THOUSANDS OF SCREAMING FANS awaited the emergence of their heroes from behind the car park barriers. One could be excused for thinking this was the scene of a backdoor getaway after a boyband concert, however a pop concert it was not. It was merely a Wednesday morning at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training complex that sits on the outskirts of Barcelona.
Fans had flocked from far and wide to catch an up-close glimpse of the designer sunglasses and Bluetooth-earpiece sporting footballers speeding past in their lavishly coloured cars. A club official assured me that it was nothing like this as recently as five years prior when “only media workers and the odd schoolboy bunking off” would be hanging around in hope of acquiring a signature or two from the famed athletes.
Hours later, local Catalans attempted to conduct chants around the 99,000 all-seater stadium down the road, yet their song was drowned out by the sound of selfie-stick extensions and general chit chat amongst the varying dialects of the tourists in store. To see the action, I needed to dodge and weave around the folk surrounding me that simultaneously stood to either order food from the mobile stadium vendor or take photographs of themselves as the likes of Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta cast their spells on the compunctious opponents below.
People were smiling and having fun. This wasn’t a football match; football is about grief, pain and suffering. Football is a game that will grab your soul, rip it out and cut it apart, then you will be back for more the following week. The more dour it is, the more authentic it feels.
Weekends were taken up by the beautiful game. Saturdays consisted of school football followed by standing on the Kop to sing my juvenile heart out, and then Match of the Day. After returning home from playing on what seemed like a quagmire of a pitch in freezing temperatures each Sunday, I knew it was time to take a seat at the dinner table when the roar of “GOOOLAZO” poured out of the television set, and as we all dug into roast dinner whilst gazing at the magic on our screen, the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Alessandro Del Piero and Roberto Baggio would terrorise astringent Italian defences and I knew the football-packed weekend was on its encore.
Mondays were full of Panini sticker swapping and re-enactments of the weekend’s action with 25-a-side games taking place on the school playground – goal celebrations and all – slide tackles out in full force, and my mother was even less forgiving than Serie A defenders when I would all-too-often use “but it was next goal wins” as an excuse for the gaping hole in my school trousers.
Now the last-ditch challenges and playground pitches have been dumped for thumbs sore from swiping, and if you were to step outside on any given weeknight, you’d be counting your blessings if you were to witness a single child kicking a tattered bag of leather against wall. Society has changed, and this falls hand-in-hand with football.
With our game growing rapidly and the world getting smaller, with any person in any location just the click of a button away, mankind has elevated professional players onto a pedestal that sits above society’s rules and day-to-day life in the real world. That said, fans have never before been able to interact with these stars in the way that they now can.
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Alongside politicians, a footballer has the only job in the world in which masses gather to judge and hurl flak at. I’ve never once seen folk standing behind a builder and roaring yobbish blasphemies about how he wouldn’t have dropped his screwdriver should he have been focussing on his job instead of the affair he’s having behind his wife’s back.
With any and everybody from all walks of life having a voice through their keyboard, more and more insults are spouted by the second. Even the greatest of the greats are wide open to the abuse.
“The only agent back then was 007 – and he shagged women, not entire football clubs.” Brian Clough on football in the 1970s
With money comes scandal and it seems like a new tax-fraud trial or tale from a former love interest hits the headlines each week and players’ agents not only have their work cut out in making sure these hiccups don’t hit the tabloids, but they also ensure their client (and themselves) get the best deal possible from their employers.
In an episode similar to that of basketballer LeBron James’ 2010 move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to Miami Heat – when the entire nation was thrown from pillow to post before finally tuning into a live ESPN special where the 25-year-old announced his decision – Manchester United’s Paul Pogba kept the football world guessing in the summer of 2016 as he used his social media accounts to give hints on where he was off to before being filmed saying the very opposite the following day.
It is hard to imagine that this wasn’t part of a ploy in increasing the interest of his arrival destination as well as securing the most deluxe contract available. It is stated that the French midfielder’s agent, Mino Raiola, got a reported fee of £20 million from the final agreement between Juventus and the English club.
Chinese clubs are casting their nets far and wide in order to capture the signatures of budding talents from all over the world with wages on offer that would leave Bill Gates picking his jaw up from the floor. The Super League is developing briskly and it’s not only a destination where seasoned veterans are going to wind down their careers.
As well as academy prospects from European and South American clubs fleeing eastwards, famed stars at the peak of their powers have taken the plunge. Shanghai SIPG landed Chelsea’s Oscar for £52 million in January and can we really blame the Brazilian for wanting to quadruple his salary whilst playing the most fickle sport of all where a late tackle could end his brittle career?
The mobs were out in full force for 25-year-old Oscar who was labelled “greedy” by critics, and Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben was quoted saying that a transfer to China is “basically acknowledging your career is over”. After the World Cup, the UEFA Champions League is the most sought after prize in world football and the European game is the greatest stage of all. Was flaunting his skills in heights of Premier League whilst earning a reported £90,000-a-week wage not sufficient for Oscar’s needs?
Upon his arrival at Stamford Bridge, the then 20-year-old told fans that playing at the top in England was “a childhood dream come true”. Is money really more important than realising the dreams of the São Paulo adolescent? Are the motives and incentives of these young hotshots changing?
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Ask a young boy what he wants to be when he’s older and he’s just as likely to respond with “YouTuber” as he is “footballer”. For those of you wondering what a YouTuber is exactly, it’s an individual who records videos of themselves showcasing their ‘talents’ such as playing video games, playing pranks on members of the public or reacting to other online clips. Contrasting times.
Brazilian full-back Dani Alves spoke about fame, social media and the false fulfillments they deliver to The Guardian’s Sid Lowe whilst playing at Barcelona: “Now, everyone’s on their phone, no one talks to anyone, they’re all looking down [at social media], seeing what others are saying about them. [But] the more you know the world today, the more it disappoints. I don’t understand why everyone fights for power, money, fame. Has no one stopped to think that fame is shit? That the more money you have, the more problems?
“Everyone wants, wants, wants … and when they have, they feel desperate. Money’s a necessary evil, there to give you moments. It gives me things I couldn’t have, nice things, but happiness? That’s a not a question of money and fame. Quite the opposite. If you’re famous, people are there: ‘Look, look, the famous guy.’”
In a world fixated on reality television shows and the personal lives of those in the public eye as well as acquaintances on social media, people are endlessly sizing themselves up against others and, in the meantime, forgetting who they really are and what they really love themselves. Awards such as the Ballon d’Or only add to this fascination of individuals and terms such as ‘fanboy’ have been invented for the folk who take to the internet from diverse locations in order to defend their favourite player.
We find ourselves pleading for loyalty from players in a generation that struggles to hold a conversation for longer than 60 seconds without looking down at their phone to see what everybody thinks about them. With any piece of entertainment or information available within seconds, our needs are available on demand, making for a certain impatience which has crept its way into the game.
Fans, owners and managers alike can blow hot and cold within the space of a misplaced pass and it is becoming more frequent that 90 minutes worth of work, tactical astuteness and decision-making is analysed by statistics and seven-second videos that circle the web.
With rapacious owners lacking knowledge of the pride, feeling and passion for club’s roots and history at the helm, everyday supporters are being driven away as ticket prices inflate by the season. The elite game is swiftly shifting gears from a working-class, gritty sport that bonded grandfathers, fathers and sons, into a tourist attraction that gathers photo opportunists from far and wide.
Glory supporters have been around since the beginning, yet the real core of a club’s history are the fans that follow their team home and away every week, no matter their form, losing streak or colour of the striker’s boots. Managers and players come and go, however the people who really suffer for their club are the supporters who stand proud through thick and thin and, without them, football would be nothing.
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As of 2026, the World Cup will be expanded to 48 teams, and although the extension will give opportunities of a lifetime to many that could have never dreamed of representing their nation at the most prestigious of tournaments, the sole reasoning for the change was the $1 billion revenue that will be pulled in by the further addition of 16 nations. Another tournament with a profound history that has been forfeited by multitudes is the historically illustrious FA Cup.
Once magic and watched by a worldwide audience, to lift the famous cup was a dream of every young boy. Now, again down to financial gains, the trophy has been stripped of its substance, with the top clubs often fielding weakened teams in order to focus on league matters where the prizes fatten pockets further. The winners of the FA Cup go down in history with their name etched onto the trophy, yet the prize money of £1,800,000 (2017) is just loose change when compared to the £71,700,000 that was awarded to Sunderland for finishing fourth from bottom of the Premier League in the 2015-16 season, avoiding relegation by two points.
Cup final day was magic with build-up starting at 9am, airing the fans’ arriving and the general buzz of seeing the team buses pull into Wembley was bliss for every boy, and television sets around the planet were gathered around to see the 3pm kick-off.
The pre-match build up to the 2016 final was a farce. Claiming attempts to keep the romance alive, the FA intended on entertaining a wider audience by moving the final of the 135th edition of the cup to a 5:30pm kick-off, and as Eurovision and X-Factor singer Karen Harding missed her cue on the National Anthem due to a breakdown in communication, she apprehensively began singing halfway through.
British rapper Tinie Tempah followed and managed to annoy fans even before he got onto the pitch after keeping them waiting and, after he did arrive, waving a mobile phone in a shiny silver jacket, things only got worse. The Crystal Palace and Manchester United players ended up stalled, waiting in the tunnel for the circus to clear from the once hallowed turf and the kick-off in what should be the most important date in the English football calendar was delayed due to an attempt to turn it into a more of a show than a game of football.
This was nothing but a lower-budget version of the Superbowl, and a huge kick in the teeth to what football once stood for.
Technology is becoming part of daily life to a point where it would now be almost impossible for many to go back to how it was before the gadgets and devices. Where video scouting, dieticians, psychologists, in-game analysis and statistical machines being operated by clubs is the norm, the game is becoming faster with more quality and finely tuned precision.
As society is changing at an expeditious pace, football is infiltrated by both positive and negative aspects and it is important to keep the sport in its purest form; whether it’s a young boy running straight out of the house after school to kick the ball with his friends – unshackled by rules inside the classroom walls – or grown men who treat their team’s stadium like a church and go to sing songs from the stands about the club that was the first love of their lives.
The world is going through confusing times that seem to get murkier by the day and we need to find something that offers us a release from the expanding turbulence of the new world, even if it’s just a group of men kicking a ball around.
By Alex Clapham @alexclapham