Coventry shows dangers of mixing sport and politics

  • 17 June 2014
  • From the section England
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Supporters at a match in February this year
Why oh why? Supporters at a match in February this year

For proof if ever you needed it of just how toxic mixing sport with politics can be, come to Coventry.

As World Cup fever grips the land, anyone arriving in the city could be forgiven for thinking it's the most football crazy place on Earth.

It is festooned with ribbons in the famous Sky Blue colours of the team that bears its name. The Lady Godiva statue is fully clothed in it.

But in a world full of ironies, it's the absence of football rather than the game itself that's inspired this display of local fervour. It's more than 18 months since Coventry played in their own city. Home matches seem more like away fixtures: they're all being played at Northampton Town's Sixfields Stadium 34 miles away.

You can imagine what the fans think of that.

Coventry is a football-mad city but the home team plays in Northampton

"Keep Cov in Cov" is the slogan of one of their campaigns. Another fierce rival grouping demands "Get Coventry back in the Ricoh". (The Ricoh, for the uninitiated, is the state-of-the-art stadium in Coventry where the Sky Blues used to play in better days.)

So what's gone wrong?

It's a cautionary tale of political feuding as bitter and labyrinthine as the imbroglio embroiling the game's world governing body FIFA.

It invites inevitable comparisons with the storms raging around the World Cup competition itself. There have been riots on the streets of Brazil's major cities. An estimated $11bn dollars has been spent on staging it in a country where millions live in poverty.

In Rio, fans can watch the football while on the beach

The £14m loaned by Coventry City Council to clear the debts of the Ricoh Stadium's owners may not be in quite the same league. But it raises questions just the same about the use of public funds at a time of unprecedented pressure on local government finances. All the more so because the owner in question, Arena Coventry Limited (ACL), is a partnership between the Higgs charity and the city council itself.

Coventry City's difficulties stem from their relegation from the Championship to League One in 2012. As tenants rather than owners at the Ricoh, their declining income in the lower division meant they could no longer meet their payments to ACL for playing there. So the club's owners, the London-based hedge fund Sisu, demanded a cut in the rent. ACL offered a reduction but it did not match Sisu's opinion of what a team playing in the third tier of English football could afford.

Pop concerts

Last year, the council said the loan was justified because the Ricoh was an economic asset to the city (it also hosts major pop concerts as well as other high-profile sporting events). But Sisu took the authority to court, accusing them of misusing public funds. The court ruling is expected at the end of this month.

And all the time, tempers mount and nerve-endings fray. "Get Cov back to the Ricoh" campaigners vented their frustration with the council by running a candidate against its Labour leader Ann Lucas in last month's elections. She survives but this increasingly bitter dispute shows no sign of any early resolution. There are even fears that the council could end up with a multi-million pound legal bill, especially if Sisu pursue them for loss of earnings in the event of the court ruling going against the authority.

Professor Ellis Cashmore of Staffordshire University is one of Britain's leading commentators on Culture, Media and Sport. We asked him if it was wise for local government to become so closely and expensively involved in sport and entertainment.

He is convinced everyone involved in this epic public and private agony needs at least to sit down and talk to each other. He recalls being in Tampa in Florida when the city authority built a complete, brand-new stadium for the American football team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the basis that the NFL was capable of giving a real boost to the local economy.

It is hard to make such an optimistic argument for a League One football club that never even plays in a city that clearly needs a boost. And so, of course, do the long-suffering fans. But then again, football supporters often have to get used to taking the rough with the rough.

Professor Cashmore will be joining me for this week's Sunday Politics at 11.00 on BBC One this Sunday 22 June 2014. And I hope you will too.