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Of soccer in the U.K., where the game is known as football, David Goldblatt has written, "Like much of British life, the new football economy is unfair but functional, wincingly unequal but never boring."
In his new book, “The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain," the author examines — among other things — various ways in which developments in the sport of football reflect changes beyond the pitch. Goldblatt recently spoke with Bill Littlefield about the book.
Highlights From Bill's Interview with David Goldblatt
BL: You write that just twenty five years ago, the Sunday Times of London characterized football as "a slum game played by slum people in slum stadiums." Tell us how things have changed in what you call "the new football economy."
DG: Well the football economy has changed out of all recognition. From being utterly penurious played in collapsing stadiums and in front of declining audiences, the English Premier League is now the richest soccer league in the world, turning over something in the region of $3-3.5 billion a year — and rising fast. I expect it eventually to be the premier sports league in the whole world.
The one thing that hasn't changed, and I think it's really important to recognize, that it still doesn't make any money. Overall the Premier League — when you take taxes and capital into account — has never made a single cent in profit. It is the most irrational, ineffective, hapless business model perhaps in the entire world of sport. And let's face it, it's got a few competitors out there.
BL: I was going to say, there are plenty. One of the characteristics of football in England has been crowd chanting, and some of the chants have been creative and funny, although some of them perhaps not fit for broadcast. I am partial to "Who ate all the pies?" and "Can't we play you every week?" but am I right to conclude that the most common chant these days is "Where's the money gone?"
DG: Well if only — that would suggest a kind of sophisticated, sort of critical attitude on the part of fans. And I'm not really sure that is the one that we hear most. I mean, the other interesting one that you hear is — if I can use this term on the radio — "Crap club, no history." And I was indeed at Chelsea a few weeks ago, and the Arsenal fans were taunting them by saying, "Crap club, no history." And I thought, "Isn't that extraordinary?" Not whether you've won trophies or not have you got glory — have you got history? For me, that deep-rooted sense that there is some way of connecting ourselves romantically, emotionally and psychologically to, I would say, the lost world of industrial working-class England within which football was forged is very present in the stadiums.
BL: You maintain that in England, which you characterize as "among the most secular of societies," football fills peoples' need for "collective energies, identities, and shared meanings." Give us some specific examples of the game — or a team — that serves that function.
DG: You know, local government and local identities are incredibly weak. We have nothing of the equivalent of say, state identities that you have in the United States. And so football clubs have become increasingly one of the main ways in which these urban identities of places otherwise off the map are retained. I mean, take someone like Blackburn Rovers — they actually won the Premiership back in 1995. Blackburn, once upon a time in the Victorian, industrial era, was a place that everybody in England would have known of it. It was the center of engineering, it was the center of cotton production. It was a place of wealth and modernity. And these days, much of the north of England has disappeared of the economic and demographic map for the rest of the country. And football is one of those places that allows people in Blackburn to actually re-experience the sense of local identity.
And one lovely act — how determined people can be to hold onto those identities — is the protests that were conducted over the last couple of years of Blackburn Rovers, which was taken over by an Indian, dodgy chicken conglomerate called Venky's. And in protest of the insanity of their decision-making, they let live chickens loose on the pitch during the game.
Football is one of those places that allows people in Blackburn to actually re-experience the sense of local identity.David Goldblatt
BL: English football has become less "English" over the years. Lots of the owners aren't English. Lots of the players aren't either. And likewise the coaches. What sort of impact has that had on fans?
DG: Well, I think on one level, when it began it was like Christmas and your birthday and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. Fabrizio Ravanelli shows up at Middlesbrough? People couldn't believe it. This was a gift, wasn't it? But I think we've become rather used to it and blase about the presence of foreigners. And now, many people are saying, "What impact is this having on the careers, the talent and the technique of the best of English players? And therefore the English National Team as well?"
And I think the same could be said of the issue of ownership. Personally, it's not simply an objection to foreign owners, because we have private owners of our own who are just as incompetent, stupid and disrespectful of tradition and fans. It seems to me, it is madness that institutions — old Victorian working-class social enterprises like football clubs — their cultural capital has been produced and preserved by generations of fans, not by owners of any kind. And the idea that that could be privatized and sold off seems to me a profound mistake and a deeply moral problem.
Bill's Thoughts On The Game of Our Lives
David Goldblatt's "The Game of Our Lives" is a magnificently ambitious attempt to examine football (aka soccer) in every context imaginable.
Goldblatt makes a convincing case that the game is central to not only the communities in which it is played, but to the character of the people who've embraced it for all sorts of reasons. Football is "a place of social mixing, where crowds gather and make space, if only for a short moment, truly public," but beyond that the game "appears as a salve for the fragmentation of society and the psyche."
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The great charm of this book lies precisely in the grand scope of its reach, but that doesn't mean Goldblatt doesn't know his particulars. He does. He's watched games in the most celebrated stadiums and in the warrens of the lower division teams as well. He knows the stories behind the owners who've robbed investors of their money and fans of their faith and passion. He's researched the histories of the oldest clubs and listened to new crowd chants as they've spontaneously erupted.
He's also a bit of a poet. In the chapter titled "Last Man Standing?" he contrasts the post-football days of two of English football's most celebrated stars, Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham. The former embarked upon a relentless journey of self-destruction, while the latter has become a monstrously successful international brand. "They are," Goldblatt writes, "tangible evidence of our society's capacity for the extremes of self-destruction and self-promotion, self-hate and self-love, and the harsh epidemiology of postindustrial England; to the poor and damaged, a chaotic existence and an early death, to the rich and connected, a long life of ostentatious consumption and capital accumulation."
This segment aired on November 29, 2014.
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