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Why the ’39th step’ is a step too far

Adding a match abroad to the 38 games in the English Premier League can only exclude fans and further sanitise the game.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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‘Comical’ was how UEFA president Michel Platini described the proposal to stage a 39th round of English Premier League fixtures on foreign soil. And, for once, I agree with him. The 39th Step, as it’s been dubbed, sucks. Not because all football traditions are sacred. Nor because commercial innovation is necessarily a Bad Thing. But because staging domestic league games abroad threatens to destroy the very thing that makes football such a thrilling and dramatic spectacle and that’s the umbilical connection between a football team and its fans.

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore describes the proposal as ‘an idea whose time has come’. He paints himself as an innovator and the fans as inherently conservative. ‘Every time there is an evolutionary step, the reaction of the fans is not always great but I would ask them to take a step back and look at the positives.’ Scudamore’s proposals have been welcomed by some Premiership managers. Roy Keane described it as a ‘great idea’. ‘Change is good sometimes’, said the Sunderland boss. Kevin Keegan concurred. ‘I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing’, said the Newcastle manager. ‘The trouble with a lot of people is that as soon as something new comes into the arena, they want to find reasons to knock it.’

However, despite all the talk about innovation, there is an increasingly vocal ‘anti’ camp which sees Game 39 as nothing more than a money-spinning circus. Some Premiership managers, including Sir Alex Ferguson and Gareth Southgate, have voiced their doubts. The Daily Express has started a ‘crusade’ against the proposals while the Football Supporters Federation has launched a ‘No to GAM£ 39’ online petition. ‘It would most certainly kill our game’, fumed former England manager Graham Taylor – a view echoed on countless football message boards. More significantly, there is little global support for the idea amongst the overseas governing bodies. Mohammed bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation, told the BBC: ‘We’ll vote strongly against it. The Premier League is putting money before responsibility and dignity.’

Scudamore is right in one sense. There is always opposition to innovation. The televising of live league games was resisted for years by the football authorities who feared that spectators would stay away from football grounds. They were wrong. Pay TV helped fuel the revitalisation of football in the 1990s and the fans, who’d deserted the terraces in the 1980s, flocked back in their droves. However, although English football has, arguably, never had it so good, there is increasing disenchantment with its commercialisation. Money, it is argued, has ruined the game, causing the sporting ethos of fair play to be corroded and supplanted by a cynical ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality.

Some commentators see the Game 39 proposal as the logical culmination of commercialisation. But I don’t go along with the idea that the commercially-driven innovations we have seen over the last two decades are either all bad or, conversely, all good. Commercialisation has undoubtedly brought tangible benefits for fans. For a start, you can watch live football on television – something which was confined to a handful of games when I was growing up. Football on Sundays is also good (though I’m not too keen on some of the silly kick-off times). Then there are the improvements to the matchday experience. No more standing on piss-soaked uncovered terraces. The amenities are better, the pitches are better, we can see top-notch foreign players week in, week out and the technical quality of the football has improved – at least it has in the Premiership.

On the downside, the imposition of piped music, cheesy US-style razmattazz, and family-friendly codes of conduct have contributed to the anaesthetised atmosphere at Premiership grounds. More damaging is the unequal distribution of TV income, which has excluded all but a handful of clubs from the title race. How can this be good for the game? In the 1990/91 season, my team, Crystal Palace, finished third in the old First Division. It’s a depressing thought that, barring a Russian oligarch falling in love with Croydon or the discovery of oil reserves in Thornton Heath, the best that Palace can realistically aim for is promotion and mid-table Premiership mediocrity.

By what criteria should we judge the Game 39 idea? I don’t think we should get too hung up on the commercial motive. Undoubtedly, generating more cash is the primary objective. But that doesn’t mean it is necessarily a bad thing. Nor do I think we should defend tradition for tradition’s sake. Some traditions, like the ritual trading of abusive chants, are worth preserving. Others, like the maximum wage or monkey chanting, belong in the garbage bin of history. Each innovation should be judged on its own merits. In this particular case, I just can’t see any merits. In fact, Game 39 is an utterly a daft idea. Not because it violates a sacred tradition that dates back to 1888 but because it’s a rank bad innovation. Playing home and away fixtures against every team is fair whereas the 39th game, as many commentators have pointed out, introduces an element of lottery to the league. What in God’s name is the point with messing around with something that plainly isn’t broken? As I said, daft.

An extra 39th fixture might not work but what if there was a fair way to stage Premiership games abroad? What would be the objection? The best way to assess whether this is a good or bad idea is to apply what I call the Sanitisation Test. Will Premier League football become more or less anodyne as a result of the changes? The idea of overseas fixtures clearly fails the Sanitisation Test because, at its heart, is the notion that the matchgoing fanbase can be removed from the football equation altogether. Richard Scudamore would argue that it’s only one fixture but if the experiment shows that the league can thrive or generate more income without domestic fans then the temptation would be to play more games abroad.

So, why is the connection between matchgoing fans and the team so vital? The chanting, booing, rivalry and banter – this is not just a soundtrack to the game. Football fans are not just passive consumers of sportertainment. A vocal, passionate crowd are actors in the drama – the ‘thirteenth man’ as they say. Players can be either be fired up and lifted by the crowd or else intimidated or cowed. You could, of course, hand out song sheets for the benefit of the overseas spectators but they could never acquire the encyclopaedic and arcane knowledge of English football that fans here possess. Why is there bad blood between certain clubs? Why do some players get booed and others applauded? What do Chelsea fans throw celery or Arsenal fans wave mobile phones and wads of banknotes at Ashley Cole? Why did Robbie Fowler pretend to snort the goal-line when he scored against Everton? Why the abusive chants about sheep shaggers or incest or Harold Shipman? If you’re not immersed in the history and culture of the terraces then the rivalry or needle that animates domestic fixtures loses its edge. In short: One-nil to sanitisation.

That’s not to say that there won’t be any atmosphere or noise if games are played abroad. The locals will clap and cheer. There might even be a vocal contingent of English fans who’ve made the trip out to Beijing or Singapore. But the atmosphere will not be the same. I’ll bet that every indicator will show much higher levels of sanitisation. There’ll be more Mexican Waves, more jester’s hats, more fancy dress, more giant foam hands, and more inflatable clapping sticks. And that would be very, very bad for football.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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