Time to stop calling football “The Beautiful Game”?

For every moment of ecstasy, there’s a case of injustice. And for every team with an unlikely underdog story, there’s an underdog in society that feels invisible. So is it time we stopped referring to football as “The Beautiful Game”? Probably not. Although we should remember that beautiful doesn’t actually mean perfect

We’ve still got so much work to do. 

Football is a game of opinions. Tactics, formations, personnel – while every single supporter has their own unique take on what they believe to be the best solution. More often than not, there’s no clear right or wrong answer. And even more often, meticulous nous is thrown out the window by the sheer, ridiculous unpredictability of the game. 

The madness is addictive. But it’s time we start applying a lot more method to the issues that are threatening the integrity of the game we love. If football wants to keep its nickname, it needs to keep its house in order a lot better. 

Howler after howler

And although it starts from the top, us at the bottom are far from blameless. 

The fact that anyone actually buys into the notion that football and politics are separate entities that should orbit each other without ever crossing paths, is as infuriating as it is nonsensical. 

Everything is political. Irrespective of whether the same fans that might think captains wearing a rainbow armband in support of LGBTQIA+ rights is pointless, also want tighter financial regulations in the game to protect grassroots football. Or the ones that think taking the knee before a match is too much of a political statement, but storming into a stadium, causing all sorts of anarchy in protest against the European Super League is on the money. Make it make sense. Because frankly –  I can’t.

And the sad reality is, searching for evidence to back up these points is never too difficult – because they’re far too common. The difference between what our governing bodies say and do is streets – or stadia – apart.

Whether we like it or not, football and politics are intertwined. Society’s biggest and most complex issues are often exemplified on the pitch. And don’t for one second think that these problems are new either –  or isolated in one country. Because the Liverpool fans that were tragically affected by Hillsborough will tell you politics was involved. So will the Fashnu family that will never get over the heartbreaking loss of Justin – who was one of very few high profile, openly gay figures in the men’s game. Or the National Women’s Soccer League players that stopped mid-game in a powerful show of solidarity with Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, the two players who have made allegations of sexual misconduct against former coach, Paul Riley. 

The list – much like the pain caused from injustice – is never-ending. 

Let down from the top down

With each broken promise from decision makers, a little more hope is lost. With every high-profile cock-up from the higher-ups, another marginalised individual or group feels less encouraged to speak out in future. Let’s take two examples, almost a decade apart, and see how far the narrative has really come. 

October 23rd 2011. Queens Park Rangers v Chelsea. The evening a fierce West London derby took a very nasty turn, as the then England John Terry appeared to racially abuse Anton Ferdinand. In broad daylight, in front of thousands in the stadium, and many more watching at home. Terry, who was already infamous for extra-marital shenanigans, had seemingly been caught red handed once more. There was nowhere to hide. 

John Terry wasn’t the only one with no escape though. 

In a recent documentary recounting that fateful match at Loftus Road, Ferdinand described a feeling of isolation in the midst of being a victim of racial abuse. Encouraged not to speak out by his club, coupled with the wispy 4-match ban and £220,000 fine John Terry was handed by the FA and it becomes clear that Anton Ferdinand was left hung out to dry by the bodies that were supposedly put in place to protect him. 

The FA’s anti-racism body, Kick It Out, has since held their hands up for their handling of the case which they put down to a ‘communication breakdown’. The phrase ‘lead balloon’ rather than ‘Led Zeppelin’ springs to mind there. 

It simply wasn’t good enough. 

Fast forward a decade, and it seems like everything has progressed. Well, not quite. The game itself is far more technically advanced and entertaining in one breath, despite seeming entrenched in a time warp in the next. You could argue in some ways that football is a victim of its own success. Although pitching its success is a hard-sell when online abuse of player is up by 53% and we’re still yet to see an active, openly gay player in the men’s Premier League. 

We simply must do more to protect our players. 

Just a few weeks ago France and PSG superstar, Kylian Mbappe courageously spoke out about the struggles he had with his mental health on the back of missing the decisive penalty which led to Les Bleus exit from Euro 2020.

It’s a story we’re all too familiar with. 

Fans are with you when you’re winning, but defeat is the loneliest place in the world. So much so that Mbappe admitted that he was made to feel like a ‘problem’ by the French footballing hierarchy – even his own teammates. He was on the verge of quitting the international game at the age of 22 (three years on from guiding them to a World Cup). Such was the extent of the abuse, married with the lack of support. 

10 years on from the Anton Ferdinand incident, another young, black footballer is forced to question everything about the game they love due to the conditional love they are served up. While the solutions are still pretty unclear, one thing is for certain. We cannot carry on like this. 

The moral of the story

Ask most Newcastle United fans who they wanted to replace their close-fisted, penny-pinching owner and I’m sure the answer could’ve been captured in one word. “Anyone.” But as talk of a (multi) billionaire takeover came and went, so did the last dregs of hope of a future without their villainous former owner, Mike Ashley. And to be fair to them, he really put them through the shit. 

14 years. 2 relegations. A stadium name change. And thousands of minutes of uninspired, anxiety-inducing football. The black and white that their beloved team donned was fitting – because their stance could not have been clearer. 

Ashley out. At any cost. 

Well, at least that was what they thought. 

Thursday 7th October, 2021. A day that won’t only live long in the memory of Newcastle United fans. But football fans around the world. In the blink of an eye, or a flash of a cheque book, The Geordie’s have not only become the richest club in the world. No – the £320 billion that The Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund walk into St. James’ Park with, is more than the Top 10 richest clubs in the world combined. At what cost though? 

If we put every billionaire owner under the microscope, the findings would curl most of our toes. Ascertaining that sort of cash doesn’t come without its issues of morality. However, this one feels slightly different. The links between the Saudi consortium and a number of atrocities carried out around the world are too strong to overlook. It’s a moral issue for sure, but it’s one that Newcastle fans should never have been faced with in the first place. 

This takeover typifies something we have all known for some time. If the price is right, football’s governing bodies will turn a blind eye to virtually anything. Football is no anomaly though, like we said, society’s biggest and most complex issues are often exemplified on the pitch. And they exist long after the final whistle is blown. 

In all walks of life, our leaders are led by their own agendas. While electorates and fans alike are not aligned enough to call it out. You might think football, politics and environmental issues eat at different tables – the recipe for change is very much the same though. We need to act fast. 

So yes – while football is a game of opinions. Some things just aren’t up for debate. 

This article comes from the third issue of the DCW Quarterly. Click here to grab the full issue for free.