The English novelist and playwright J.B. Priestley called football, in 1934's English Journey, an ‘uproarious Saturday plaything'. The leading character in the 1960s BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, Alf Garnett called it ‘the working-class ballet'.
Since the Sky Sports funded inception of the Premier League in 1992, however, the status of football has fundamentally changed.
In the latest issue of The Blizzard, Simon Kuper exposes the myth of football's ‘big business' status, pointing out that the combined turnover of clubs across Europe's top leagues comes to around a quarter that of Tesco. The current robustness of the Sky organization, close to bankruptcy in the pre-Premiership years, however, attests to the significant financial value of the game in this country: it's more than a plaything, and it's not restricted to Saturdays anymore either.
There is very little, too, that remains - at least at the top end - of football's working-class heritage. It has become, really, a sort of middle-class ballet or, if you prefer, ballet.
The reasons for this are various, and have been well charted elsewhere, but evidence is everywhere. The current edition of The London Review of Books, for example, bears the name Mourinho (yes that one, I checked) on the front cover.
The game's successful upward mobility is the realization of the Premier League dream. The (in)famous meeting of club chairmen in 1992 at which Murdoch was granted his monopoly of live football was as much a product of a generation of Thatcherite privatization as Network Rail or British Telecom, just a much more successful one. Except that, like those, the Premier League is still weighed down by its past.
George Orwell (in 1937's The Road to Wigan Pier) likened the English class system to a haunted house because you can't get rid of history. English Football, like so many of the country's other institutions, carries its history uncomfortably. That is the case, particularly, at Arsenal.
Arsenal's Emirates Stadium is the embodiment of the Premier League dream. Roomy, luxurious and quiet, Arsenal's expensive new home is cultural hotspot, business hub and sporting amphitheatre all at the same time. It looks great on (HD)TV, has incredibly comfortable (leather) seats and its name contains an unpleasantly solecistic reference to globalization (see *optional* rant below); in other words, it is everything Sky Sports and the Premier League want from football.
The Emirates is, also and resultantly, a temple to middle-class values. At, at least, £50 a go, an Arsenal ticket has become a badge of middle-class honor and, as a result, as marketable a tourist attraction as West-End Theater (or the ballet).
The Emirates welcomes oligarchs, politicians, royalty, celebrities, tourists and people who wear richly colored ties to compliment their pastel pink shirts: the disposable income set.
Those whose income is painfully ‘posable, the working class, are not welcome (or at least, definitely, not welcomed - it takes nine minimum wage hours, a fifth of the working week, to earn enough for one ticket).
The working class man is being forced out of football.
For some reason, though, in spite of being priced out of the market and seeing his priorities ignored, the working man, like herpes, Jens Lehmann or a deposed spirit, keeps returning where he's not wanted. His values, somehow, remain.
They remain in the increasingly embarrassing roll call of honors surrounding the stadium's middle tier. Needing trophies is just so working-class, especially when the balance sheet is in such rude health.
They remain, also, in the person of Andrei Arshavin. The little Russian is the sort of player around whom football teams, and Football itself, used to be built. Stocky, unathletic and permanently ‘blushing', Arshavin looks like one of us, an ordinary bloke called up from the stands: ‘go on Son, do a job for us out wide'. He plays like we would too, if we could. When he gets the ball he tries to score, just like the best kid in the playground and just like in the olden days.
So proletarian. Arshavin himself is a ghost of football past.
The Russian captain is thirty-years old. He has no resale value and his place in the squad makes no economic sense; we (I'm pretty middle-class myself by the way) don't like that. He gives the ball away sometimes too, and we don't like that either - just check the chalkboards.
The full Priestley quote is:
I know that religion, art, politics would give them something infinitely truer and more enduring; that comparatively this sport-turned-spectacle is a poor thing; yet if it is a poor thing it is their own, and I am glad they have it, this uproarious Saturday plaything.
‘They' don't, like so many things, have it any longer and Andrei Arshavin, should he be shoed out of The Emirates, this summer will only be the latest victim of Britain's perpetual class war.
*As promised: ‘The Emirates Stadium' is a compound proper noun where a plural is mashed up against a singular. Of course there can't be an apostrophe. The Emirates states don't (quite) possess the stadium, but it would be much more satisfying if there were. Ramming the two words together like this you sort of equate the two, like the stadium isthe Emirates. No doubt some marketing genius spouted exactly this line when the deal was agreed. It's nonsense though. There are seven Emirates states and one Emirates Stadium. It doesn't make sense and it's annoying. Bulls shit.