This Dear Football letter was written by Sunday Times Football Correspondent Jonathan Northcroft.
A wonderful piece we just had to share with you
Follow Jonathan on twitter @JNorthcroft
It goes without saying I’m going to miss you. But while we’re taking this break maybe you could use the time to think how you should change.
Please know what I’m about to say comes from a place of sincerest love. But also liberation, for I have not set eyes on you for, what, ten days now and realised I don’t need you to survive.
So that’s the first thing. You’ve become a bit too full of yourself when the truth is you’re not as important as you thought. We are always hearing, via the marketing of your clubs, governing bodies and brands that you’re ‘more than a game’ that what happens on the field ‘means more’ than this or that.
And yet, dear football, it turns out you’re not ‘more than’ anything. You’re no one’s food, nobody’s vaccine, no one’s ICU bed. You’re a game, no more but no less and should be happy with that. “The most important of the least important things,” as Jurgen Klopp said.
I reckon your ego problems come from money. You make the mistake of thinking your riches make you special when the truth is they signify a happy acciden which is the rather random way you have become the world’s favourite diversion. Money makes your execs lose touch with reality, can lend a leading player the lifestyle of a prince.
I could pick out Karren Brady, Andrea Agnelli, Gordon Taylor, Mino Raiola but as a symbol of your couldn’t-care-less-ness how about your unctuous figurehead, Gianni Infantino? The kind of guy who, amid Russian airstrikes in Syria, gets filmed playing a grinning game of keepy ups with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin because there’s a deal to be done. Who sloganeers about the women’s game – then attends a match in Tehran from which women are banned.
So, get some perspective. Stop trying to always think how you can monetise your reach. Stop thinking it’s okay to take sponsor money from gambling companies who exploit the vulnerable from Kettering to Kenya. Stop pricing pensioners out of stadiums or charging little kids fifty quid for a tiny replica shirt.
Stop caring not one jot about climate change, with your multi-location tournaments and private jet habit, your idiocies like Arsenal taking a 14-minute charter flight from Luton to Norwich. Stop bullying governments. Stop building stadiums for tournaments then never using them again.
Stop avoiding tax. Stop spending the price of two hospital wings every season on agent fees, in the the Premier League, and paying players £400,000 per week – while advertising for unpaid interns and while having just five clubs, Liverpool, Everton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, West Ham, sign up to pay ordinary staff the living wage.
What makes you think you can behave like that? That you can almost get away with anything? Well maybe this is where I’ve gone wrong, where I take my share of responsibility. My industry, the media, does rather feed those overblown narratives about how vital you are. Journalists describe games in terms of war, life-and-death, miracle and disaster. Headline-writers ham up your dramas. TV people make you glossy. PRs excuse your foibles – and we don’t challenge them enough.
Our analytics people track what readers/viewers consume and get us to churn out more of what’s popular so, if we’re honest, we in the media monetise you too. And some of us also build up fair old egos on your back. All in all, we project you too much and that – coupled with your own self-publicising – has thrust you onto everyone’s screens, smartphones, social media feeds 24/7.
The latter may be why fans seem to have gone so weird of late. They either seem fixated on novelty – obsessed with transfers, with changing managers – or they’re furious about something, about their club, a journalist, the referees, an opponent, even each other.
Ingesting all that ‘more than a game’ guff has made some put loyalties to clubs and players above all other values – or at least that’s how it can appear when you visit the madhouse of social media. In the past few years I’ve seen supporters attempt to justify or minimise everything from racism to human rights abuse to rape to paedophilia in the name of defending whatever team or star they love. Did past generations do that?
While we’re at it – dear football – stop being so plastic. Why did it take Mikel Arteta to fall ill before a decision on coronavirus? Why keep arranging games fans can’t get back from because public transport is closed? Why do you want to play matches every day of the week, at every conceivable kick off time? Don’t you know that showing less can actually increase allure?
All the old playing heroes with dementia. All those victims of child abuse. Emiliano Sala. Doping. Qatar 2022. Your many issues with diversity. There are so many things about you that bother me these days.
You love a t-shirt, don’t you? A campaign. A hashtag. But how can you make a film saying no to racism in twenty languages when you fail to speak in the one we all know matters most to you, money; when you fine entire countries less for racial abuse at international games than you did Nicklas Bendtner wearing sponsored underwear.
So, dear football, somewhere along the way your priorities got misplaced, you forgot who you are. That’s how I feel anyway. The good thing, amid this crisis, is that you have a golden opportunity to reset. The Chancellor said that “when this is over, and it will be over…we will look back on how we acted.”
How you act amid coronavirus will be remembered. Manchester United guaranteeing to pay casual staff, Roman Abramovich opening the Stamford Bridge hotel to NHS workers, Watford players manning a helpline for stressed and isolated fans – a small sample of all the things at this bleak time you’re doing well.
“A fork in the road moment for football,” said a friend who works for a major club and you have a chance to go back to your core purpose which is providing connectedness, serving communities, being for everyone, sharing what you have, bringing joy.
I still love you. I’ll still take you back. For all your faults I’ve still never found a better diversion. In fact, I’ll probably take you back however you choose to return. But couldn’t you change? Our life together – I firmly believe for you as well – could be so much better.