The Blair government has done a lot for soccer, and has got almost nothing in return. It's time for a new dealby Simon Kuper / March 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
When labour took office in 1997 we heard a great deal about the interest in football of the “regular guys” now in power. Four years on, Labour politicians don’t talk so much about football any more. However, in office they have been the game’s devoted servants.
Governments have always gone out of their way for football, but this one is friendlier than most. At the EU’s Nice summit Tony Blair and Gerhard Schr?der broke off from discussing qualified majority voting to persuade the European Commission not to abolish football transfer fees, because of their importance to smaller clubs.
The antiquated football transfer system had seemed doomed. It allowed a club to charge an unlimited fee to any other club wanting to sign one of its players, as long as that player had an ongoing contract. It would be hard to think of a system more opposed to free movement of labour, a basic principle of the EU. In any case the role of transfer fees in small clubs should be about as economically important to Labour as the importance of prompt deliveries of newspapers to Leeds newsagents.
Yet when the EU announces its verdict on transfers sometime in the next few weeks, it is expected to keep the system virtually intact. Once again, Blair has been football’s unpaid lobbyist. One hopes that in the second term he will not be so servile.
When football wants something from government, it always claims to have a vital social role. Never mind that it is only followed by a third of the population, and is hardly big business: the only British club with a turnover much larger than an average out-of-town superstore is Manchester United. The point, says football, is that it is more than a business. It binds communities: Bobby Moore with the World Cup, cloth caps on terraces, kids dreaming in playgrounds, that sort of thing.
This is a plausible argument. Watching football does give happiness to millions. Playing football is even more important. A local club with dozens of adult and junior teams, of the kind to be found in every German town but hardly anywhere in Britain, creates a sense of community. “Football has got an absolutely key social role,” says James Purnell, of Downing Street’s policy unit. “It’s a very good anti-crime policy, it’s a very good health policy.”
One would be inclined to agree that football…