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Is the people's game becoming a closed shop?

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Jack Ross | 09:38 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011

When Zinedine Zidane arched his body and scored one of Hampden Park's iconic goals for Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen I was privileged to be there.

This particular moment made being at a Champions League final even more special but as this year's competition reaches its latter stages and attention drifts towards its culmination at Wembley in late May, is the opportunity to be a spectator at the showpiece being limited by the price of a ticket?

I confess I drew a sharp intake of breath at the cost of £150 for the cheapest seat and immediately thought is this a further example of football edging away from its working class roots?

Undoubtedly, demand for these tickets will far exceed the capacity meaning from a simple economic perspective the pricing structure is valid but from a sporting and more specifically traditional football fan viewpoint it is excessive.

There is clear evidence that in some ways football is changing or has changed in terms of who is able to pay to watch matches on a regular basis.

But what about those who play the game? Does football still draw its players from working class areas and backgrounds or is the pattern off the park being mirrored by those who are plying their trade on it?

Zinedine Zidane scores at Hampden in 2002

Zinedine Zidane, a player from an impoverished background, scores at Hampden in 2002

I read with interest recently of the career progression of Wigan star Victor Moses, who along with Lee Hills of Crystal Palace, attended an independent school in South London.

Such an educational background is rare in football and usually more common in other sports such as rugby, cricket and golf. Are these players simply the exemption to the rule or a sign of the times?

Giving a definitive answer to this is very difficult but certainly there are factors to consider that may point to this becoming a more normal occurrence in Scottish football.

The disappearance of areas on which to play football combined with the expense of using the purpose built pitches mean that the game is not as accessible as it once was.

Furthermore, the costs that can at times come with being involved with an organised team from a very early age also mean that some youngsters are finding themselves excluded.

As circumstances have dictated that football may be losing its "doors open to everyone" tradition the examples of those players such as Hills and others such as recent Rangers loan player James Beattie illustrate that perhaps those from middle class backgrounds are emerging as professional players in greater numbers.

It does seem a little ironic that at a time when the likes of tennis and golf are making themselves more available to children of all backgrounds; football, for so long the people's game is in danger of becoming a sport of limited opportunity.

What about the attitude of people in football to those who come from a more comfortable upbringing?

In terms of players and within the dressing room I do not believe it makes any difference. Players get stick for their dress sense and musical taste through to their performance in training so being the son of millionaire would only guarantee you a little extra banter from team-mates but certainly no prejudice.

However, there have been the odd occasions when I have witnessed a coach's opinion being influenced by a player's privileged background.

In these instances, a player's hunger has been questioned on the back of not playing well for the sole reason it is the easy but also lazy judgement to pass.

Such views would be based on the opinion that players only play for the money and a better lifestyle and not for the love of the game and the burning ambition to win titles and cups.

I wonder if those who coached a young Gianluca Vialli, who lived in a 15th Century castle as a child ever used this as a question mark over his desire to become a professional player?

The truth of the matter is that being a top player is about ability, dedication and many other attributes but has never been about class.

Let's make sure it stays this way.


  • Comment number 1.

    I don't know about the players coming from more privileged backgrounds.. They don't appear to be any brighter than the players of old. The game's pretty much gone as far as the working class fan is concerned, at the top level, anyway. I've pretty much lost interest in the EPL and CL, now. I just don't feel it any more. More interested in lower level football, these days.

  • Comment number 2.

    When I said players aren't any brighter, I was of course, generalising..!

  • Comment number 3.

    Its a great pity the game is being price out of the market for regular fans.
    In 1960 for the pricely sum of 8 shillings each including entry we travelled on a coach from our school to Hampden to see the Real Madrid v Eintracht final and the memory is with me still.

  • Comment number 4.

    Interestingly EL Div I which I go to occassionally costs £25 a ticket - even that's hardly cheap for third tier game especially if three in a family go. And the entertainment's far from guaranteed either. Over-inflated costs, driven by players with egos as big as their salaries, will lead to a big meltdown sooner or later.

  • Comment number 5.

