ONE hundred and eighteen years is a long time! So, when Tottenham Hotspur ran out onto the hallowed turf of White Hart Lane last Sunday for the very last time in their match against Manchester United, there was a genuine sense of an end of history.
Next year, the North Londoners, who finished second in the English Premier League this season, will be at “home” at Wembley Stadium for a year or two as the club builds a state-of-the art 62,000-seat stadium, literally a stone’s throw away from the existing one.
It’s a far cry from 1899, when Spurs signed an agreement with Charringtons to play on land behind the White Hart Pub, playing their first match against Notts County on Sept 4.
The gate was a mere 5,000 spectators, who paid the princely sum of £115 in gate receipts.
Six years later, Spurs bought the lease to the land, and the rest is history. Short of indulgence down memory lane, Spurs had its share of glory nights of which the pinnacle was in the 1960-61 season, when the great team led by Danny Blanchflower became the first English team in the last century to win the “double” — the league and the FA Cup.
I had the privilege of watching the double team when they toured South Africa in 1963, having just won the old English First Division and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
The Lillywhites (Tottenham’s sobriquet) crushed the local National Football League (NFL) XI 5-2 in Cape Town.
I was a mere 12-year-old, and although memories are a bit hazy, I still have a vision of John White ghosting past the likes of Tiger Lance in defence (Lance, of course, went on to become a notable South African Test cricketer) in the match at Hartleyvale.
But, my loyalty to the Spurs had already pervaded my sinews following that great double feat two years earlier.
In that era of the early 1960s, with the Beatles beckoning, Tottenham was one of the outstanding sides in Europe, including the likes of Real Madrid, Eintrach Frankfurt, Inter Milan, Benfica and Man United.
Contrast this with today, where the beautiful game seems to have been usurped by private equity purveyors, hedge funds, oligarchs, oil rich sheikhs, Chinese and Thai tycoons, and where the gatekeepers of the game — the governing bodies — are perceived to be in collusion with owners, thus fostering a culture of corruption, self-enrichment as if operating in a vacuum of denial as highlighted by the erstwhile tenure of Sepp Blatter at Fifa.
Despite the fact that football clubs are some of the most highly leveraged “businesses” where owners’ funds are oft treated as subsidies in creative accounting as opposed to an on balance sheet item — which if they were treated in the latter way, would fail today’s solvency test — the game today is marked by unsustainable wage structures and outrageous agent’s fees.
The few rich clubs that can afford this hubris have unwittingly spawned the emergence of a two-tier development of the beautiful game, like Football Apartheid, governed and institutionalised by the size of the bank balance of owners, where the ordinary fan has long lost influence.
Just look at the increasing incidence of fan protests against club owners.
This is setting a bad precedent for football in emerging countries. Cash-rich Chinese clubs are paying a king’s ransom to players well past their best or nearing the end of their careers in the European game, as if they could fast track the transformation and quality of the game and their leagues.
A stroll down Tottenham’s memory lane will show it is tradition, infused with a sense of history, community spirit and a tribal fan base, that maketh a club and league. Perhaps, in another 118 years time, fans then would look back in anger at the state of the game today.
They will find that it has been tempered with loads of money and extreme commercialism, but the clubs with true tradition and history — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Man United, Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus — thankfully still dominated.
Whether those supported by new money, Man City, Chelsea, PSG, will prevail and earn their own history only time will tell.
Tradition and history are no guarantees to sustainability. History bears testimony to a fair share of great clubs that have fallen by the wayside — Ajax, Benfica, Red Star Belgrade, Leeds United, Borussia Monchengladbach, Eintracht, to name a few.
Fifa and the English Football Association (FA), the two influential governing bodies, must set the governance roadmap for the game for the next century.
The dichotomy in the attitude of the two in recent cases reflects that football governance is either “work in progress” or subject to lip service.
The abrupt sacking last week of Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert from Fifa’s Ethics Committee, despite that they had “hundreds of cases” ongoing in the corruption scandal linked to the Blatter era, critics say will incapacitate such oversight.
In contrast, the FA in May agreed on a set of “strong” reforms in response to a House of Commons Ethics Committee enquiry in early 2017 into FA governance of football.
The reforms are aimed at making football leadership more inclusive and representative, and ensuring “greater independence and diversity into the FA’s decision making structures”.
But, when it comes to football agents, the two appear to close ranks. Take Paul Pogba’s world record £89.3 million (RM502 million) transfer to Man United from Juventus last year.
The agent who handled the transfer, Mino Raiola, is alleged to have earned £41 million from the deal. How this sits with Fifa’s rules on agents is a mystery. Pogba is in his second spell at Old Trafford, having left the club for Juventus for £1.5 million in 2012.
While Fifa confirmed that it would investigate the deal, the FA thinks it’s none of its business and a matter for the club and its owners. Raiola, not surprisingly, is reputed to be one of the most influential people in the game!
Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer.