Football is a game which is played, televised and gambled on almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year all across the globe. It used to commence at three o clock on English Saturday afternoon. With the invention of the weekend and leisure time in late 19th century industrialized Britain, the game boomed as men left the factories at noon, flocking to the stadia of muscular Christianity. Clubs formed the centre of working class communities alongside churches, who themselves were keen to tap into the mass appeal of the sport.
Players and spectators alike would travel together to matches, sharing buses, trams or pavement. The railways created centralized time, allowing teams to travel and giving birth to regional and later national leagues.
As western society is now largely unrecognisable from the Industrial age, so too is football. It’s a marker or even a mirror of the world today. As people feel more disconnected from our natural geographical communities and attracted to virtual globalized ones, there are also some who struggle to enjoy what has been coined ‘the beautiful game’.
Photo: Lester Drake.
When Elite football transformed from the planets favourite sport to the planets biggest entertainment business, seducing the money men, it was the beginning of the end for many fans.
In a recent Spanish Liga match between Granada and Barcelona the cheapest ticket was 110 Euros. Football tourism agencies have replaced the ticket touts and visitors from around the world flock to see super star players. It is estimated that a foreign visitor will spend ten times more money over a weekend than a fan from the same city. What is more, national leagues are at the beck and call of television channels, eager to broadcast as many games across a week as possible, with no consideration for home or travelling supporters.
There have been numerous accounts in England where a game would finish later than the last train home for visiting fans. The message is clear; TV audience and advertising trump bums on seats at stadiums.
Rise of betting companies
Another worrying trend is the spectacular rise and influence of betting companies within the sport. Since technological advances have allowed global live betting, dozens of new and established bookmakers seem to have sewn themselves into the fabric of football. 27 teams from England’s top two divisions are sponsored by gambling or online casinos, while in Spain, 19 of the 20 La Liga clubs have sought out official partnerships with such entities.
We meet at grounds where the bar serves beer before, during and after the game, and the sandwiches drip with the juices of fried belly pork. After the match we talk to players, presidents and occasionally referees and their girlfriends
‘When the fun stops, stop’, is the obligatory government warning. No doubt most users know when to stop, yet I doubt offshore gambling firms feel any social conscience for those lives which will inevitably be ruined in the process. The normalisation of betting and constant advertising of such business is detrimental to the underlying spirit and essence of the game.
So what now? Where do the disenfranchised go? Do we give up, sitting in bars complaining like old men from a Monty Python sketch?
Of course not. Football junkies need their fix.
The call of origins
In the past 5 years or so, I’ve become strangely seduced into the world of Spanish grassroots football. For 60 Euros a year I can watch CD Galapagar play their trade in Madrid’s upper regional leagues; and I’m not alone. Thanks to social media, I have discovered a whole community of fans doing exactly the same.
Grassroots football fans, eating and drinking while watching the game. Photo: Lester Drake.
We meet at grounds where the bar serves beer before, during and after the game, and the sandwiches drip with the juices of fried belly pork. After the match we talk to players, presidents and occasionally referees and their girlfriends. An official bet is never placed; the feeling of disappointment in defeat is brief.
The movement is growing too. September saw the launch in Spain of 'Dia del futbol modesto' (grassroots football day). Spearheaded by Lester Drake, a seasoned non-league aficionado, the initiative aims to connect likeminded fans, while also promoting the game at that level.
Starting at 11.30 on a wet Sunday morning in the south of Madrid, our hardy crew met for a third division encounter between Villaverde and Alcalá. The game finished goalless, but the rain held back, beers were poured and our group of eight (5 English, 1 Irish, 1 Scott) enjoyed a ‘bocadillo’, chewing the fat.
We then hopped on the metro, heading northwest to take the bus up into the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama to watch Galapagar against Canillas in Spain’s fifth tier. There we were joined by some locals who had learnt about our plan. 90 minutes later and another nil-nil, we spoke to Galapagar’s number 5, Iñigo, who had just joined the club the same summer. The atmosphere was relaxed as we slipped into the obligatory 'pacharán' or 'patxaran', a sloe gin made popular by Navarran soldiers sent far afield while doing military service during the Franco years.
I estimate that the cost for the whole day, including tickets, transport, food and drink was around 30 Euros. And I suppose that is the bottom line.
Perhaps with a healthier income I’d pay to watch Real Madrid. But at the Bernabéu I won’t find what I’m looking for; the football of our fathers.
Men of different generations enjoying a game. Photo: Lester Drake.