‘Football is recession-proof’: an interview with Simon Kuper

(This is an interview I wrote for Newturn Magazine, for which I am Politics Editor. You can read the print version here)

Simon Kuper is a columnist for the Financial Times. Here, he talks to Josh White about Michel Platini, football’s global appeal and why football finances are perfectly sustainable.

At the end of the day, football is the most popular sport in the world. Two of the tritest clichés associated with the game. The soundbite that rings in a dozen managers’ post-match interviews every Saturday; the reminder, drilled out of TV sets and newspaper headlines at the frequency of every major cup final, that We’ve Never Had It So Good.  But football truly is a cultural, economic and global phenomenon. A cumulative twenty-five billion viewers followed the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. The Premier League is broadcast to over six hundred million people in two hundred countries worldwide.

But the story is quite different in the boardrooms of some football clubs. Darlington and Wrexham are two of the latest names in British football to be staring at financial ruin. Much has been said about the financial sustainability of football and many are considering a crisis in lower league football funding. For example, David Conn of The Guardian wrote of Darlington that ‘the Darlington Arena is a rattling monument to the reckless buying, selling and mismanagement of historic football clubs.’ Simon Kuper, football anthropologist and sports columnist for the Financial Times disagrees. ‘I don’t think there’s a crisis,’ he says. In an interview from his Paris home in January, the co-author of Soccernomics is steadfast. ‘There’s an extent to which some [lower league] clubs are too small to fail.’ It simply is not the case, he reckons, that the debt crisis in football is unmanageable or a cause for a alarm. Sustainability is plausible and likely. Most clubs, he says, are ‘immortal’. ‘[It’s] incredibly rare that they disappear.’ The club is routinely protected from the collapse of its sister business. Pointing to Aldershot in 1992, he remarks that ‘it was the company that failed, not the club.’

Kuper is something of a dove to the hawks of Conn and others in the British press (especially) who moralise mawkishly at the bedside of English football. Despite the global financial crisis, there is no indication that fans are turning away from football. Kuper showed exactly this in 1994’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year Football Against The Enemy, in which he documented the fans’ unique expressions of their cultural, national and social identities via the game. The development of football is such that we are seeing more anthropologies, sociologies and histories of the fans that make up the game – studies and writers that remain shy of club loyalties. (Kuper does not tell me which football team he supports.) And especially at the moment, the demand for football is still high, even in the lower leagues. ‘Thirty million people went to league football matches in 2008, at the height of the recession. At about £10, watching football in a recession is a cheap means of entertainment.’ Football, he says, is ‘recession-proof’.

So are clubs taking for granted the permanent revenue stream from fans? The Glazers at Manchester United introduced a compulsory purchase of cup tickets for season-ticket holders. ‘United get a huge additional grant [from this],’ Kuper says, ‘but British football is incredibly durable’. Match day revenue accounts for only around one third of a club’s annual income, and there are empty seats in Blackburn and Wigan, he says, ‘because they are poorer areas’. ‘Arsenal have a massive match day revenue, which makes up half of their income because they are in London and because of who they can attract.’ And, on top of this, fans are not building real opposition to big finance in the Premier League. ‘However much debt you have, your club will always survive. Fans always want rich businessmen to invest. The more you pay [in wages], the better players you get.’ The attraction of the Premier League to foreign investors is not subsiding. ‘It’s tempting to want to say something apocalyptic, but football is a successful product with enduring brands.’

The Premier League cannot be matched financially. For the most ambitious players, ‘after Real Madrid and Barcelona, it’s the Premier League. It doesn’t even need to be the most successful league in the world. There is always a global support base, always enough to go around.’ But what about when clubs are not performing on the pitch? Does that not affect their global revenue? ‘Liverpool aren’t performing on the pitch,’ he says, sharply. ‘They’ve been building their brand around the world for years. The big clubs of the 60s are largely the big clubs [and global brands] of today.’ With growing audience across the world, it may be the case that ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet’ when it comes to the spread of the Premier League brand. (Ratings for Premier League matches on American television networks are breaking records, he reminds me. Fox will even be showing a Premier League game directly before the Superbowl this year.)

We must separate, Kuper says, the moral critique of football spending from the business critique. This normative proscription against the ills of debt and deficit are zipped around in a recession but UEFA’s financial fair play rules (UEFA decrees on clubs spending only from within their income and means) aim, surely, at protecting the game from the harsh extremes of capitalism, don’t they? No, he says. The failings of the rule on club debt are twofold. ‘Firstly, what problem is it meant to solve? Clubs don’t go bankrupt. Secondly, it’s a nightmare to enforce. There’s nothing to stop clubs keeping their spending off the books.’ So then how can UEFA compel clubs to act? ‘Real Madrid, Manchester City, AC Milan are examples of strong clubs versus weak regulators.’ So a ban from the Champions League is inconceivable? ‘The rules help traditional clubs. [Michel] Platini’s is a moral initiative. He doesn’t like foreigners to come and spend money on football.’ The problem with the rules, he says, is that ‘like Valencia, once you can’t spend anymore, you can’t compete.’ It sounds like a cynical attempt by Platini and UEFA to keep the top clubs powerful and the smaller clubs dutiful. ‘It’s not what he [Platini] intended,’ Kuper says, ‘but it’s the sausage that came out of the grinder.’

Platini, Sepp Blatter et al are wrong to decry the game as immoral and fatally weakened by greedy financiers. If Kuper is right, there is no indication that we will soon see any drop in the popularity of the sport. Football is so enduring and permanent, so culturally unique and nonpareil, that the question of sustainability seems like exactly the kind of cliché that Kuper the contrarian relishes debunking. Football – the sensation – could survive the recession unscratched.

Ra Ra Ra Rafa Benitez!

I make no apologies for being a massive Rafa Benitez fan. As a Liverpool supporter, his legacy will be the 2006 Cup Final, the punishing defeats of United and Real Madrid last year, the purchases of Torres, Mascherano, Agger, Reina, Benayoun, Kuyt and Alonso, the Gerrard-Torres partnership, the re-establishment of Liverpool as a European force and, of course, Istanbul. His detractors will point to his transfer policy, with the endless, endless ‘net spend’ arguments, his supposedly poor man-management, his tactics and substitutions, his brittle demeanour and the ultimate failure to bring the League title back to Liverpool for the first time in over twenty years. After six years of the Rafalution, his time, it seems, is up.

 

It makes sense to split the Rafa era in two stages, pre- and post-2007, the beginning of the Gillett and Hicks fuckfest. Liverpool in 2007, at the end of Rafa’s third season, finished 3rd, reached the quarter-final of the Carling Cup and a second Champions League final in three years. But as Inzaghi rounded Reina for Milan’s second goal in Athens, Liverpool’s need for new investment became obvious; it was one thing to compete at this level by being organised, disciplined and spirited, but it was quite another to penetrate the top tier of English and European football and one that Liverpool could not do without new investment in quality players. So David Moores, pocketing an extra few million, sold the club down the river to Gillett and Hicks whose promises of transfer investment, of a new stadium, of not dropping the debt used to buy the club onto the club itself, were all broken.

 

And now the club really does stand on the brink. From the financial security of 2007 to the economic meltdown of 2010, the optimism around the club has vanished and the worst summer in the history of the most successful club in British football is about to begin. 2010 was always going to be a year of rebuilding for Liverpool, especially when it was clear in January that the season was effectively over and that Gillett and Hicks were planning to sell the club. But at the beginning of the summer, the worst case scenario for Liverpool fans seems all too real: losing Rafa, losing Gerrard, losing Torres, losing Mascherano and Benayoun and no new investment in the club. For it is surely a spiral. Whether Rafa had the backing of senior players is now irrelevant. That the club will likely replace him with O’Neill, Hodgson or Dalglish smacks of a lack of ambition for a club who have sacked a La Liga and Champions League-winning manager. Of course, where are the funds to appoint a Hiddink, a Del Bosque or a Van Gaal? Dalglish may be an acceptable interim manager, but will Gerrard, Torres and co. hang around the club to wait for a new manager or for new investment? Can you blame them for moving on? With the loss of Rafa and the big players, as well as a lack of Champions League football next season, the likelihood of investment also seems incredible. Even with the sale of our top assets, Gillett and Hicks have made no guarantees that that money would not be used to help repay the debt. Liverpool fans face the very real prospect of the first September of many in mid-table. The end of the summer may very well leave the club with no world-class manager, no world-class players, no top European football, no transfer budget, an enormous debt, the prospect of economic collapse and mid-table obscurity. The future of Liverpool is terrifying.

