Reclaim the beautiful game

Communists fight for democracy for those who watch and those who play, writes David Isaacson

Supporters of Manchester United Football Club are not very happy at the moment. Not only did Man U lose the FA Cup final 5-4 in a penalty shootout to rivals Arsenal, but 'their' club has just been taken over by Malcolm Glazer. An American investor who also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Glazer is not much liked by Manchester United fans - indeed he does not even support the team. Some commentators have little sympathy and say that this is the inevitable result of the club floating itself on the stock exchange. Manchester United plc is an attractive business with profits last year of £58.3 million. Some have even gone as far as to say that United made itself a target for 'corporate raiders' by operating without a debt and spending surplus money on players rather than giving it to shareholders. Malcolm Glazer and son: into debt and looking for fans to foot the bill The debt question is in fact one of the fans' biggest worries. In order to achieve the 75% share ownership he needed to take the club over - he achieved 75.7% ownership on May 16 - Glazer has effectively had to borrow against investments he already had in the club. According to The Guardian, "Glazer's financing of the £790 million deal breaks down like this: £272 million of the family's cash; £275 million from issuing preference shares; and £265 million from bank borrowing, secured against the club's assets. Interest is only due immediately on the £265 million from the banks. At 7% it works out at £18.5 million a year, or £51,000 a day "¦ Once the cost of the preference shares is added, the figure rises to £126,000 a day" (May 17). The interest on the preference shares does not have to be paid straightaway but, at a rate of 12%-13% a year, Glazer will want to pay them off quickly. Glazer clearly wants to raise United's profitability quickly and how he will do this is the prime concern of the fans. Ticket prices are set to rise, new sponsorship deals are being sought, and Glazer hopes to increase merchandising sales, especially in the far east. These are all fairly standard expectations though, and fans wonder what other plans Glazer has up his sleeve. One commentator, Harry Pearson, has speculated in The Guardian that he may try to auction sought after shirt numbers to players as a way of raising extra cash (May 21). Many fans protested against Glazer's takeover by wearing black, to represent what they see as the death of their club, at the FA Cup final. More militant demonstrations were initially expected, but protest groups were keen that their actions should be seen as being respectful of the FA Cup. A number of protest groups are setting out to 'wreck' Glazer's plans. The Not4Sale Coalition has called on David Gill, the club's chief executive, to resign, but he is expected to stay on to implement a business plan he has dismissed as "aggressive". But "chairman Roy Gardiner and the rest of the club's non-executive board members will resign, possibly as early as next week", reports The Observer (May 22). The Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association is attempting to give a more comprehensive lead to angry fans. Spokesman Mark Longden said: "We refuse to recognise the new owners of Manchester United plc as adequate, credible or positive custodians of Manchester United Football Club." The IMUSA has put forward a 10-point action plan for fans: * Wear black at the FA Cup final; * Hold public rally; * Use customer power to boycott merchandise, sponsors' products and cancel MUTV subscriptions; * Boycott matches; * Use shareholder power; * Call on David Gill and remainder of United board to resign; * Make Glazer and his backers aware of anger; * Write in protest to Premier League, Football Association and MPs; * Challenge the media; * Join a supporters' group. Supporters will have to develop a campaign that can go beyond these often tame proposals if they really want to take control of 'their' club. Many have generalised from United's experience and see this as part of a wider trend across football. They see clubs as becoming increasingly commercialised - Man U is not the only club to have been floated on the stock exchange in recent years - and run for profit rather than in the interests of the club and its fans. A number of influential football dignitaries, supporters and politicians co-signed a letter sent to The Guardian on May 21. They claim that "football's governance needs root-and-branch reform". The co-signatories include Graham Kelly (former chief executive of the Football Association), Lord Faulkner, Billy Bragg and Labour MP Alan Keen (chair of the all-party parliamentary football group), as well as the representatives of numerous supporters' groups. In their opinion flotation on the stock exchange is "inappropriate for a sports club "¦ The basic purpose of a professional football club is, or should be, measured by completely different standards. Is the team performing well? Is the club producing good young players? Are spectator facilities the best they can be? Is the club contributing as much as it can to the community in which it has its roots? "¦ Domestic and European legislators must understand that professional sport cannot be treated like any other commodity traded in a competitive market." Lots of football supporters who share these sentiments look back to what they see as halcyon days when the 'beautiful