The beautiful, complex game - Sazi Bongwe

Being a devout football and Arsenal fan, over new years I made myself a resolution: that when match-day came and Arsenal played or any big game was on, I would watch and be totally invested in the full 90 minutes, without my phone or any other distractions. Withstanding the despair, agony and anxiety that comes with supporting Arsenal, I did come to acquire a newfound appreciation for football, driven forward by the effortlessly poetic and charismatic commentary driving each game forward. The enthusiasm within the build up of the game, the ecstasy of a goal scored and the overbearing, pure love for the sport ooze from the microphones of Peter Drury and other beloved premier league commentators every weekend. However, the more football I invest myself in and the more I engage with this sport, the more I become aware that perhaps the more pertinent commentary is that which happens off the field, in the way football interacts with modern society and politics.

My new year's mission has been put on hold by the postponement of the Premier League, and almost every other football and sporting league across the world, on account of the spread of the coronavirus. Like it has for every other major sector, COVID-19 has challenged the status quo of the football world. Beyond that, the pandemic serves as a call to action for football.

In August 2017 Paris Saint Germain broke the world record transfer fee for the talents of Neymar Jr, with a grand sum of 222 million euros. The 2019 summer transfer window saw Premier League clubs collectively spend a total of 1.7 billion dollars. To put that into context, that is about 24 times the GDP of South Africa for 2019. Neymar himself cost about 3 times as much as South Africa generates in a year. Take that how you may, but the commentary around it is certainly interesting, especially when you consider where South Africa stands in relation to much of the developing world.

The contrast between the exuberant revenue circulating in the football world and the significant lack thereof in African and developing countries presents dilemmas of economics, ethics and responsibility. At its heart is the ever-relevant question : do the historically privileged have a responsibility to the less fortunate? It goes without saying that a fraction of football’s money could go as far as to eradicate hunger in poor countries or educate billions of children around the world, but this quite clearly isn’t how things currently work.

This question is exacerbated in the occasion of a global pandemic. Millions of people and countless health care systems across the world have been left devastated and hard-hit by the coronavirus. As football is put on hold, the commentary is forced to continue. Many questions have been raised about the obligation of players, clubs, and organisations alike; all in the effort of minimising the effects of the virus. Measures have been taken - yet we’re inclined to ask ourselves why it has taken the football world a global pandemic to realise their capacity for change in the world.

The first question we have to ask ourselves is why football? An accumulation of commercialisation, viewership and opportunity leads the bank of England to equate this revenue to simply : the supply of demand. Big players win big games that win big competitions and earn clubs big money. If it sounds arbitrary, it’s because it is. It’s a classic example of what happens when money is preserved and allowed to circulate in the hands of the privileged, and in this case it’s old money, imperialist England and the rest of the so-called ‘first world’. Football, and where most of its wealth lies, having emerged into an economic system dominated by Western capital allows us to see how far we truly are from global economic equality.

The question I then pose is a fundamental one : how far does the responsibility of football go? To me, one of the biggest football fans out there, it feels unethical and immoral to see clubs and players earn and spend so much in a perpetuation of an advantaged sector of the global population, while the world’s majority looks on in hunger, desperation and desolation. It simply doesn’t feel right. It is in this same vein that I would urge the football world to take an introspective look in the mirror, and indeed at the world. To me, the responsibility of football to the world at large goes far beyond the extent to which it is currently actualised, and in this tone I would urge football’s big companies (UEFA, FIFA, CAF amongst many others) into globalised and institutionalised change.

It would be remiss of me to ignore the countless efforts made by bodies and individuals associated with football in support of coronavirus relief. High profile players have taken significant pay cuts to help support those employees who need it most. Small businesses have undeniably been helped a great deal by football clubs, such as in the case of Borussia Dortmund fans donating over $75600,00 to closed bars and restaurants around Signal Iduna Park. Manchester City have offered the National Health Service free use of the Etihad Stadium during the pandemic. The list goes on. It is my sincere hope that this marks the start of football’s acknowledgement of the power it holds as a collective in stimulating equality across the globe.

- Manchester United instagram (fighting my deep resentment of Manchester United in including this image)

The same degree to which we marvel about the hefty transfer fees is the same capacity football has for positive change in a world that so desperately yearns for it, more so now than ever. Everything, football included, gets put on hold when lives are at risk. This does however, provide the institutions, like all those that are involved in football, the opportunity to make a real, positive difference. It also gives us the chance to interrogate questions of economic ethics, responsibility and obligation. Post-coronavirus football commentary will undoubtedly take on a different sound, and hopefully the bodies associated with the sport ascend to a higher level of awareness and engagement beyond merely crisis relief. In the meantime, what I would like for football and the world to recognise is that the commentary around our beautiful game most certainly goes beyond “he shoots...he scores.”