 

But still, Rafa will be blamed for the situation the club is in, and he is not immune. He has often spent poorly, with failed signings like Andrea Dossena, Fernando Morientes and Alberto Aquilani (who is still unproven) being obvious examples, though his net spend of £111m over five seasons is not entirely wasteful. Compare, for example, the quality of the squad that Benitez inherited in 2004 with United or Chelsea in the same year. The investment was badly needed, especially to sustain the success of a Champions League won in his first season on shrewd tactics and luck. Yes, he has had money available to spend, but often because he has had to sell in order to buy, which directly affects the size of the squad and is a direct reason for the lack of depth. Liverpool, under their current finances, cannot afford the wage bill of a squad the size of Chelsea or Manchester City, so they must sell heaps of players every summer in order to purchase one or two new players. The transfer record would be more accurate if it took into account the fact that the purchases of Ryan Babel and Fernando Torres (for around £32m) in the summer of 2007 were used by debt money loaded back onto the club, which dramatically affected Rafa’s future spending, and were part of a one-off spree by the Americans. It should also take into account that the £20m spent on Robbie Keane was done so without Rafa’s consent or request (though he is still blamed for that failed purchase) and that the purchases of Aquilani and Johnson for around £38m were done by selling Hyypia, Alonso and Arbeloa, all of whom requested a transfer without Rafa having pre-warning, and all of whom were first-choice players whose absence greatly weakened the squad.

 

These arguments over transfer policy don’t cover the other issues Rafa has had to deal with since 2007: the infighting between Gillett and Hicks, the incompetence of Rick Parry, the lack of investment in the youth academy, the financial backdrop, supporter unrest towards the board, the freak injury list in the 2009/10 (where at points in November/December, the squad was short of some nine or ten first-choice players), the unfair media criticism over zonal marking, rotation and the infamous gesture at Blackburn in 2009, and so on. In fact, Rafa’s criticism in the media is a strong reason why many Liverpool fans have stood by him for so long, hoping that he will prove a pro-United media wrong and finally bring the title back to Anfield. But his departure will signal a slide into that worst case scenario. Remove Benitez and you remove the players that stay loyal to his reputation and then the club is in catastrophic trouble. Only time will tell whether Rafa’s sacking will be a pivotal moment for the club, but there’s no doubt this could be the worst period at Liverpool for many, many years.

In defence of John Terry. Sort of.

This is an article I wrote about John Terry a few months ago. For lack of anything better at the moment, I’m plonking it up on here.

After days and days and days and bloody days of tabloid back-slapping, scandal and champagne-cork-poppery, the media finally bumraped Fabio Capello into submission and he sacked John Terry over allegations about his private life earlier this afternoon. Now, let’s get something sorted up top. John Terry is a bellend of unbelievable proportions. He is an end of such bellish quality, a preening twat of such low integrity, class, wit, style, morality, respect, intelligence, human decency and basic fucking awareness that the vast majority of us wouldn’t flick piss at him from our jacuzzis of piss if the whole world was an ocean of piss and he was crackling nicely in flames before us like a chestnut roasting on an open piss. As much as we may dislike him, even before we all knew he had been adulterously popping his 3-inch in the ex-girlfriend of his mate and work colleague, there are much deeper issues that are evidently at play here which are not necessarily Terry’s fault. So I’m going to bloody stick up for him.

First of all, the role of England captain is a bit of a pile of tug, the equivalent of being, say, the person who has to give out the handouts in a class because the lecturer is busy doing other, more important stuff like proper teaching and that. Terry is merely there to repeat what Capello said in the team-talk ten minutes ago in a barks-orders-on-the-field-like-a-good-old-fashioned-English-centre-half-like-Terry-Butcher-with-the-bandage-round-his-head-blah-blah kind of way. In Italy, the captain of the national side is simply the one with the most number of caps for his country and they did pretty bloody well at the last World Cup without bricking a bumload about whether their captain could be like fucking Henry V.

