By Paul Gardner
A brief cameo from a recent English Premier League telecast -- one of those quick cutaways to the fans. Suddenly we see the selected fan -- it's a woman, nothing unusual about that, the TV directors seem quite determined to stress the attractiveness of the EPL's female fans. But maybe there is something slightly different here -- this is not a young lady -- more in the mature range, I’d say, a rather posh lady, dressed up to the nines, with a look of bored upper-class superiority as she pats her hair into place. She is looking to her right, the camera widens, we see an empty seat, then, in the seat beyond that, a young boy fidgeting with a toy or a gadget.
The woman -- the mother? -- speaks to the boy, who pouts and then turns to the empty seat -- which is not empty, I lied about that -- it contains two bulging shopping bags. The boy pulls one of them petulantly toward him, and opens it up ... and that was it, sudden end of the TV cutaway.
All the while, the game was proceeding, but neither the boy nor his mother cast a glance toward the field. These were fans? Supposedly so, yes. It’s difficult to describe them -- or it least it was until last week when we heard from Luis Fernandes, Brazil’s deputy sports minister.
Fernandes was lamenting the possibility that one of the legacies of next year’s World Cup would be a plethora of new or upgraded all-seater stadiums, gentrified to attract more affluent fans. Up would go the admission prices, with the result that the traditional mass of fans would not be able to afford to attend games.
Such a shift, says Fernandes, would change the atmosphere in Brazilian stadiums “from one where what predominates is the so-called D and E class, to one where there will be a heavy predominance of what they call class A and B spectators, who will not only buy the tickets but will also consume in the stadium.”
So the lady who did her shopping in the morning before attending the game -- is a Class A fan. So, too, is her son, this pampered boy so much more intrigued by his toy than the game. Or probably Class B -- with the Class A fans cozily ensconced in their luxury boxes.
Those who will be priced out are tagged as D and E fans, the low-grade numbers clearly indicating their unsuitability. So be it. We have seen this change in Europe -- in England in particular, which, after a period of over 50 years in which no new stadiums were built, has seen an explosion of stadium construction since the start of the Premier League era in 1992. And that has very definitely meant massively increased admission prices. But has it also meant what Fernandes fears might happen in Brazil -- the disappearance of the masses of traditional D & E fans, and a subsequent lack of atmosphere at the games?
Yes and no. Because it is not just soccer crowds that have changed. English society has changed, the so-called “working class” -- the very class from which the pro game sprang in England -- hardly exists any more. England is a wealthier country, and the wealth is more evenly spread. The fans now come mainly from the vastly expanded middle class.
They have money, and they seem happy to spend it on high-priced tickets and over-priced team shirts. Who can say whether this means a new class of devoted fans, or whether these people are simply amusing themselves with a new fashion, to be abandoned as soon as something more trendy shows up?
For the moment, soccer’s star is very much in the ascendancy -- it is now frequently referred to as a multi-billion dollar global business. Just a week ago we were informed that Real Madrid has moved ahead of Manchester United and is now the world’s richest soccer club. I have no idea what that means in any practical sense, but I suppose it’s a good thing to be top of this financial league standings.
The crowds at Spanish games look to be predominantly Class B fans. So Real Madrid is doing fine from monied fans, while Spain itself suffers from a severe financial crisis. And somehow, despite the whittling away of those unwanted D and E fans in England, hooliganism -- always associated with the lower-income fans -- has recently made an unwelcome reappearance on the English scene.
Puzzling anomalies that can be safely left to the sociologists to explain. Possibly correctly. But there is one area that seems to me almost bound to have an adverse effect on the future of the game -- and I don’t think we need sociologists to work this one out for us.
Not so much that Class B lady and her shopping bags, but her Class B son, the boy with the Little Lord Fauntleroy look. In the past in England, there were always substantial numbers of young boys at soccer games. Class E boys, for sure. They came on their own, they got in at a cut-rate price -- sometimes through a special “Boys” turnstile. And of course, in their thousands they grew up to be adult fans, some to be pro players.
It always seemed important that the boys be there because they were seen as a club’s future. They have gone now. These days, in the TV cutaways of English games, it is rare to see young teenage boys. Is it possible that Little Lord Fauntleroy, who attends with his mother and fiddles with his toys while the game goes on -- is it possible that he and his ilk now embody the future? Maybe it is. But it will be a future to reflect the transition of soccer from a sporting pastime to a commercial activity. One in which the stadiums consist of nothing but luxury boxes and their Class A denizens, and the main achievement will not be winning the European Champions League, but rather finishing on top of the Forbes Magazine richest-club contest.