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Soon every football club will be a corporate brand
Tottenham will be the subject of a bidding war between Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il
Now it's Charlton that may be bought by Middle Eastern businessmen. No billionaire feels complete any more without a football club. As Sunderland have been promoted, they'll probably be bought by the Queen. And her Christmas speech will begin "This was a year that will mostly be remembered for the frustrating 2-2 draw at the Reebok Stadium."
Tottenham will become the subject of a bidding war between Osama Bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il, supreme leader of North Korea. The Bin Laden bid will win because of his superior record in arranging facilities at training camps, and his experience of providing funds for new team members when the old ones need replacing. The board will announce that this proves his committment to a squad system. Then there'll be those interviews with fans on Sky Sports yelling "The main thing is whether he can get us into the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup", and before each home game as the new chairman takes his seat they'll all sing "Holy Jihad na-na-na-na-na-naaaa."
Because no one seems to care. Newcastle could be bought by a consortium of crack dealers, and the new manager would announce he had an excellent relationship with the board and "I'm assured that as sales are booming there will be funds available for a right-sided midfielder, so it's good news."
The Premier League has been presented as an exciting battle this year, but there were only two clubs remotely rich enough to even hope to win. It's testimony to the obnoxious nature of Chelsea that most people were pleased that the title was won by Man United.
Chelsea's response to losing may be that between now and next season they'll buy everyone. Not just every footballer but everyone in the world. Peasants in Laos and Burma who've never heard of the game will be put on the books for a tenner, the Pope for a score, entire Somalian villages for two hundred notes, so that every other team has no players. Or they'll force through a rule that if they're losing they're entitled to buy the opponents' ground at half-time, and turn their own penalty area into luxury flats that block their goal up.
But you can't go round cheering for Man United either. Aside from their equally corporate nature, I heard one of their fans on a phone-in recently making a gallant attempt to win a prize for the greatest ever effort to live up to a stereotype. The presenter was grumbling that, at a home match, thousands of Man United fans had left 10 minutes early. So a fan rang in and complained "Yes, but what you don't understand Alan, is lots of us have to leave early to catch our flights home." Now, if there was any justice the FA would have deducted 60 points from them just for that remark.
There are even calls from some chairmen to abandon relegation for the bottom clubs. Because for all the image of business, that riches are a reward for "risk", modern business insists on being almost entirely risk-free. Arms dealers have export credit guarantees, so the government pays them even if their sales go haywire. Rail company investment is underwritten so profits are guaranteed. And football club chairmen feel cheated that they've paid all this money but aren't certain to win.
Maybe they'll get their way and eventually the Premier League will announce: "It has been decided that from now on every match involving Manchester United will be won by them 3-1. We feel this shows the Premier League at its best, with attacking play being rewarded but the Man United defence still being breached once per game, providing a competitive spirit, especially if the opposition goal comes first. This should ensure the continued growth of our product throughout a global network."
Which is why it's so disappointing to meet supporters of Chelsea or Man United who glory in their team's "success". There's little sense of these clubs being part of a community, or of the shared experience of alternating between anguish, mediocrity and occasional rare triumph that creates a warm and slightly ridiculous camaraderie at proper football clubs. They might as well cheer because they follow a game called "Pick a Number" and they've picked a really big one.
They could even turn up at stadiums and cheer "Fourteen billion, fourteen billion, we'll support you evermore." While supporters of 53 could enjoy their underdog status, and say "At least we're not three-quarters, who've gone six years without a single win since nought went into administration."
The business of football reflects business everywhere. The clubs used to be run by factory owners, who were often local bullies. Now, like every shop, cinema and business, they're owned by globalised corporate figures, part of a world in which it's assumed that nothing can exist without their seedy input.
Which is why, for many football supporters, the worst nightmare is not relegation but their club being turned into another franchised unit, playing in an out-of-town stadium that doubles as a conference centre in the summer, and the ground full of supporters singing "Hostile bid for Allied Breweries, you're having a laugh."
So the worst thing to happen to Charlton this week was their ominous link to this next bunch of billionaires. Whereas their relegation provided the sort of wonderfully spiteful entertainment that still makes the game worth following.