Of actual interest in this scandal is the stuff about privacy laws and Terry’s failure to place a ‘superinjunction’ on the leak of the story. (By the way, what the Christ is a ‘superinjunction’? The alter ego of a regular, newspaper-reporter injunction? ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a…’ No, you’re right, that joke isn’t funny…) Just because being the England captain is a relatively public role does not mean that we automatically have a RIGHT to know everything about John Terry’s private life. There is a fine line – but a big difference – between ensuring the freedom of the press and giving The News of the World the legal licence to effectively pull your bum out and check for evidence of a kinky, spanky sex life. And who the hell gave you the right to think that, just because he is England captain, John Terry represents you? Or that the FA, or Capello, or Chelsea, or FIFA give a shit whether you think he is an adequate role model? It’s sport for goodness sake. He doesn’t have to answer to you. Quit moaning.

Also, nobody seems to have considered that this ‘news’ story boils down to a story about the questionable fidelity of a footballer. (Shock! Horror! Exclamation mark!) Footballers are not really the moral Aristotles of our fractured Britain. In fact, how can any of us relate to the moral realities of being a Premiership footballer? From the age of about 7, you are constantly told how special and talented you are, and how you will play for Manchester United and earn millions and be the most wonderfulest football kickerer in all the universe and that you are more special than any other boy your age, blah blah. Then, you earn more money than you will ever be able to spend at the same age your mates have just discovered handjobs and driving Citroen Saxos into lampposts. And with all the money, all the free time, your dream career sewn up, the pick of attractive women, the jealousy of blokes all over the world and a belief that you are the greatest human that’s walked the Earth since the Lord God Stephen Fry himself, is it really surprising if you have a slightly blurred world perspective? John Terry may well be a quite remarkable tosser, but it’s easy to judge when we cannot say for certain we would have done any differently if we were him.

So as Terry has gone, who do we present to the angry proles as our new captain? Another argument in his defence is the wave upon wave of unrelenting moral vacuums in the England team who might step up as fabulous ‘role models’. At the moment the favourite is Rio Ferdinand (drink driving, three other driving offences, made homophobic comments on live radio, missed a drugs test) over Steven Gerrard (punched a man in a nightclub, stood trial for ABH, persistent and high-profile diving) and Wayne Rooney (cheated on his girlfriend by sleeping with a prostitute, stamped on Ricardo Carvalho’s balls, at least three red cards for violent conduct, persistent and high-profile diving). And these are not three radical examples. Of England’s best lineup – minus Hargreaves who will probably miss the World Cup with injury and excluding good eggs David James, Emile Heskey and Aaron Lennon – the rest of the eleven includes Glen Johnson (alleged theft of a toilet seat from a B&Q, no, honestly…), Ashley Cole (Jesus in a Prius! Where to start? Fined for swearing at a police officer, speeding fines, nearly ‘crashed my car’ at Arsenal only offering £55000 a week instead of £60000, illegally met Chelsea representatives ahead of a move without the permission of Arsenal, also cheated on his wife, Cheryl Cole), Gareth Barry (stripped of Aston Villa captaincy for publicly attacking the club, promises to join Liverpool and switches to Manchester City for more money) and Frank Lampard (filmed a sex-tape with Rio Ferdinand, Kieron Dyer and an unnamed girl in the resort of Ayia Napa in Cyprus in 2000). You see the problem with the ‘role model’ argument?

So let’s not applaud John Terry for being a tricksy little hobbit, but consider the basis on which we want an England captain to be selected. Yes, there are footballers who are not niggling little bumtards like the majority of the England squad, but we need to appreciate the reality of football a little more – John Terry doesn’t deserve to be punished for the ugliness of that reality.

In defence of John Terry. Sort of.

In defence of John Terry. Sort of.

