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Capitalism, soc1alism and football

October 12th, 2006

There’s nothing remarkably original about the observation that of the world’s football codes, soccer* is the one that is consistently organised on capitalist lines. Most sporting leagues have a whole series of redistributive taxes and regulations, such as drafts and salary caps, designed to keep the competition open. Even if you follow a team that hasn’t won for decades, like South Melbourne/Sydney in AFL before last year, it’s reasonable to hope that your turn will come again.

By contrast, in most soccer leagues, teams can spend as much as they want, and do so, with the result, in most cases, that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. As in capitalism more generally, it’s possible to point to examples to suggest that the system promotes social mobility. In the piece linked above, Daniel Gross points to the decline of Leeds United, relegated from the English Premier League a few years ago, and on the other side of the ledger there’s Blackburn Rovers and Chelsea (both beneficiaries of huge infusions of cash from).

Overall, though, highly unequal systems are generally characterised by low levels of mobility, simply because the gaps are so large. Only a handful of clubs have any real chance of winning. And the English competition is historically one of the more open. The Scottish league is so dominated by the Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic that it was big news when Hearts managed to finish second last year – the first time such an upset has occurred in more than a decade. And many of the European leagues are similarly tied up to the point that only something like the Italian Serie scandal, which has seen the leading teams relegated, can produce even a temporary break in the duopoly or oligopoly.

What’s striking though is that the system seems to maintain the support of people to whom it gives so little. US workers who haven’t had a real wage increase in decades still vote for candidates who back tax cuts for the rich. And English and European fans still follow teams that can’t possibly raise the cash needed to stand any real chance of winning a premiership. No one seems much interested in rules that would even out the competition. I’ve never seen a really convincing explanation in either case. Any suggestions?

* This is the term used by Australians and Americans to distinguish this particular code. Elsewhere it’s sufficiently dominant to be called “football”.

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  1. Flotsam
    October 13th, 2006 at 02:16 | #1

    John,

    Ask one of your university colleagues that lectures in anthropology and you’ll find your answer. It’s tribal.

    You see, football fans rarely, if ever, switch allegiances. Most fans support the team from the area they were born in or identify with through family background. The team you support is usually the one your dad supports and the one his dad supported and so on. Manchester United is the exception as most of its fans don’t live anywhere near Manchester. Most of them don’t even live in the UK.

    In a big country like Aus it’s not easy to find such local loyalty and especially so when the A-League teams are a recent construct and few in number. For example, why would someone in Broome feel anything for Perth Glory or a Cairns-based fan support the Roar despite being the “local” teams? It’s not easy to spare three days for the drive to and from a match.

    My team has always been Chelsea because that’s where I was born. I must admit feeling very torn in recent years as their success has been largely bought with money stolen from Russian peasants. I was happier in the leaner years such as when we had to fight our way back up from 18th in the Second Division. Grit, balls and tribal loyalty trump oil cash and success every time.

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