Is it too late to halt football’s final descent into a dystopian digital circus? | Barney Ronay | Football

Gradually, then suddenly. This is how history tends to work, a process in which most of the time things don’t happen, or almost happen, or seem like they probably won’t happen – right up until the moment they suddenly do.

Football has always seemed like an industry in search of its final form. The last 25 years have brought such fevered textural change it has been tempting to marvel at the clanking pistons, the gusts of steam, the unceasing revolutions.

And yet it seems increasingly likely this was the gradual part. Welcome to football in 2020, an industry that might just have reached its tipping point, ready for the descent into sudden, radical, dystopian change. And it’s live!

There is no doubt the current global crisis has also presented a wonderful opportunity for those in positions of power whose plans might otherwise have met resistance.

At Fifa’s most recent congress Gianni Infantino – who seems to have spent the last eight months trying very hard to maintain an expression of grave concern while secretly longing to boast at length about his brand new jetpack – spoke about reimagining the football calendar completely, moving every single competition to its own distinct time period, before getting a little bored of that and talking instead about some other vision of dictatorial inanity.

Nobody really seemed to mind, or to have the mental bandwidth to raise any concerns. Yep, Gianni. You go ahead. Now if you’ll excuse me the world is on fire and my hang-glider appears to be crashing into a lake of boiling oil.

This is the most urgent note of concern right now. If the last quarter-century has been notable for the pace of change, it has also been defined by resistance, by the squealing of brakes, by things that haven’t happened.

Football has been defined by its own ritual obsessions, by lines that cannot be crossed, by the sense of itself as something noble and protected. Well, right now the shields are down. Ground is being conceded, structural change whisked through. How much of this will we get back?

In the past resistance has tended to focus on two main areas. First, the primacy of supporters, the idea the game exists in its most authentic form as an immediate emotional experience, that football without fans is nothing.

Well … you say that. In reality this notion has simply evaporated, flushed out into the light by economic necessity. The general public can go to Selfridges or the local Wetherspoon or Manchester airport but not to a football match – and there is no lack of logic in this.

It turns out that real life fans, while important, just aren’t central enough to football’s business model. Not at the top end anyway, where the real money and power is located. The secret is out. We, the owners of football, appreciate your presence. But we do not require it.

This is a transformative moment, not just tonally but practically. As the Premier League runs to catch up with itself, terrified of reneging on those broadcast contracts, its output has morphed into an interchangeable entertainment product. Last weekend it was possible to watch live Premier League football from midday to 10pm, all of it basically the same homogenised, unceasing, geographically non-specific substance.

West Ham v Wolves last Sunday night completed a weekend of televised Premier League action that began at lunchtime on Saturday. Photograph: Andy Rain/AFP/Getty Images

Is this sustainable? After Bayern Munich’s Super Cup final victory Robert Lewandowski let slip that the players didn’t celebrate because they were “all too exhausted”. Eric Dier appears to be playing football on your TV screen more or less constantly. Brave new world that has such indomitable one-paced utility defenders in it.

But this is a product being stretched thin, the glorious shared obsession recast as moving shapes on a screen cheered on by an algorithm, a digital circus on endless repeat while outside the world burns.

At the same time ground is being conceded. Late-night kick-off times, for example: will broadcasters give way on this when actual humans are allowed, grudgingly, to provide their own crowd noises?

Never mind all those fan-run issues and campaigns, from twenty-is-plenty to the idea of community engagement, of access for everyone, of the vital importance of the bond between club and supporters. All of this has simply come to a stop. Will it still be there on the other side?

Meanwhile, left alone in the ground, television has taken total control of the staging. Television stops and rewinds the play. Television countermands the referee. Television even decides now how players will stand and run and collide with one another.

The transition to a remote spectacle feels complete, to the extent it is perhaps easier simply to abandon the real life experience and watch it all on TV, where a quarter of the action happens in any case, and where it is at least possible to understand the end result.

So profound is the direction of travel it is tempting to wonder if this will become a more lasting change. Following a football team is an act of faith, loyalty and great expense. How many will come back? How strong is that bond?

A packed Goodison Park for Everton’s game against Chelsea in mid-February. How many fans will come back?

A packed Goodison Park for Everton’s game against Chelsea in mid-February. How many fans will come back? Photograph: Tony McArdle/Everton FC/Getty Images

Nothing lasts for ever. Things fall apart. In the shadow of all this women’s football, a growth industry but not profitable enough right now, continues to fight for air. Even the international game looks as if it may start to run up against the cold, hard economic dictatorship of elite club football.

This is the second element under threat right now. It is no secret that clubs in the lower leagues are skirting close to collapse. At the same time it has become a truism to state that elite football will not survive without the grand old Victorian pyramid, and that the cavalry must, of necessity, come to the rescue.

In reality the top clubs have no interest in this process. Where does your best version of the immediate future lie? With Sunderland, Gillingham and those cobwebbed ancestral bonds? Or with SoftBank, Saudi, venture capitalism and the new leisure economy overclass?

The European Club Association has predicted €4bn losses this season in the top-tier leagues. In a world where the bottom line is the only line, this is the real driver of change ahead.

Arsène Wenger has long maintained a borderless “super league” is inevitable because it is what those in power want. Nobody really knows what form this might take. But should it happen change is likely to come at a greater pace with attention diluted, and with a global economic catastrophe to blur the lines.

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It is of course tempting to zone out on all this, to become comfortingly enraged by the detail of the handball laws, by Manchester City’s transfer failings, by Manchester United’s travails under a manager who increasingly resembles a fond sad childhood toy found on a shelf in the attic.

But this is happening right in front of us. If the world beyond sport has begun to feel like some horrendous category mistake, a collapse into powerlessness, 30 years of structural change compacted across six months of confusion, then football is as ever in the lead, running on ahead of the tideline.

The real danger is that the new abnormal becomes the normal, that power will be grabbed, land occupied, flags planted. As ever the only available path is resistance, in whatever form still remains.

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