    Jack - Great article - you're a welcome addition to the BBC writing team online.

    I think British (and European to a certain extent) football is becoming more like a business with every new season, and that's very difficult for many Brits to understand.

    Here in the USA, all sport is business and people understand their local soccer or football club may not remain within the city, indefinitely. Yesterday, Sacramento Kings requested a city transfer hundreds of miles away to Orange County, yet their games are sold out every week.

    In Britain too many football clubs have been afforded overdrafts and loans under conditions not available to other businesses. These practices are unfair: its very sad to see some of the creditors on Dundee FC's list are small bakeries and small businesses who now have to write off a large part of their income to this club. Same for Chester City and Farsley Celtic, both of whom died last season.

    Finally, are we assuming that all 'real' fans are working class on low incomes and unable to pay 25 per game, or 150 pounds for a Champions League final ticket? Father and son entrance to the movies is about 15 pounds, and entrance to most concerts is around the same price, or more. Many working class fans support larger, successful teams when a local, cheaper alternative is available. Its fair to say that the larger successful teams are available on television most weekends.


  • Comment number 6.

    I believe the answers will never be considered as the money talks louder than ever.
    No matter how many buffet munchers put their bums on our working class seats, it will not make it their game, only destroy it. Just look at the England-Ghana game on Tuesday...the atmosphere was fantastic, generated by good old working class people. I can never see the privileged creating this type of party atmosphere and the more the working class are driven out by pricing the more this atmosphere will become a rarity.
    I also think the same applies to lower league clubs. They charge high prices to keep people full time who are no better than i was in my teens and twenties( a little fitter maybe) and hence demolish possible attendances.
    Football I agree is slowly dying, the heart of it weakening, just glad my junior team knows its rightful place in the community and hence recieves my hard earned cash with thanks.

  • Comment number 7.

    I don't know about Lee Hills, but Victor Moses certainly isn't your typical middle class public schoolboy - born in Nigeria, his parents were murdered for religious reasons. When he arrived in England aged 11 he was spotted by Palace scouts, signed up to the Academy and was funded by the club to attend Whitgift to improve his football education, as the school coaches included former Palace manager Steve Kember

  • Comment number 8.

    Thank you to those who have taken the time to leave comments.

    NoGBfootball, it is interesting to read of a difference in attitude towards clubs in the USA. Would it be fair to say that there is a significant variance to spectating at sport in the USA in terms of the number of families who attend games and also as to the overall "day out" approach to going to matches?

  • Comment number 9.

    Unrelated to the blog, Jack, but what do you make of the situation where Clyde played away at Annan on Tuesday, in the league, and are back there for a league game, again today..?

    Playing each other 4 times a season is stupid, and just plain wrong, IMO, and surely this situation - the same fixture played twice within 5 days highlights just how ridiculous the current set up is..?

  • Comment number 10.

    I think the class argument isn't really the big deal it's often made out to be. What defines class these days? Gross income? Disposable income? I have always felt it is more about background, parents occupation etc. There's plenty of wealthy people who would consider themselves working class and people from middle class backgrounds struggling to make ends meet.
    The Champions League final is a premium fixture, so the pricing structure doesn't really surprise me. What bothers me more is the price charged for lower league football as a previous poster has highlighted. I get £4 change from a £20 pound note to get into Starks Park to watch first division football. The ground has a 10,000 capacity and we usually a "crowd" of around 2,000. Can't help feeling that if the club charged £10, they would probably end up making more money and we'd have a larger crowd to cheer on the team.

  • Comment number 11.

    Interesting post Jack, I'm not sure if footballer becoming more middle class is a bad thing. I've just finished reading the great "Why England Lose" by Simon Kuper and it has a section on the backgrounds footballers come from. They looked at the backgrounds of players (based on their father's occupation) who played for England at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 world cups. Of the 34 players,

    19 were from what they called working class backgrounds (roofer, binman, factory worker etc.)
    4 had fathers who were footballers or football coaches
    5 had fathers who ran small businesses (market traders, pub landlords etc.)
    1 had a policeman for a father
    5 had fathers who's jobs required degrees or a lot of Highers (admin, artist, ad agency exec etc.)

