Friday, 8 February 2008

Home in Hong Kong

Tomorrow, on Saturday 9th February, Chertsey Town will entertain Bedfont Green in a Combined Counties Football League game. Camberley Town travel to Raynes Park Vale. For Dartford it's a trip to AFC Sudbury whilst Eastbourne Borough welcome Dorchester Town.

Not particularly newsworthy, you might think. Important games for those non-league clubs, teams that I have enjoyed watching on this FA Cup run. But on a day when the big football news is a million miles away from the non-league scene, I felt those fixtures were worthy of mention. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, the unavoidable football news in all the papers today is the talk of proposals for Premier League games to be played in various cities around the world. The globalisation of football. The story is on the back page of every major paper, and even on the front page of some.

And I really can't quite grasp the enormity of what I have been reading. The story first broke yesterday with a statement from the Premier League that they are to investigate the possibility of certain English games being played in venues in America, Asia, Africa and Oceania with major cities bidding for the right to host games. What's more, the matches will be played out between top flight clubs, they will be additional league fixtures - an extra ten games - and league points will be up for grabs. Billed as an "international round", these will played in January each year and fixtures will be drawn at random. So Arsenal may have to play Manchester United in three league matches in one season, whilst Chelsea get to play Derby County three times.

The reaction has been strong (to say the least) and the idea is already being denounced by players, managers, fans and press alike. At the root of the proposals, not unsurprisingly, is money. The opportunity for the Premier League (not the FA) to capitalise on the phenomenal marketability of our beloved game around the world. And it has been coming for some time; more and more foreign owners have invested in our game; club tours to America and Asia have become the norm; merchandise sales in countries such as Korea and Japan far outweigh sales in England. The Premier League want to be in on the TV rights that will come with this globalisation deal, something that will be worth millions.

Money talks.

I heard Gareth Southgate this morning say "this will not happen". Harry Redknapp said "it will happen eventually, it has been coming for some time". I heard West Ham fans explain that, once again, the real supporters are being priced out of the game. That "the clubs don't care about the fans". Understandable views.

That is not all. Will clubs really want to drag their players halfway around the world in January? Will the national game - the FA - support an idea that is going to add to the number of games that players will play in a single season at a time when there is a call for a reduction in the number of games?

My own view? Well, that has lurched from utter disbelief, through mild shock and on to thinking of the implications of this idea, and therefore implied acceptance that yes, this could actually happen. In football terms, this is massive news, and it will stay on the back pages for a long, long time. And you will read and listen to the whole gambit of reaction to it over the next few weeks and probably longer. Who can say whether it really will come to fruition or not? Certainly not me. But for what it is worth, I can't think of a single good reason for doing this.

But if it does happen it will, in my humble opinion, be a sad day for football in our country. Football will become divorced from our heritage. The history will be severed from the very heart of the game. It is this close relationship between present and past, the team of today and the club of yesteryear, that I have seen to be so important for clubs and fans in the course of doing this FA Cup Road to Wembley. It means so much to clubs, that sense of heritage which brings with it a sense of belonging for supporters.

But it is more than that; it is the sense of place that is paramount in the game. Fans always go back to their club, a physical location, the ground, that piece of turf in their neighbourhood. Owners come and go. Players come and go. Even some fans do. But the one thing that remains the same, with the exception of the occasionally rare ground move, is the location. The village, the town, the city. The sense of place is what matters.

And if football really does go global, what will happen? Many years down the line, will we end up with a closed league of four, six or eight clubs that will only ever play on foreign soils? Will we no longer see the top four teams play in our own country? Watching Arsenal play in Beijing will, for the majority, be as practically impossible as it is for most of us to watch Barcelona, Real Madrid or Boca Juniors. Being able to afford the match ticket for a game in North London is difficult for many as it is. The elite teams will disappear out of range; out of pocket and, quite possibly, out of mind.

Who knows? Maybe a new "top four" will grow in the place vacated by the globetrotters. Like a new shoot growing from a scythed tree, new names will emerge to fill the void. Located still within our shores, the likes of Everton, Aston Villa, Tottenham and Blackburn will become the big English clubs. For many, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, with their new bases in Tokyo, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Los Angeles will become distanced both physically and financially. They will be playing with themselves.

There is some precedent, albeit on a smaller scale. It has already happened with Wimbledon; uprooted and carted off to Milton Keynes, the loss of that sense of place was just too much for many fans to bear and AFC Wimbledon was born out of the withered stump of the old club. And in protest of the foreign ownership buying into the brand that is Manchester United, FC United came into being.

So whilst you are reading all about these plans for globalisation of our game, and the expert judgements that will inevitably come to pass, bear in mind it will only affect the top few clubs in our game. The elite. Meanwhile, the real football continues. The games at Chertsey Town, Camberley Town, Dartford and Eastbourne Borough will still be played out. The smaller clubs will still strive for greater things; they will still have their FA Cup dreams and yearn for their moments in the spotlight. They will still want to push on up through the league pyramid and on to greater things.

But how far will they now want to go. To league football? Undoubtedly. To the Premier League? Probably, yes.

But to Beijing? Or to a home in Hong Kong?

You tell me.


Dave said...

"Meanwhile, the real football continues."

Does it? I was watching Sky Sports News today and the news ticker went from a bit about the Premiership plans, and how it will has the potential to bring over £100m to the national game, to this:

"Bournemouth go into administration and are deducted 10 points."

The FA are the biggest bunch of spineless wankers I've ever known. I wish someone would speak up.

Danny said...

I heard somewhere that the top 5 will be seeded, so United wouldn't be able to play Arsenal etc...

This will harm grass roots/lower league football. As has the ridiculous TV money. As the gap widens the Premiership becomes a monopoly.

Matthew said...

Well I’ll still support West Ham from my couch and Dartford FC on the standing terraces as unfortunately I’m already priced out of my boy hood team West Ham, but luckily Dartford FC more than satisfies my addiction with watching football live, local, amongst the crowd, standing and cheering and supporting players who play for the joy of the game not just the money. If they do live the dream and jump up 9 leagues to the premiership then I’ll have to watch them from the couch and go see the local pub team!!!
At least I have 9 years yet ;)