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Manchester United R.I.P.

Andy Newman

To understand the shocking significance of Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United it is necessary to understand that this is a full scale onslaught upon a cultural institution of world wide significance. Glazer must be stopped, and some fans have announced they intend to disrupt the FA cup final in Cardiff on Saturday, although the demonstration at Southampton last Saturday was smaller than expected, as perhaps many Man U fans do not understand the significance of Glazer's move.

On 6th February 1958 a BEA charter aircraft carrying 43 passengers crashed in a blizzard at Munich. Twenty three of the passengers lost their lives in a disaster that would forever invest Manchester United with the charisma of tragedy. The cream of Matt Busby's young team were taken, including 29 year old Roger Byrne who had played for England 33 times, and the legendary 21 year old Duncan Edwards.

George BestIt is a lasting tribute to Busby that he rebuilt the team to be the top English club in the 1960s. It is also a remarkable personal achievement by crash survivor Bobby Charlton that just 8 years later he would hold the Jules Rimet trophy. The team that Busby created from the ashes on Munich would later include perhaps the greatest individual genius to play for an English club, George Best.

Of course even in the "good old days" Football was always basically a business, and Munich widow, Elizabeth Wood, has campaigned to expose the injustice of how United shoddily treated the families of the dead and injured. They didn't even pay for relatives to visit their loved ones in Munich hospitals.

Nevertheless, Munich expresses the soul of football, and even though most football fans are repelled by Man U's relentless merchandising, they are still the club that best articulate the myths of sport. Even in the modern era, Alex Fergusson's triumph of creating a team of youngsters who would storm the heights of sporting achievement in 1995 shows that money alone still does not determine success on the football field.

It is a mystery to me why so many socialists express no interest in sport, ignoring the fact that sport is ideologically and practically at the heart of civil society. The story of Manchester United perfectly exemplifies the appeal of competitive sport, and sport fills the hearts and souls of millions of working class enthusiasts, whether from the grandstands, or from their sofa in front of the TV.

Arguably sport is an aberration produced by capitalist society. It subverts play, which has multiple outcomes, into an almost militarised competition of maximum physical effort, what was once described by a French Marxist as a prison of measured time and space. The tribal identification of fans to particular teams is also an expression of alienation, where individuals sublimate their private hopes, fears and aspirations into a public and vicarious collective escapism.

But competitive sport cannot escape two subversive components. Firstly the outcomes must be unknown and determined ultimately on the field, and secondly mass popular sport can never dispense with the ingredient of play. (And sports without play, such as athletics, are not popular with spectators unless heavily hyped by the context of a wider spectacle such as the Olympics)

The requirement that outcomes must be unpredictable is of course institutionalised (and indeed mitigated) by the betting industry, but nevertheless constitutes a considerable financial risk for businesses investing in sports institutions. For example Southampton will lose millions of pounds by being relegated from the Premiership, losing TV income, corporate sponsorship, and gate receipts; but if they wish to regain promotion they must aspire to the same squad size and quality of players. Yet without this business uncertainty the sport struggles to retain the interest and loyalty of fans.

For example, longer term league competitions average out the degree of individual uncertainty and give an advantage to the better financed and more skilful teams. So although individual league games may be unpredictable, the overall result of the league is usually a competition between a few super-clubs; and the only way to break into that elite is by massive financial expenditure, as we have seen recently at Chelsea.

But knockout tournaments gain a much bigger audience, for example both the FA cup competition, and international tournaments such as the World Cup or European Championship raise a heightened degree of identification, not only because the local or national team may be competing, but also because the result is much more susceptible to individual luck, passion or skill, and the element of play reasserts itself. This is even though the level of skill and technical entertainment would be more consistently high in matches between leading contenders in a league competition.

