Thomas Friedman famously offered the 'Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention', on the basis that no two nations with a McDonalds within their borders had ever gone to war. Allow me to offer its successor: the 'White Goalposts Theory of Crisis Resolution'. This theory states that we will know that our present economic crisis is being resolved (rather than deepened), once a front-bench politician comes out and publicly attacks football, in terms of its business models, culture and economic norms, and not only for its sporadic eruptions of racism or corruption. My prediction, for what it's worth, is that this event will occur in October 2013, and that the politician in question will be Yvette Cooper, Leader of the Labour Party.
Football was once such worthless political currency that Margaret Thatcher publicly questioned whether England should be allowed to compete in the 1990 world cup, due to the threat of hooliganism. Euro96 was the turning point, although English hooliganism was still rife at the Euro 2000 championships. Since Euro96, no politician has had the guts to question any aspect of the game or its status within our media, public sphere or national self-image. The 'old' aspects of the game - racism and FIFA corruption - are routinely attacked, but the 'modern' game cannot be questioned.
But look how grizzly things are getting. I read last week that Carlos Tevez may be prepared to take a pay cut from his £250,000 a week job at Manchester City, on the one condition that his new club has it written into his contract that he remain the highest paid player in the squad. Wayne Rooney's behaviour regarding his Manchester Utd contract was criticised by many, but politicians repeatedly duck these issues, despite viewing consumerism, (some) advertising and (recently) X Factor as fair game. Energy oligarchs have removed whatever sense of 'level playing field' may have remained in the English Premier League, turning the top of the football labour market into a far less dignified version of what goes on in boardrooms, as players shamelessly strategise towards remuneration increases (hilariously still termed 'wages') through any means possible.
What precisely are we celebrating when we enthuse about football? Increasingly it is referred to as 'athleticism', in which case lets all start following Usain Bolt. If we have to turn our backs on the tediously-adored Barcelona at the same time, then so be it. It's a price worth paying. The football-obsessed sports shops in British high streets have nothing to do with athleticism or even physical exercise any longer. Just try buying some new laces, socks or functional trainers in JD Sports. You could come out dressed from head to toe as Michael Jordan, but there are much cheaper ways to get a fancy dress outfit.
Football is more interesting as a bellwether of contemporary capitalism, and should be criticised accordingly. Not long ago it was PLC ownership structures that looked like they were stripping the heart out of clubs, seeing them run 'for profit'. Now the problem is the opposite: they are owned by private billionaires, run 'for power', but at a vast loss. Roman Abramovich's takeover at Chelsea in 2003 thefore anticipated the broader trends that I've argued the present crisis will unleash.
Regulation School Marxists define a capitalist crisis as a situation where neither 'more of the same' nor 'less of the same' will resolve the situation. Our present debt crisis is a case in point. More debt makes it worse; paying off debt also makes it worse. Resolving such situations requires a fundamental revaluation - innovation not only in policy measures and mechanisms, but in the culture and values that underpin how government and business institutions operate.
The challenge of resolving a serious crisis is that it involves a degree of truth and reconciliation regarding the past. One often has to accept that critics (sometimes quite eccentric ones) are right, and even that they have been right for a long time. The demise of Keynesianism was as slow as it was because it involved coming to terms with the fact that full employment was no longer a useful goal of policy. This was a severe moral revaluation, not simply a technical paradigm shift. The enemies of Keynesianism (the monetarists) had to be welcomed in to the fold. This takes time and much pride swallowing. There is also some first mover advantage on these occasions, just as Britain seemed to benefit from giving up on the ERM, before its terms were loosened anyway.
To accept that football - or should we say 'Football' as an idea - may actually be part of the disease, and not a harmless supplement to our economy would take some pride-swallowing. The idea that 'talent' has its 'desert' in very large amounts of money is so ingrained, we so want it to be true, that we carry on adhering to it no matter how grotesque the spectacle it generates. The media maintains the pretence of separating Ashley Cole the 'talented' footballer from Ashley Cole the unruly working class 'yob' (as if the latter is just his unfortunate inheritance), ignoring the obvious liklihood that football is far more responsible for his noxious personality than his upbringing.
Those on the liberal-left are able to see through the rhetoric of bankers, when they demand that London remain a 'level playing field' so as to ensure that their industry's 'David Beckhams' are still attracted to work here. The liberal-left is able to debunk football as a metaphor. But why not go a stage further, and attack the whole sorry charade that's been making fools of so many people (me included) for the past 15 years?
Why must Jonathan Freedland write a sensible argument about extreme inequality in pay, but in the same article offer a justification for Wayne Rooney's £250k a week? Once you give in to the neo-classical vision of a labour market, that wages are simply a reflection of 'demand', then the door has been left ajar for the likes of Fred Goodwin. Why not just take the bull by the horns, and accept that the whole thing should just be shipped off to a vast in-door Nike sports complex in Dubai where it belongs? Is it not possible that the constant news reports of footballers attacking women, of fans being charged £50 a ticket and replica shirts being 'outdated' every 9 months, of Manchester Utd's Nani having a life-size marble sculpture of himself in his house do not happen inspite of the vast sums of money that are now at stake in this game, but because of it?
At some point in the future this will appear obvious. Soon after that, we will find it difficult to ever believe we tolerated, even celebrated, this circus in the first place - just as, by the 1990s, it seemed extraordinary to think that governments once targeted full employment. For the time being, any politician would shudder at the thought of criticising the game, as opposed to its undesirable 'externalities' or its metaphorical distortions. Which, according to the White Goal Posts Theory of Crisis Resolution, only goes to show how far into our current crisis we are: not even half way.