt

Another month, another football scandal. It said something about the nation that a TV programme revealing little more than we knew already--that there's corruption in football--made headline news the following day. After all the hype, the content of Panorama's bung expose seemed thin fare. But then, football no longer has to justify its place after the pips. Even in the dead two months after the World Cup, stories such as Ashley Cole's transfer and book serialisation, Sven's pay-off and the Italian match-fixing scandal dominated the public consciousness. There is an assumption, tacitly accepted, that these stories are as significant a national concern as the war in Iraq or the state of the NHS. We live in an age that screams from every billboard that football matters.

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Is it true? No one seems to know, or even care to question it. There are football research institutes all over the country, but, on contacting them, I learn that none seems to be investigating the possibility that the game's vaunted position in our everyday culture is wildly out of proportion with levels of genuine interest. The UK home viewing figures

for England's last World Cup knockout match were 16 million. Even if you agree with the wild guesstimates that suggest the actual number of viewers was 30 million--and this is publicity-led, remember--that still leaves more than half the country not watching. There are tens of millions of people in Britain who have no interest in the game.

Of course, that doesn't matter, because the money has spoken. The Premier League recently became the most highly valued sports league in the world, thanks to a [pounds sterling]2.5bn deal for Premiership TV rights. Barclays has re-signed as the tournament's title sponsor for [pounds sterling]21.9m per year over three years (to demonstrate how quickly the value of football has grown: in 1993, Carling got the gig for [pounds sterling]3m). Newspapers have had their say, too. "The general view of sports editors is that football is 50 per cent of the pages and everything else is 50 per cent," says the Observer's sports editor, Brian Oliver. "That's what they think is a true reflection of what readers want."

Everyone agrees that the game's explosion owes a huge debt to the advent of all-seater stadiums, and the corresponding drop in violence. The end of standing terraces did for football what the end of the Blitz did for London. Oliver believes it also owes a big thank you to Paul Gascoigne, and that it was England's emotional World Cup exit from the Italia '90 semifinals "wot won it for football". "Before 1990 there was no such thing as a sports supplement," says Oliver. "Gazza crying was worth hundreds of millions of pounds for football."

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Dr Hilary Matheson, a lecturer at the University of Wales who specialises in the media representation of sport, has discovered that, since 1984, football coverage in newspapers has increased by up to 45 per cent, with a corresponding decrease in the amount of coverage for all other sports. "With the rise in the number of games shown on TV," she says, "the newsprint media have needed to focus on other aspects of the game, which has resulted in sports journalists writing about players' lives, contracts and other related topics which eight or so years ago would not have taken on the same level of importance." No wonder the sports pages alone are not enough for Rupert Murdoch's titles, which carry special pull-out supplements, from the Sun's Supergoals to The Game in the Times.

Anglers outnumber soccer fans

And all this despite football attendances actually going down. Soccer may be invading every part of our lives, but gates in the top four leagues have dropped steadily over the past four years. Only about 700,000 people actually pay to see a team play each weekend. Anglers outnumber them six to one. If our fishing fans were equally well represented in the media, you'd be reading about very different kinds of tackle. …

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