Political Football, by Wyn Grant

Stephen Mumford enjoys a brilliant analysis of what has gone wrong with the world’s most popular sport, which is less convincing on solutions

July 1, 2021
‘No room for racism’ board at Premier League match between Leeds United and Manchester United
Source: Getty

It’s been a fine game. The home side are taking their slim lead into the last minute. There’s just one final corner to defend and all three points are secured. The cross arrives, expertly placed under the crossbar. Veteran goalkeeper Wyn Grant rises above the heads. Reaching out for the ball, he takes it securely. As he lands, though, it jumps out of his hands. He tries to recover, but the assistant referee signals a goal.

One of the attractions of football is that most games keep us captivated to the very end, as does Grant’s exploration of the largely unregulated economics of football. Despite the apparent success of the world’s most popular sport, this mainly UK-centric survey shows that deep down it’s a mess. In just about any other market, such chaotic behaviour would see a higher rate of failure. Football clubs survive, despite financial recklessness, because of the passion the game evokes.

Regulation is the theme throughout, and its largely ineffective track record. The English game is in an especially bad place in this regard, in contrast to Germany, because of our economically liberal and individualistic tradition that leans towards self-regulation or deregulation. The consistent failures of such an approach are catalogued in eye-watering detail. Football’s major problems with dodgy owners, racism, gambling and sexism have barely been tackled, despite the occasional nice words or campaign. The game is rife with sponsorship and even ownership by betting companies. Even “responsible gambling” warnings still push the idea that gambling is fun and that those with addictions are simply doing it wrong.

The chapter on women’s football is the strongest, detailing the long history of sexism, misogyny and patriarchy in the game. Grant weaves a compelling narrative from historical reports of early women’s games, where journalists would be outraged at the players’ attire, as not markedly feminine enough, and a good player would be accused of being a man in disguise. Misogyny persists, perhaps less overtly, but the pay gap between the men’s and women’s games is now a chasm. The ban on competitive women’s football in England was removed as recently as 1971 and it is disappointing to see how we have still not progressed beyond notions of delicate femininity that have led to a protective attitude towards women’s sports. I would recommend this chapter to anyone working in gender studies or sports sciences.

After such a catalogue of regulatory failure, and appeals for a stronger approach, the reader’s hopes are raised of receiving some positive recommendations. This hope is largely disappointed. Suggestions from others are dismissed before, in the last few pages, we get the author’s proposal for a statutory regulator (Ofsoc). Since “its remit would principally be concerned with the financial probity of the clubs”, however, this would do nothing to address the problems of racism, globalisation, sexism and gambling that have been so compellingly detailed. There are highs and lows in every game. At the very end, keeper Grant drops the ball. Nevertheless, this is a book of two halves with plenty of worthwhile material in the good half.

Stephen Mumford is professor of metaphysics at Durham University.

Political Football: Regulation, Globalization and the Market
By Wyn Grant
Agenda, 192pp, £60.00 (hardback) and £19.99
ISBN 9781788213509 (hardback) and 9781788213516
Published 27 May 2021

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