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Football, money and the nature of the local

  • 29 April 2021
  To cultured Martian observers the decision of a few European football clubs to start a new competition would have seemed routine. They might have been surprised, however, at the outrage it caused. Even Prime Ministers were brought into the debate, threatening to block it. The history of sport, with its varied and often conflictual relationships between local communities, money and administration, provides the context for understanding the move. It also raises more important questions about the nature and importance of the local. 

The beginnings of modern soccer in the second half of the nineteenth century, like those of cricket and the rugby codes, saw it as play rather than as work. The founding clubs that codified the games included schools or had connections with local church youth groups. The red and black colours of the Essendon AFL club, for example, are probably derived from those then sported by St Patrick’s College where many of the early Essendon players had gone to school. Essendon played at the East Melbourne Football Ground adjacent to the school.

The distinction between work and play generated conflict over the payment of players. In English cricket, where entrepreneurs had sponsored touring teams, the distinction was domesticated in the class difference between amateur players, who were considered to embody the spirit of the game, and professionals who were paid. More explosively, it led to the split between rugby union and rugby league. In all sport, however, the majority of players even in sports where players were paid, did not earn their living from the game. They had other employment. 

The beginnings of most sports, too, lay predominantly in small and tightly bound communities. They expressed and generated local loyalties, often intensified by religious identification. The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, Manchester United and Manchester City, and between Liverpool and Everton, for example, was sharpened by the sectarian divide between Catholic and Protestant.

The administrators of sporting clubs and of the associations that regulated the competitions were also largely unpaid and were members of the local communities who had been long associated with the clubs.  The conflicts that arose in the sports were typically between the management of the associations and players or clubs and reflected the feeling that the boards were out of touch with their local roots and that players were not sharing fairly the revenue of the game.

Finally, in the beginnings of sporting clubs the