The sport of football is constantly evolving and it’s reached an absurd level. Winning is no longer enough, supporters demand entertainment – and will swiftly revolt if they don’t get what they want.
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The game that clinched Chelsea the Premiership title last year was a no-frills, no-thrills 1-0 win at home to Crystal Palace, the climactic stages of which, were soundtracked by the chants of “Boring, boring Chelsea” emanating from the away end. The week before, as Jose Mourinho’s defensively minded tactics of 4-2-3-1 edged their way to a invaluable goalless draw at Arsenal, the entire 60,000-seater Emirates stadium had echoed with outraged cries of the same.
This season, despair replaced boredom as the overriding mood at Stamford Bridge, but the argument hasn’t ended, only shifted focus. In the first week of January this year, Man United were a point away from the league’s top position, yet the loudest and longest debates about Louis van Gaal’s Old Trafford project were not about the fallen giant of the Moyes-era elbowing its way back into competitiveness, but whether the football produced by his team is pulse-quickening enough.
This is no manufactured controversy, either. The Old Trafford crowd, with their disgusted yells of “Attack, attack, attack!” are the driving force behind this debate, not the brigade of quote-happy ex-players (Keane, Scholes etc.) who publicly voice their complaints on a regular basis. Whilst this factor of internal dissent didn’t apply at Stamford Bridge last season, it certainly did at Anfield under the Rafa Benitez era, as his unwillingness to play all-out-attack had Liverpool’s fans divided down the middle. Those who pitched tent in the more demanding camp were only satisfied with a title challenge if it involved high levels of entertainment, many seeing fit to boo a draw which took Liverpool to the top of the league.
Supporters’ fury at functional football has always existed, of course. Football fans tend to divided themselves into the horrible and the miserable, but it certainly feels as though recent years have seen the issue intensify, and to be treated by both fans and the media as something that really matters. There is a growing pile of evidence to support the case that the issues of aesthetics and excitement, once treated as secondary to actually winning points, have come to assume a more important role within fans’ consciousness.
The shift has various causes. The massive increase in ticket prices has left match-going fans feeling hard done by if a scrambled tap-in followed by 30 minutes of timewasting is all they’re given in exchange for a £80 outlay at The Emirates. The dulling of the game’s atmospheres, especially across The Premier Leagues larger stadiums, has left the actual match as the fans primary source of satisfaction – there’s no longer the option of a 90-minute singalong to make a miserable game worthwhile.
The regular Champions League batterings handed out by the giants of Spain and Germany may have indirectly caused the skewing of the expectations of Britain’s leading clubs unfairly upwards. That is, an attitude of: if this dominant new European elite can play attacking football, then why can’t we?
The most significant reason behind the Rise of Boredom results in the changing nature of the way football is viewed – and especially the way it’s marketed. Growing up in the 90’s meant the match-going itself – along with a weekly viewing of Match of the Day and occasionally the odd televised game – was how I, and most fans, did their spectating. Now, the medium of television rules completely.
Following only the Premier League and Champions League, and you’re still able to watch a good 12 hours of weekly football. Add in the lower divisions, the cup tournaments, Scottish football, and the odd European game, and your choices become limitless. In line with the increase in viewer’s accessibility to football exploding, so has football’s access back to the viewers. The £5.2bn value of the Premier League’s latest TV deal is a massive increase on the previous one, and those pounds translate directly to people. The Premiership currently claims to command a global television audience of 4.7 billion. Long gone are the days of Ceefax.
Where once standing on the terraces had become seats in stands, this now in turn has been replaced by sitting on the sofa as the fan’s primary means of watching a game. Football is therefore marketed in accordance with the more traditional conventions of the entertainment industry: drama, storylines and spectacle. Next time you see one an advert on Sky Sports’ for the coming week’s Super Sunday clash, take a moment to notice the background music, protagonists, rivalries, voiceover and taglines, and note how closely it resembles a film trailer.
Pepsi and Popcorn are the new Beer and Bovril.
So when football is sold as entertainment rather than sport, it’s not surprising when a lack of high-action thrills on the pitch leads to booing from the stands – even if the match result is favourable to those doing the heckling. This isn’t to say that the vast outpourings of negativity towards Van Gaal’s trudging title contenders are wrong (as with your opinion on Arsenal, Liverpool or Mourinho – or the Beatles, Peanut Butter, or Star Wars) – it all comes down to taste. Simply that it cannot be just coincidence how the obsession with excitement over results has sprung to primacy at precisely the time that the broadcasters, with their bottomless pockets, have come to rule the roost.
The dynamic is unlikely to change anytime soon, and so the debate is likely to rumble on, plodding away against its latest subject with no decisive manoeuvre and no conclusion in sight – much like a United attack, in fact. And like a United attack, it’ll all soon become pretty damn boring.