“Somebody said: ‘Football’s a matter of life and death to you. I said, ‘Listen it’s more important than that’.”
WORLD class sport has never really understood irony – which perhaps explains why people have never really known whether to take revered Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s comments on football as a matter of life and death seriously.
Of course football, or any other game, isn’t more important than life or death and Shankly was talking, with regret, at how he’d prioritised his career, his passion, over his family when recalling a quip that had become folklore.
But it’s the suspension of all reasonable perspective that allows sporting competitions, success and failure to create so much joy and cause so many tears – and seemingly take on an importance beyond reality.
The City of Cardiff Council appears to have adopted the approach that nothing is more important than football as it has handed over the keys to the city to UEFA, European football’s governing body. The democratically elected council has put the Swiss-based bureaucrats in charge on the promise of apparent riches from hosting the Champions League Final at the 74,000 seat arena temporarily known as National Stadium of Wales (formerly the Millennium Stadium – since last year the Principality Stadium) on Saturday, June 3.
For weeks barriers have been erected at entrances to the city centre, a large part of a public park has been fenced off, and residents have been warned to make themselves scarce so as not to get in the way of what is apparently a festival of football – “the people’s game”.
The city’s new rulers have demanded any street art or graffiti is cleared – so as not to distract the eye of consumers (formerly known as fans) from prime advertising sites. For all the security measures it appears there’s nothing their egos fear more than a potentially satirical flourish from a spray can.
A wall along the riverside walkway that runs along one side of the stadium had for more than 10 years been a legal showcase for the city’s graffiti scene. It has now been painted grey. Irony, as well as common sense, has gone out the window as the city council has placed a banner declaring “Welcome to Cardiff Capital of colour” over the freshly painted grey wall.
Councillor Peter Bradbury, the council’s cabinet member for culture, has even confirmed on his Twitter account that graffiti, next to the stadium and elsewhere nearby in the city, has been removed on the orders of UEFA.
Shankly, who built Liverpool from second division strugglers to become the dominant force in England, laying the foundations for the Reds’ success in the European Cup (now re-branded the Champions League), found out after his retirement there was little room for sentimentality in football.And the arrival of the UEFA Champions League has brutally demonstrated to Cardiff what a ruthless money-making machine modern football is. What at first seemed like a moment in the sun for an often overlooked city has shined a light on how nothing can be allowed to get in the way of football’s global ruling elite.
Not the players, including Cardiff’s own Gareth Bale who on Saturday can write a football fairytale worthy of the beautiful game and win Europe’s premier club competition in his hometown, but the shysters and money men who’ve replaced the blazer brigade at the head of the world game.
For their benefit a major road through the city centre has this week been closed for a temporary footbridge to be erected between the corporate VIP marquees in the requisitioned park and the stadium. Football’s power brokers won’t even walk on the same pavements as ordinary Cardiffians.
Staging the biggest sporting event in the world this year is obviously a complex logistical operation further complicated by security issues. But the event, and what I would like to have been my positive feelings towards it, is also complicated by a resentment towards the corporate interests and how our city has been transferred to them.
The National Stadium of Wales (the new name is one of the good things about the whole UCL experience) has always benefited from its location in the heart of the city centre and it’s obvious such big occasions will cause disruption that require give and take from all sides.
But the Champions League prompts the question who is benefitting and who is contributing what to the event? Cardiff council has bent over backwards to please UEFA while the Welsh and UK governments have provided support but it’s unclear what financial assistance has been provided – or who is paying for temporary infrastructure such as a VIP footbridge.
UEFA says more than €1.3 billion will be shared between all clubs competing in this year’s competition but local organisers the Football Association of Wales (FAW) wouldn’t even offer to cover the travel and accommodation costs of the unpaid volunteers who are staffing the men’s and women’s finals and working throughout the week.
It’s estimated around 170,000 fans will come to Cardiff for the final but many shops and businesses are being forced to close and locals are also being urged to stay away.
Official sources seem to have gone quiet on that now familiar, but always fanciful, claim of modern sporting events, the economic impact. But other than UEFA, and the aging FAW Council who can hold a giant get-together and give the European travel a miss, it’s hard to see who is benefiting from staging the showpiece finals.
There are free events being staged around the city and a buzz from visiting football fans and hosting two of the world’s biggest teams but there is also the sense the Champions League and those behind it have lost all perspective.
The ridiculous poster claiming Cardiff to be “the capital of colour” is a product of the city’s tired obsession with claims to be the capital of various concepts and themes, including culture. But what Cardiff really needs is a change of culture rather than another title for a marketing campaign.
Cardiff isn’t the first city, and won’t be the last, to fall at the feet of the oligarchs of global sport. But from the protests in Brazil during the 2013 Confederations Cup, FIFA’s dress rehearsal for its World Cup the following year, to community campaigns in Los Angeles and Boston against bids for the 2024 Olympic Games, residents are making a stand.
Sooner or later a city’s leaders will have to say enough is enough and remind the corporate interests that drive international sport that it’s only a game and it is about glory on the field not Euros, dollars and pounds.
Cardiff could have been the first to challenge the idea the public should subsidise football’s financial glory.
Football isn’t more important than life or death but it can help us understand what is important in life, as Shankly said: “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.”