game' was less commercial and more community-orientated. It is true that ticket prices have never been higher and the massive wages top players receive divorce them completely from the working class communities that so many fans come from. The idea that all was rosy in days gone by, though, is utter nonsense. When Jimmy Greaves started playing professionally in 1957 the maximum wage for players was £18 a week. Sure enough, players were more in touch with working class fans than the likes of Beckham (who gets £120,000 a week), but this level of pay left players susceptible to all sorts of bribery and corruption. It also kept them 'in their place' so far as the football establishment was concerned. Facilities for working class fans were appalling and dangerous, while those that ran the game racked it in. It is important to recognise that all sports are unavoidably shaped by societies in which they are produced, and the social relations that make those societies what they are. The antecedents of football are completely different from today's game and were clearly shaped by feudal relations. There were no rules or boundaries as such, while something resembling a ball (a stuffed animal bladder in some cases) would be kicked, thrown and chased around the land surrounding one or two villages for days on end. Modern football evolved alongside capitalism in Britain and is a thoroughly different game. It was born in public schools, where discipline was paramount and the participants were in training for 'greatness'. The FA was founded in 1863. Before the turn of the century football started to become a popular sport amongst the growing working class communities. Churches and employers, who have always seen the benefits of 'bread and circuses', encouraged this development. In this way many current teams were established: eg, Manchester United from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways company; Sheffield United from Sheffield Cutlers; and Birmingham City from Holy Trinity Church. In 1885 professionalism was made legal. Football is often considered a working class sport now and in terms of participation it overwhelmingly is, but its upper class roots can be seen in the pin-striped apparatchiks who run the game to this day. Millions of people enjoy watching or participating in sports. In our leisure time what we do is 'recreation'. We attempt to re-create ourselves in the spaces between work. However, under capitalism or any other form of class rule this process of 'recreation' is inherently flawed and the potential of humanity cannot be realised. In the words of Harry Braverman, "The atrophy of community and the sharp division from the natural environment leaves a void when it comes to the 'free' hours. Thus filling of the time away from the job also becomes dependent on the market, which develops to an enormous degree those passive amusements, entertainments, and spectacles that suit the restricted circumstances of the city and are offered as substitutes for life itself. Since they become the means of filling all the hours of 'free' time, they flow profusely from corporate institutions which have transformed every means of entertainment and 'sport' into a production process for the enlargement of capital" (H Braverman Labour and monopoly capital New York 1974, p278). Our relationships with football clubs and other sports institutions are conditioned by the alienation we suffer in capitalist society. We feel atomised and long for a sense of belonging or community. It is understandable that people look to sports clubs, as well as pop bands and all sorts of other objects of identification, to fill this void. However, these are not communities in which you are an equal, and your belonging often ends in your being used. There are times though, as with Manchester United supporters today, when this sense of collective belonging can turn against those that run the club for profit. Class societies are inherently competitive and therefore unavoidably produce competitive sports. Many believe that competition is part and parcel of 'human nature'. Communists on the other hand know that 'human nature' is not fixed or static, but is determined by social conditions and therefore a changing, developing phenomenon. As communists we look forward to a classless society in which there will be no competitive sports. In their place our leisure activities will include forms of physical play that we cannot conceive at present, which will be based on enjoyment of ourselves, each other and our environment - not competition. However, this certainly does not mean that we ignore sport in the here and now. Our flawed attempts at 'recreation' in the present are essential to both our sanity and our ability to develop the resistance that has the potential to overthrow class rule and win true human liberation. Communists are not merely propagandists for this future society - we fight for it. Sport is one of the fields of battle upon which we must fight. It is through struggles such as this that the working class can discover itself as a class for itself, not just of itself. To this end communists fight for the biggest possible gains in the sphere of leisure under capitalism. Football clubs and other sports institutions should be publicly owned and democratically run by the people who play and watch. Dave Isaacson Stop Glazer Public meeting, Monday May 30, 7.30pm, Central Methodist Hall, Oldham Street, Manchester city centre (opposite Afflecks Palace). Doors open 7pm.