Death or Glory

By Gary Hartley  |  17 Mar 2015

First they came for your League Cup. Then they came for your Europa League. Then they came for your FA Cup. You get the picture.

At the risk of sounding a tad gloomy, it’s hard not to perceive that much of what football has traditionally valued is being chipped away at, and fast. Mysterious forces tell us that only about three domestic top divisions are worth our time of day, plus a World Cup every four years. It’s a simple selection box for the peasantry.

When this crusade to devalue football, piece by piece, is done, what we’ll have left will be little more than an echoing mausoleum, some grass and a bag of money. For every Super Sunday we’ve now got a Tepid Tuesday, a Watered-down Wednesday and a Thank-Fuck-We’re-Not-Playing-on Thursday.

For all its present status, the League Cup might as well be re-named the Woolworth’s B-Bowl. It would be no surprise to see the Europa League used as a major calling card of UKIP’s election manifesto. Perhaps both competitions can spare themselves the trouble of all those pesky football matches by deciding the finalists by computer algorithm.

But the Magic of the FA Cup is still there, right? Perhaps, but you have to make more of an effort to find the wand. Those meritocratic stories they tell us – of postmen and journeymen overcoming over-confident rich men – are increasingly few and far between, as broadcasters hand-pick mediocre all-Premier League ties over more romantic match-ups.

As for international football, forget it. Even the World Cup is a ‘just skip to the semis’ affair. I was one of, at most, five people watching Colombia’s victory over Uruguay in a packed pub during last year’s festival of football, while the rest participated in or gazed upon an EA Sports FIFA ’14 tournament. In this context, there’s less than no hope for the African Cup of Nations, and the Asian Cup might as well be melted down. The other continental showpieces are not even worth the furnace operator’s time.

The pundits having to cover these heavily branded bouts of underwhelm do little to raise expectations; most are just happy for any microphone to be bestowed upon them, and aren’t expected to have much ad hoc knowledge of what’s in front of them. Just make noises, lads – no-one’s listening.

Modern football offers two types of club (or company, if you’re toeing the Richard Scudamore line), neither of which are particularly appealing: the resigned ‘won’t win, can’t win anything’ brand of outfit (the vast majority), and the elite ‘there’s some we probably shouldn’t try to win, for shame’ brigade. Often the latter still end up winning despite their worst efforts.

But balancing the will to win with the nagging sense you can’t is not just a concern of the game’s many, many underdogs. Even the rich boys seem to take their foot off the pedal slightly in the pursuit of European glory, beset by the fear that if they try too hard, they might fail to qualify for next season’s moderated pursuit of the very same. Logic is the big loser as we fade to grey.

It’s not about the winning, it’s the taking part! someone yells. Who said anything about winning? Trophies, historically, have largely been seized by those you would expect to be seizing them, but for a sport to have any value whatsoever to its competitors, the idea of winning needs at least to be vaguely conceivable. In the UK, only Bradford City seem to be holding on to that concept outside of the Premier League’s top six.

So who’s to blame? Well, it’d be great fun to be able to confidently announce that it’s all a big conspiracy involving Jack Warner, Andy Townsend and The Illuminati, or perhaps a result of David Icke’s lizards getting their mucky claws stuck in. Hell, it might well be any of these things. But it might well also have something to do with us – the fans. We are buying into the systematic devaluation of the game.

This is not to make a point about cameras panning round half-empty stadia, almost in hope that the ‘magic’ of one cup or another will zap some rapturous humans into the stands. There are a number of good reasons for sparse attendances in some competitions, none of which require any of this conspiracy chat.

Rather, it’s about the discourse around the game, whether you can afford to go through the turnstiles on a regular basis, or not.

It’s about “Thursday night, Channel 5”, about Arsenal’s FA Cup win – the trophy being viewed in some corners as a piss pot, the lid some sort of dunce’s cap. It’s about the Championship’s relegation zone, now seen as about the right level for a club that won the FA Cup just two years ago. Forget them; there’s Messi and Ronaldo in crap suits at the Ballon d’Or again, in everyone’s favourite will they, won’t they soap storyline.

Maybe we need a campaign: Adopt Your Local Undervalued Tournament. Desperate times call for yet another pressure group; someone buy the .org.uk domain and set up the Twitter. While we’re here, bagsy the Europa League; ‘Thursday is the new Friday’ never came to pass – I’m free.

Silliness aside, if we don’t start making a case for football in all its competitive variances pretty soon, those that don’t follow one of approximately 10 clubs are going to have no trophy to defend the honour of at all; forever the fringe show at the international festival.

Of course, any earnest battle against the creep of irrelevance could prove a bit tricky when the team that finishes last in our top division will soon be pocketing the best part of £100 million. Get it paid in cash, in a massive suitcase, and at least there will still be something with a handle to grasp and raise aloft. With enough cash, you can probably simulate the idea of competition, and skim a few notes off the top to pay the spectators to wax lyrical about what an accurate simulation it’s created.

Before this clapped-out Bill Hicks routine runs its course, a positive-ish spin: maybe this devaluation works for us fans of the also-rans – with a complex built on ennui and desperation that combine to provide a surprisingly convincing illusion of an even playing field. If no-one cares at all, perhaps we’ll win something if we care a little bit? Maybe we will be happy to take any trophy, valued or not, on the day Goliath can’t muster up the effort to clobber us.

And maybe, just maybe, the ‘Three Lions’ need everyone to not give a shit about international football in order for it to finally ‘Come Home’. Unheralded geniuses playing without fear as the country’s star players withdraw from squads to play in the Qatar-based International Super League, and the English public happily ignoring context as they party, shirtless and exultant, in the streets of provincial towns. Maybe the beauty of the beautiful game has always been a complex ugliness, through which we will always find some way to be vicarious winners.

Gary Hartley is a long-suffering Leeds United fan. He edits the biannual literary magazine The Alarmist, and has written on football for The Blizzard, among others.
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