After days and days and days and bloody days of tabloid back-slapping, scandal and champagne-cork-poppery, the media finally bumraped Fabio Capello into submission and he sacked John Terry over allegations about his private life earlier this afternoon. Now, let’s get something sorted up top. John Terry is a bellend of unbelievable proportions. He is an end of such bellish quality, a preening twat of such low integrity, class, wit, style, morality, respect, intelligence, human decency and basic fucking awareness that the vast majority of us wouldn’t flick piss at him from our jacuzzis of piss if the whole world was an ocean of piss and he was crackling nicely in flames before us like a chestnut roasting on an open piss. As much as we may dislike him, even before we all knew he had been adulterously popping his 3-inch in the ex-girlfriend of his mate and work colleague, there are much deeper issues that are evidently at play here which are not necessarily Terry’s fault. So I’m going to bloody stick up for him.

First of all, the role of England captain is a bit of a pile of tug, the equivalent of being, say, the person who has to give out the handouts in a class because the lecturer is busy doing other, more important stuff like proper teaching and that. Terry is merely there to repeat what Capello said in the team-talk ten minutes ago in a barks-orders-on-the-field-like-a-good-old-fashioned-English-centre-half-like-Terry-Butcher-with-the-bandage-round-his-head-blah-blah kind of way. In Italy, the captain of the national side is simply the one with the most number of caps for his country and they did pretty bloody well at the last World Cup without bricking a bumload about whether their captain could be like fucking Henry V.

Of actual interest in this scandal is the stuff about privacy laws and Terry’s failure to place a ‘superinjunction’ on the leak of the story. (By the way, what the Christ is a ‘superinjunction’? The alter ego of a regular, newspaper-reporter injunction? ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a…’ No, you’re right, that joke isn’t funny…) Just because being the England captain is a relatively public role does not mean that we automatically have a RIGHT to know everything about John Terry’s private life. There is a fine line – but a big difference – between ensuring the freedom of the press and giving The News of the World the legal licence to effectively pull your bum out and check for evidence of a kinky, spanky sex life. And who the hell gave you the right to think that, just because he is England captain, John Terry represents you? Or that the FA, or Capello, or Chelsea, or FIFA give a shit whether you think he is an adequate role model? It’s sport for goodness sake. He doesn’t have to answer to you. Quit moaning.

Also, nobody seems to have considered that this ‘news’ story boils down to a story about the questionable fidelity of a footballer. (Shock! Horror! Exclamation mark!) Footballers are not really the moral Aristotles of our fractured Britain. In fact, how can any of us relate to the moral realities of being a Premiership footballer? From the age of about 7, you are constantly told how special and talented you are, and how you will play for Manchester United and earn millions and be the most wonderfulest football kickerer in all the universe and that you are more special than any other boy your age, blah blah. Then, you earn more money than you will ever be able to spend at the same age your mates have just discovered handjobs and driving Citroen Saxos into lampposts. And with all the money, all the free time, your dream career sewn up, the pick of attractive women, the jealousy of blokes all over the world and a belief that you are the greatest human that’s walked the Earth since the Lord God Stephen Fry himself, is it really surprising if you have a slightly blurred world perspective? John Terry may well be a quite remarkable tosser, but it’s easy to judge when we cannot say for certain we would have done any differently if we were him.

So as Terry has gone, who do we present to the angry proles as our new captain? Another argument in his defence is the wave upon wave of unrelenting moral vacuums in the England team who might step up as fabulous ‘role models’. At the moment the favourite is Rio Ferdinand (drink driving, three other driving offences, made homophobic comments on live radio, missed a drugs test) over Steven Gerrard (punched a man in a nightclub, stood trial for ABH, persistent and high-profile diving) and Wayne Rooney (cheated on his girlfriend by sleeping with a prostitute, stamped on Ricardo Carvalho’s balls, at least three red cards for violent conduct, persistent and high-profile diving). And these are not three radical examples. Of England’s best lineup – minus Hargreaves who will probably miss the World Cup with injury and excluding good eggs David James, Emile Heskey and Aaron Lennon – the rest of the eleven includes Glen Johnson (alleged theft of a toilet seat from a B&Q, no, honestly…), Ashley Cole (Jesus in a Prius! Where to start? Fined for swearing at a police officer, speeding fines, nearly ‘crashed my car’ at Arsenal only offering £55000 a week instead of £60000, illegally met Chelsea representatives ahead of a move without the permission of Arsenal, also cheated on his wife, Cheryl Cole), Gareth Barry (stripped of Aston Villa captaincy for publicly attacking the club, promises to join Liverpool and switches to Manchester City for more money) and Frank Lampard (filmed a sex-tape with Rio Ferdinand, Kieron Dyer and an unnamed girl in the resort of Ayia Napa in Cyprus in 2000). You see the problem with the ‘role model’ argument?

