The day football died

In Text Messages this week, the sport loses the last vestiges of being a beautiful game played by people who have something in common with their supporters.

The boy’s house was in a dusty side road off Boom Street, one of Pretoria’s main east-west arterials that runs past the National Zoological Gardens about three kilometres to the east. Third Street in Asiatic Bazaar, Marabastad: a half-block of bicycle shops, music, Florsheim shoes, natty hats, corner cafés and a handful of homes. A few blocks down was the city’s fruit and vegetable market and beyond that the sandy football field on which Sundowns FC was born. The shades of paprika and mixed spice on a dry day, churned brown after rain, it really proved a field of dreams for Fish Kekana and the two doctors, Motsiri Itsweng and Bonnie Sebotsane, who formed what is today Mamelodi Sundowns.

The boy’s father would take him for walks with their Boxer dog, sometimes stopping to watch the late-afternoon casual football being contested on that unforgiving surface. At weekends, crowds thronged, roared and revelled in the ultimate people’s game (more correctly in those days, men’s game). That was then, a time in which the fans and the players inhabited more or less the same world and earned much the same in wages. (Liverpool’s great teams of the 1960s took home not much more than the workers who came to watch them play.) 

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This is now: a time when petrostates with murderous human rights records try to wash away their crimes and buff their images by buying football clubs and pouring money into them beyond the limits set down by the sport’s own authorities – and get away with it. Paris Saint-Germain (Qatar Sports Investments), Manchester City (Abu Dhabi United Group, ownership subsequently coyly renamed the City Football Group Limited) and Newcastle United (Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund) have fallen prey to petrodollars, sovereign wealth funds and ultimately to nation states with limitless wealth. That means that success can and will be bought – and has been in the case of the first two. Newcastle was acquired only this season, but expect the killers of Jamal Khashoggi to drench the place in money (just as they are trying to do with golf).

There is, however, a certain degree of karmic justice in the greatest club football prize, the Uefa Champions League, consistently eluding both Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. In this they are the football equivalent of cricket’s flat-track bullies: bashing most opponents in their domestic leagues, but failing year after year when facing the elite in the crucial stages of the league. Inevitably, one of the blood-money trio will win it, possibly the messianic Pep Guardiola’s City troupe. But the game has already gone and any pretensions of it being “the beautiful game” are over too.

Money buys everything

The curtain fell the day Manchester City announced the acquisition of its new, super, vastly improved Real Nine, Erling Haaland, the embodiment of a Viking, if without the axe. Berated for not having a traditional centreforward, Guardiola just bought one because that is what limitless funds out of bottomless pockets gets you. There might have been a pact: if I (Guardiola) win the Champions League with my array of oh-so-clever false nines, I win, no real nine; if I don’t, I buy a real nine. A win-win. How, indeed, can Guardiola ever lose? It’s entirely reasonable to rank Claudio Ranieri winning the Premier League with Leicester City more highly than any of Guardiola’s titles because Ranieri had a team of triers and believers and only two stars, N’Golo Kanté and Jamie Vardy, on hand.

What Guardiola has done with Haaland is add an Orc of immense proportions to the army of Mordor. Like the all-seeing, would-be all-conquering Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, Guardiola has now assembled the most invincible, most massive squad-team-club in football club history. Why should anyone try to stand in his Mordor-like way? Every other team is merely a bunch of deluded and hopeful humans and Hobbits lining up against the sheer evil of untrammelled power bought by money.

Liverpool, a club scarred forever by the Hillsborough tragedy, will try to stay the pace. It has a Gandalf-like figure in the irrepressible Jürgen Klopp, who has said often that repeated setbacks in his life and career made him only more determined. But Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings belongs to the literary genre of fantasy and Guardiola and City happily cohabit a world in which invading your neighbour and killing thousands of civilians is everyday stuff; nothing to see here.

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Football is not the beautiful game the boy saw on the dusty red of a bone-hard Marabastad pitch. The people around him were not the bourgeois fans and spectators who now make up a huge chunk of football crowds in the United Kingdom. They were not the overpaid pundits in comfy chairs in television studios around the world. They were not the pampered guests in stadium hospitality suites and corporate boxes for whom a day at the football is about reward, power, excess and display. They were not the players who earn more in a week than most South Africans will earn in a lifetime.

Instead, they were “ordinary” people, some employed, many not. They and the players on the field were equals in life, and for the duration of the game all could put aside cares and worries and join in the beauty of football, what one of the greatest film directors, the late Pier Paolo Pasolini, called “the last sacred ritual of our time”.

Alas, it is that no longer and the boy who once was bids it farewell with sadness and longing. It is the end of the game. Adieu.

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