    So only 15% came from backgrounds that required a lot of post standard grade education. Fifteen percent of the players' fathers' generation got university degrees while of the general working population 49% are educated to A level or above.

    If there is a rise in the number of middle class footballers it's probably player being drawn from a wider spectrum of society rather than just the working class.

  • Comment number 12.

    The days of someone rising up form kicking a ball around the schemes / council estates / favellas to become an international football star are long gone - that hasn't even happened in Brazil for years, all their youth players come from academies. The nature of the game has changed such that you can't excel without getting high-quality technical coaching from a young age - if your local club doesn't have a good enough youth system to identify good youth players & train them up then you'll only have players coming through who have got this training from elsewhere i.e. those with parents wealthy enough to have their children receive private training or pay them through schools with well developed sports programs.

    The argument seems to be that it is somehow wrong that non-'working class' people are getting involved in football & I find it rather distasteful. Talent will always be discovered, no matter where its from, as the financial incentives for doing so are so great & if one club isn't willing or able to extend the opportunity to demonstrate ability to players who are otherwise financially precluded from doing so then there will be another 5 who are.

    WRT to the Champion's League tickets, how much does it cost Wembley to stage? How much tax do they pay on the revenue? What's the risk-premium on their investment? How much profit do you deem it acceptable for them to make, bearing in mind that it's not a charity & the cost of paying off the debt needed to build it & maintaining the stadium has to be split between a relatively small number of events per annum? £150 for a football ticket sounds a lot, but it costs £50 to watch Fulham play Arsenal - I'd bet they'd still sell it out if the cheapest tickets were £200 or more, so from that POV it's under-priced. If you start to put an upper ceiling on how much money can be made then noone will be interested in staging or televising them. Why don't we just have the government nationalise it & give all the tickets away for free? You can either choose to have football as a successful, popular, global game, or have it be cheap to go watch; you can't have both.

    Also, #cammeag1965, the Ghanaian fans weren't "working class" - they'd all flown in from the US & Europe or were already living in London. If you've ever been to Africa you'll find that most people are just of that cheerful disposition & turn any sort of sporting event into a carnival :)

  • Comment number 13.

    The above poster points out the access kids need to have to top class support and facilities to make it as a professional footballer. I wonder if growing childhood obestiy will have an impact too? Health professionals often talk of 'a generation that will die before their parents'. Obesity is a growing problem in Scotland but is particularly problematic in groups with less income. Surely this will have an impact on driving football towards kids from wealthier backgrounds, who odds are, will be more active and so better able to develop themselves as footballers?

  • Comment number 14.

    I endorse the previous comment about "Why England Lose" by Simon Kuper and Kuper's analysis of the occupational background of players' parents. (I keep thinking that it would be even more depressing if Kuper had also asked about the players' close relatives, bearing in mind the Rooney and Terry clans!)
    I have a degree in European Humanities, am a reasonable linguist, and visit Germany quite regularly. You just have to listen to German players talk on radio or TV to realise that they are generally better educated and more self-assured than their British counterparts. 'Why Germany win' has a lot to do with Germany's education system and other social structures. German universities produce annually far fewer graduates than British ones - but the 'mean' level of academic attainment across the whole population seems much higher. It is for example easier to have an interesting and intelligent conversation in a German 'Kneipe' than in a British pub. Just to add that going to a game in Germany is fun and cheap (like it used to be over here).
    A 'Final' thought:- I remember going to a European Cup Final at Hampden in the 1970s between Bayern and St Etienne. I can't remember whether I paid cash at the turnstyle or had to nip up to Park Gardens to get a ticket - but either way, it cost hardly anything. (Do not conclude from this that I am a Bayern fan. Far from it. My adopted German team, Hertha, are currently trying to get back into Bundesliga 1. Hertha had a crowd of over 70,000 for their last home game vs Paderborn. Pretty amazing for Bundesliga 2 - and bearing out my previous point about football in Germany being fun and cheap).


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