football – reflections on travelling away

Coming down to earth after an exciting Cup win at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium last night I find myself reflecting on the enormous paradoxes of English football. 59,600 people turned out on a midweek evening to watch 22 men kicking a ball around a patch of grass. The gulf between the lifestyles of the men on the pitch and the majority of those in the stands could hardly be greater, with many of the footballers earning more in a week than most of the spectators do in a year. Moreover the cost of going to matches has steadily increased, with Arsenal topping the league (season tickets are between just over £1000 and just over £2000). There is neither rhyme nor reason to season ticket costs – Arsenal’s are the most expensive and Manchester City’s are the cheapest. It has been suggested that the cost of attending matches is changing the nature of the game, as fans with low incomes are priced out of attending, although thankfully I haven’t noticed that Southampton fans at St Mary’s have been supplanted by members of the monied classes.

One obvious anomaly of professional football is the gender inequality. There are more women attending league and cup matches than in previous decades, but of course there are men on the pitch (although there are now a few female linesmen in the Premier League). I am going to watch England ladies play Germany’s ladies at Wembley in November and will be interested to see the attendance figures, and what the gender mix in the stands is. If the financial gulf between professional footballers and their fans is huge, then that between male and female footballers is shameful. The average pay of a Premier League footballer in 13/14 was over £31,000 a week (with the top ten players getting 6 or 7 times this figure). In marked contrast, England’s female professional footballers won a pay increase in 2013 that took their pay to £20,000 a year, plus the right to work in secondary jobs for up to 24 hours a week. The attitude of most men that I speak to is that women’s football isn’t really proper football, and nobody would pay very much to go and watch it.

It is difficult to compare gender inequality in football with other sports, but in professional tennis the top ten players in the world with highest net worth included 6 women (2013 figures). It has taken women tennis players a very long time to get to near equality of pay, and perhaps more importantly respect. As with British athletics, a vicious circle operates. Poor financial and professional support accompanied by derisory financial reward means that women athletes (footballers, track and field athletes, swimmers, gymnasts etc) find it extremely difficult to compete at the highest levels. Instead of pushing for further support the general public tend to fall back on the old adages – ‘women don’t like sport’, ‘women aren’t as good at sport as men’, ‘nobody wants to pay to watch women play’. The latter becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, and a downward spiral is set in motion.

Unlike tennis, football remains one of the few top class sports which is not dominated by public school educated individuals. Promising 7y olds are spotted by local professional clubs and trained up, and youngsters from all socioeconomic classes can kick cheap footballs around as soon as they can walk. Football clubs have the money to train children, and I think that great opportunities are being missed by failing to encourage gender equality at this stage. I would like to envisage a day when my grandchildren could potentially play in professional football teams, male and female, in parallel leagues, playing in the same stadia, attracting the same support and the same financial rewards. I would also like those rewards to be much more realistic, with footballers’ salaries brought down substantially, but with more opportunities for employment in the sport once a playing career has finished. Obvious openings include primary and secondary schools, where footballers could offer high class PE training and encourage healthy lifestyles from a young age. They could also offer input in local GP surgeries, again advising about exercise and healthy living in older people. Such opportunities would be open to both men and women.

But to return to last night – there is no denying that the (men’s) game was very exciting. Arsenal took the lead, Saints equalised six minutes later through a penalty, and then Clyne scored a great goal before half time to give Southampton the lead. The second half was nail bitingly tense as the minutes ticked by, a situation that was accelerated to coronary-inducing levels during the four minutes of added time, which the referee’s watch somehow managed to stretch out to five and a half minutes, but Saints hung on. It is difficult to assess when one is in the middle of it, but the noise coming from 5,200 jubilant Southampton fans seemed  to easily eclipse any noise from the 54,400 Arsenal fans – as it had done throughout the match. The North Londoners are clearly a restrained lot. Making our way out and down the Holloway road to the tube I was struck by the good natured atmosphere. The attendant police were friendly, as were the stewards inside the ground. Both walking to the match, and away at the end, there were plenty of Arsenal fans mingled with the Saints fans, and no sign of any trouble or aggression. Of course this was a Cup match, not a PL match, but nevertheless we had knocked out a team that might reasonably have been favourites at the beginning. This is surely how sport should be – something to thoroughly enjoy when performed well, with congratulations for the winners and commiserations for the losers. Easy to say when the stakes are not high!

The walk to the tube to get the train back home seemed to sum up my thoughts about the evening. We bypassed the huge queue from Highbury & Islington tube station and walked on towards the Angel. As the Emirates stadium and London Metropolitan University were left behind us along with the multitude of fast food shops representing the diverse ethnicity of the area, we gradually moved into a noticeably better heeled part of the Holloway Road. Passing Highbury & Islington the shops became smarter and smarter along with the restaurants. Inside the latter football shirts were replaced by smartly dressed diners, and the rental prices in the estate agents moved into four figures per week.

A thirty minute walk that seemed a suitable metaphor for the craziness of football.

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