So let’s not applaud John Terry for being a tricksy little hobbit, but consider the basis on which we want an England captain to be selected. Yes, there are footballers who are not niggling little bumtards like the majority of the England squad, but we need to appreciate the reality of football a little more – John Terry doesn’t deserve to be punished for the ugliness of that reality.

Making sense of the ahistorical Michael Owen myth

From Phil McBulty’s blog (‘Anfield’s day of destiny’, Friday 23rd October) on the BBC Sport website:

‘If Rooney comes up short, what price the intriguing inclusion of Michael Owen in Manchester United’s line-up against Liverpool at Anfield? The once unthinkable prospect.

Owen admits he is braced for a hostile reception given his perceived treachery in crossing this barrier of hostility – but how about some respect from The Kop for a magnificent servant to Liverpool?

It is not too great an exaggeration to say Owen won the FA Cup for Liverpool on his own against Arsenal in 2001. Is it too much to ask that this should be an abiding memory, not acrimony based on a perfectly logical career decision to join United after it became clear Liverpool boss Benitez did not want him back at Anfield?

Owen was not disloyal to Liverpool. He took a chance he could barely believe when Ferguson came calling.’

Football journalists are paid to know lots of interesting stuff about football and to write lots of interesting stuff about football. The Michael Owen will-he-be-booed-won’t-he-be-booed is an utter non-story and here’s why. The football media seems to have forgotten that Owen signing for Manchester United in 2009 is not the only reason he has his twatty face on the toilet paper at the Kop.

Owen left Liverpool for Real Madrid in 2004 for only £8m, a scandalously tiny amount for a world-class striker, owing to him entering the final year of his contract at Anfield. There is little doubt that had he been sold a year previously, or had he been two or three years away from the end of his contract, his value would be in excess of £20-25m (160 goals from 300 appearances for Liverpool, 24 goals from 26 international appearances is pretty bloody shiny). And not only was this shortfall a direct hit on the Liverpool finances – let’s not forget, these are the days prior to the Gillett and Hicks investment when Liverpool had only twice spent over this amount for a player, Emile Heskey in 2000 and El-Hadji Diouf in 2002 – but it was also a desperate sell in order to get some kind of financial compensation for Owen leaving the club.

With his contract due to expire in June 2005, Owen had repeatedly assured the club throughout 2003 and 2004 that he would sign a new contract and would not allow his contract to run down which would mean Liverpool losing a key player for free under the Bosman ruling. It was Owen’s failure to sign a contract, despite machinations of his intentions and repeated offers from the club, and the resulting cost to Liverpool that caused Reds fans to feel betrayed.

Owen was roundly booed at Anfield in 2005 when he returned for the first time with Newcastle United (see, for example, http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2005/dec/27/match.sport13). Yet the football media is content to forget recent history and pretend that his transfer to Manchester United is the cause of what will probably be a pretty nasty reaction. Even worse, the media seems to suggest that this is the result of a niggling tendency of modern football fans to boo any of their former players, no matter the circumstances of their departure nor the colours of their new employers. On the contrary, the collective memory of boyishly pretty, seventeen-year old Michael Owen bursting into the Premiership in 1997 and skinning Roberto Ayala for that wonderful goal in France in 1998 adds only to his veneration amongst the football media and Owen-apologist, face-like-balls, geezery fucknuts like Harry Redknapp who are supposed to know a thing or two about the game. Thankfully, Benitez, Fabio Capello and Liverpool fans can see sense.