And play and uncertainty is also very important in understanding the popularity of those few players whose individual skill is so great that it transcends the limitations of the sport, for example: Ferenc Puskas, Pele, George Best or Diego Maradona: players whose individual skill was sufficient to turn a match, or even a tournament on their own, or who invented new and unexpected moves. Even more flawed individuals, like Paul Gascoigne, who were less consistent but never lost the element of play and spontaneity, are more popular than reliable workhorses like Alan Shearer. As long as there is an element of play in sport then the dream of supporting a football team also includes the dream that individual human actions can make a difference. The fantasy of being the striker who scores the wining goal is a fantasy that the world could be a different and better place, and you as an individual are not powerless to affect that outcome. Surely no-one fantasises about being the Russian mafia boss who wins the title by investing hundreds of millions of pounds?

It is also hard to imagine that anyone fantasises about sport without play. It is important to distinguish here between play and skill. Play requires that the risks are taken because unpredictable moves endanger negative as well as positive outcomes; whereas skill is merely the technique required to achieve the maximum abstract physical effort required for success. Every single day thousands of people kick footballs around in their local park because they enjoy playing, but it is hard to imagine anyone emulating Ellen Macarthur, perhaps by taking some B&Q carrier bags into the shower, turning it on and staying there for 71 days, however much we may admire her sailing skill

The English premiership, along with the lower divisions, institutionalises the uncertainty by allowing promotion and relegation. Without relegation and promotion there would be closed leagues like in the US for baseball and American Football. The closed league system reduces the financial risks for the businesses that invest in sport, but at the expense of removing uncertainty and therefore reducing the scope for play and individual skill to assert itself.

Not for sale?The purchase of Manchester United by Malcolm Glazer is therefore of immense significance. This is not simply a change of ownership but a potential revolution in the organisation of European sport. As he has secured 75% ownership through the stock market he is able to transfer the debt raised to purchase United onto the club itself. This is a standard procedure in the rapacious mergers and acquisitions model of American corporations. All the risk will reside with Manchester United, and Glazer's parent organisation is protected. But Glazer is not an asset stripper; he will transfer 540 million of debt onto United requiring 46 million per year in interest to be repaid by the club, on the understanding that he can boost the business so that it can afford to repay him. But in the last financial year Manchester United, one of the world's most profitable clubs, made only 19.4 million net profit! Even before depreciation and amortisation of player acquisition costs the gross profits were only 58.3 million.

Glazer's business model only makes sense if he has an informed expectation that he can break out of the Premiership's collective TV deal, which shares funds equally between the premiership clubs, and also includes a significant payout to the Professional Footballers Association. Manchester United will need to negotiate individual TV rights to get the revenue to repay Glazer. It will also need to maximise the potential revenue, and they can get a lot more TV money for playing PSV Eindhoven, Rangers or Benfica, than they can for a game against Fulham or Portsmouth. Removal from the national leagues may even mean they would refuse to compete in competitions like the FA cup.

The prospect of a closed European super-league would not only remove the best clubs and most skilful players, so they would never come and play away matches in far flung provincial towns; it would also take money away from the lower clubs plunging many into even deeper financial crisis. Without local clubs developing local youngsters through youth squads, etc, the game would more and more rely upon the import of foreign super players. Further distancing the game from the day to day dreams and aspirations of the fans. It is a lot easier for a British teenager to fantasise that they might become the next Paul Scholes than they might become the next Ronaldo.

It is remarkable that the Labour government, so in love with the ideology of the free market, does not recognise that the free market also includes the prospect of monopolies subverting competition. Whether we like sport as individuals or not, the present structure of competitive football is loved by millions; and Glazer's plans are an act of philistine corporate vandalism. To understand just how supine the Labour government is, note that in order to prevent Glazer's takeover all they had to do was lend the fans' collective, Shareholders United, enough money for an additional 10% stake in the club; that would have prevented Glazer reaching 75%.

It is not too late for the government to act through a partial nationalisation of Manchester United, purchasing a 25% stake. But New Labour will of course do nothing, as they worship the gods of greed and corporate power above all else. Does anyone remember how the song went back in 1997, "Things can only get better"?

 

May 2005

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