Soccer, Money, Loyalty and the Meaning of Sport

I have supported Manchester City since I was 8. Thus, for most of my life, I was included in perhaps the most beloved group of fans in Anglo-speaking football culture. City were a giant club that were not so much sleeping, as comatose. They constantly got relegated, quietly flirted with bankruptcy, and were renowned for teams that shot themselves in the foot on the field. But through all the bad times, City fans stayed loyal. They had a collective sense of humour about the strange indignities that came from following a team that constantly dashed hope.

That is not how City fans are seen now. About 10 years ago the former Thai prime-minister and possible war criminal, Thaksin Shinawatra, bought the club and things changed. No longer were City signing strong, slow, dependable players who would gladly bleed on the field. Elegant, exotic foreigners who were dainty on the ball and swift off it started to pack the squad. Less than 2 years later, Thaskin sold out his share at a monumental profit to the royal family of Abu Dhabi. Since then, Manchester City have spent a billion pounds and a good chunk more expanding the stadium, developing social housing around east Manchester, launching a professional woman’s team, and developing the most elaborate and well-funded soccer academy in the world. Most of the money has gone on assembling a collection of world class players for the (male) team. Success has followed. Man City have gone from being the fond butt of soccer fans’ jokes to being the blinging, oil-drenched symbol of everything that has gone wrong with football.

A handful of players who were with the club before the oil money arrived are still around. But now that Man City have a new manager, Joe Hart, one of those veterans and the first-choice goalkeeper, has found himself surplus to requirements. Hart is one of the few English players good enough to stake a claim in the City team and so, predictably, this everyday occurrence in the game (players get dropped and fall out of favour constantly) has become a mini-storm of increasingly heated comment.

Hart is thought of fondly by City fans. But those who follow the club’s fortunes week-in and week-out have been long familiar with his regular lapses in concentration. For every game saved by a stellar Hart performance, there seems to be a game lost by a Hart fumble. The new manager has a very distinctive way of playing the game that requires the goalkeeper to pass the ball fluently. Hart will never be able to do this and more importantly, doesn’t really seem that interested in trying, and so his demotion is more of an inevitability than a horrendous injustice.

But friends have suggested that this little personnel change is an expression of the ongoing erosion of whatever trace of nobility is left in the game. The general conclusion seems to be, “What does loyalty mean when a guy can be dropped like this?” The fact that Hart pointedly refused to pass the ball in his first ever game under the new manager, and instead kicked the ball long every time it came to him, is rarely discussed. The fact that Hart is error-prone is downplayed. That Hart is still paid £110,000 a week to sit on the bench appears a moot point.

Hart would have to go a long way to become City’s historically outstanding goalkeeping servant. The most popular player in the history of the club was a former Axis paratrooper, Bert Trautmann, who took his place between the sticks over 500 times for the club. The team reached the final of the FA Cup in 1956. They played Birmingham City and were guarding a 3-1 lead with 17 minutes to go. Spud Murphy, who had scored five goals on Birmingham’s run to the final, broke free in the 73rd minute and the City keeper stormed out to confront him, diving at his feet and expertly seizing the ball. But in the clash, Trautmann was injured. The physio came on and it looked like Bert’s final was over. The City players knew there was something amiss and some pleaded with him to see sense. He refused. He played on. Birmingham assaulted the City goal but Trautmann and his defence stood firm and triumphed. As he walked the famous steps of Wembley to receive his winner’s medal from the British monarch, his neck was visibly distorted. Prince Philip apparently commented on it. Later x-rays revealed he had broken his neck in the clash with Murphy. And played on.

These kinds of stories are allegedly what sport is all about. Trautmann’s Herculean strength and determination, his phenomenal commitment to his team-mates and his extraordinary skill are meant to inspire us. I get all that. But isn’t that, at base, deeply stupid? The guy broke his neck so badly, that it broke in on itself, the third vertebrae cracking in on the second, and only for that reason did he not die there and then, instantly. Trautmann is a legend, immortalised at the City football stadium in a statue and remembered everytime the club has success. But I’m glad Joe Hart will never risk his life so as to win a game.

Elite sport exists today primarily to encourage our consumption. This is true for the Olympics and it is true for the NFL and it is true for Man City and Arsenal and the other “well-run” mega-rich teams of European soccer. It is even true for the notionally amateur Gaelic games. It’s an excellent distraction that primes our minds to look at advertisements. That’s the economics behind Joe Hart getting paid almost £6 million a year to catch balls. It’s not about the game. It’s about the money. And if you doubt that, remember how it is also about defeating the scourge of dandruff.

Joe Hart, Head and Shoulders

But Bert Trautmann should remind us that it was never about the game. It was about glory. The modern game might, therefore, be an improvement. Money is much more flexible than glory, and as a motive it doesn’t encourage people to cripple themselves in quite the same way.

The theology of all this is complicated. But what appears critical to me is how sport exposes the mechanism of capitalism in today’s world, not least in how elusive it is. While we think the scandal is multi-million euro transfer fees and stratospheric wages, like a skilled magician, Mammon has guided our eyes away from the action. He picks our pocket and we are too busy cheering our idols to even notice.

Your Correspondent, Head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to explaining the meaning of sport

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One thought on “Soccer, Money, Loyalty and the Meaning of Sport”

  1. Thanks for the interesting article. I think it’s helpful to have a Man City fan know the finer details and have seen the club over a longer period; in this case pointing out Joe Hart’s lethargic attitude and error prone games. I’m sure being England’s number 1 keeper has made this a bigger issue than it should be.

    As an Arsenal fan, I’m sometimes genuinely shocked by the media’s reaction to Wenger and money. He ‘spends it like it’s his own’ is a phrase much used, but the fact that he dislikes paying ridiculous sums of money for players is routinely mocked and not seen as a good trait, rather something to be scorned. ( even though he’ll have spent €100 million this transfer window). Wenger noted that if he had purchased Mahrez, the player of the season last year for €400,00, people would not have taken interest unless he cost more.

    These are all tell tale signs that something is wrong with football.

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