Less than two weeks after Manchester City won the Premier League title in the most exhilarating fashion imaginable, some sobering news: the club compiled a loss of nearly £200 million in 2011—the largest deficit in football history. They and their 19 top-flight rivals combined to post a £361 million shortfall in the last fiscal year. Only eight teams made a profit.
Now, these numbers don’t mean a great deal to the average football fan. At least not directly, in the crunching and evaluating of them. Indirectly, however, the huge losses recorded by the English and European champions (Chelsea, who won the Champions League last Saturday, lost £68 million in 2011) has a lot to do with a club-supporter disconnect that becomes more pronounced with every zero written in red on the balance sheet, with every transaction that bellies any notion of sensible business practice.
Real people aren’t geared to think in the tens and hundreds of millions. Such figures are the realm of the unreal, and seeing them printed in the sport pages day after day is more than a bit disillusioning.
Of course, this phenomenon is hardly restricted to City, Chelsea and the Premier League. A football club run as a proper business is a rare thing indeed, but rarer still is the supporter who can identify with the wages earned by the players they turn out to watch at the weekends. This isn’t news to anyone, but money is the fissure separating clubs from fans—the canyon keeping ordinary people with an instinct for a rooting interest from the players and teams to which they’d like to attach their loyalty. And it’s getting wider.
So much of the supporter experience has to do with being able to choose a side in a battle, with backing the cause of one team against all others. It’s a process born out of an instinct to be part of something bigger, something greater. But the process fails when the cause ceases to be victory and becomes, instead, an exercise in complicated arithmetic.
This is why international football is still important and perhaps matters now more than ever before.
With the club game reduced to either an arms race among the big powers or a struggle for existence among the smaller sides, international football provides the most authentic outlet for displays of loyalty, for identifying with a cause. (There is a measure of naivety in this notion, as the raison d’être for organisations such as FIFA and UEFA is, after all, to make money. But it’s a naivety happily accepted during a season otherwise dominated by transfer gossip and the selfish ramblings of players.)
For a start, international football is easy to buy into for a fan looking to tie his or her allegiance to a particular cause, and nationalism is only part of the explanation.
During the Euro 2012 finals two weeks from now the majority of viewers will have no connection to the country they choose to support beyond an admiration for its playing style or affection for several of its players. Even playing style, the nation-to-nation nuances of which have been watered down by the globalisation of the game, figures only nominally in the equation. And these are the same players, don’t forget, whose salaries and transfer fees create the disenchantment with club football in the first place.
International football matters because it’s a diversion. Folks are eager for their football, hungry for it, and the enjoyment provided when it’s served without transfer rumours, wage packets, season ticket hikes and administration is a pleasure the club game simply can’t match, just as it can’t match the notion of a team selected on footballing merit rather than what can be afforded or what the local rivals did in the transfer window.
No, the international game isn’t entirely detached from the money culture so pervasive in professional sport, but its separation from purity isn’t nearly as stark. There will only be a trophy presented to the Euro 2012 champion on July 1. The accountants will have to sit this one out.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer