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(Real) football: the reds buy the Reds?


Football isn’t what it used to be. In Australia, they don’t even know what football is actually called (it’s not soccer). But what’s even stranger is football has become very popular in countries that – to put it delicately – aren’t really traditional football powers.

True, you might make the same argument about England these days, which is why the qualifier “traditional” is vital. One of the few advantages of advanced age is that I can actually remember England actually winning something. Indeed, when requested – something that happens surprisingly infrequently, you’ll be shocked to learn – I can still reel off the names of most of the World Cup winning team of 1966.

Sadly, I’ve long since lost my childhood scrapbook that contained the black-and-white photos of the team and the reserves; substitutes were far off in the future, and are still regarded by some of us as a slightly wimpy innovation. I even had a wooden rattle of a sort that was very popular among small boys, but which has since gone the way of the Dodo.

All this sepia-tinted nostalgia is a precursor to a complaint about not just the state of the modern game, but the state of the modern world. Some of us struggled to come to terms with the idea that “our” teams suddenly featured foreign players. This might seem an odd – slightly racist – complaint, but it needs to be put in historical context.

When I was a lad and first fell in love with Bristol City (after a brief and rather embarrassing flirtation with Rovers) all of the players were local. One star winger – Lou Peters – actually lived in a “prefab” just down the road from my house. This is not as surprising as it might seem given that in the days before massive payments from TV, the players got a pittance.

If you’ve ever seen City play, you might be thinking that’s about what they’re worth. At times, even I would have to agree that the Robins (as they are delightfully and anachronistically still known despite the macho times) may not be in the top flight.

But are the current crop of players actually so much better that they warrant their astounding pay packets? Wayne Rooney famously makes around A$400,000 per week. He’s not even that good anymore, and certainly not worth 100,000 times more than Lou Peters was getting.

Yes, the game’s improved. The influx of all those talented foreigners has improved the standard of play, even among some of the locals. And the facilities have improved no end – especially if you can afford to sit in a corporate box with the toffs and tycoons.

But some of us didn’t actually mind standing on the terraces and risking being crushed underfoot as the crowd surged forward after a goal – a danger that was not as common as one might have hoped at Ashton Gate, unfortunately.

The atmosphere can be rather funereal and unexciting these days as a consequence of a new generation of fans who choose clubs on the basis of their marketing clout, success and image rather than their locality.

Which brings us the point of all this: a Chinese financial conglomerate with “links to the state” is thinking of buying a stake in Liverpool for around £700 million. Even in the UK’s post Brexit economy, that’s quite a bit of dosh. It’s far from uncharted territory, either.

If the deal goes through it will be just the latest in a long string of investments by Chinese plutocrats in foreign clubs. AC Milan, Inter Milan, Manchester City, West Brom (?!), and Aston Villa (beaten 3-1 by our lads last weekend) being some of the more prominent.

There has also been a growing exodus of players to China itself – and not just former superstars like Didier Drogba looking for (yet another) big payday before they hang up their boots.

Perhaps none of this matters, and only old codgers like me get worked up about this in the way that old codgers tend to do. And yet if you wanted a telling vignette of how money, power and influence have shifted in the world today, this isn’t a bad one.

Football-loving Xi Jinping has encouraged this form of “going out” by cashed-up Chinese business interests. The idea that “communist China” might impose themselves on the football world as they have on so many other areas of international activity is rich with irony. But they’re still crap at football in China, by the by.

Just as well that no one outside Australia is interested in or understands Aussie Rules. What would happen if a Chinese state-owned enterprise wanted to buy Hawthorn, for example? Now that would be a vital question about the national interest for Scott Morrison to wrestle with, and one we could all actually understand.

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