How money ruins the game.

I my previous blog post I expressed the reasons for my enjoyment of the English national team’s pathological inability to live up to national expectations. Italy’s utter indifference in their game against Costa Rica- which ultimately doomed England- meant their demise was played out with a slow inevitability that tested even my sadism. I almost felt sorry for Alan Shearer. Almost.

While the Italy- Costa Rica game must have felt for England like a gradual but irreversible loss of altitude, Suarez’s winner for Uruguay had the spectacular sudden impact of a mid-air collision. It was only after the initial shock and awe that I began to dwell on the fact that the catastrophic failures in English football are a feature of Scottish football too.

I watched the game beside my brother, a youth footballer with genuine aspirations of playing in a World Cup himself. He wouldn’t have been sitting watching England’s defeat had he not just been kicked out of his local sports centre for playing on an empty pitch without first hiring it for the prohibitively expensive price of £54 per hour. The person who removed him told him to go down the local park- which doesn’t have a football pitch- if he wanted to play for free. I once coached a local youth team who, due to the ever-rising price of hiring pitches, had to train at this park. On one occasion I had to remove a car battery from the grass we were using before we could start training. On another I had to throw out an equipment bag because it got covered in dog shit.

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“Shit all over your balls”

It was no surprise to me, then, when I read that the English FA had were partly blaming a lack of affordable pitches for kids to use for their failure to produce enough top-quality players.

England lags behind in the quantity and quality of affordable grassroots facilities, particularly in the provision of all-weather pitches.

They’ve got a point; Germany has roughly 8 times as many 3G pitches (3G= astroturf of a decent standard) as England does. People blame abstract concepts like a dearth of ‘desire’ and ‘passion’ for England’s failure, but the simple fact is that they don’t have enough players because they don’t have enough kids playing football, and they don’t have enough kids playing football because they don’t have enough decent football pitches.

The situation in Scotland is slightly better, but not by much. As of 2012 we had approximately 170 such football pitches; more per head than England, but still nothing like as many as other European countries. Norway, for example, has a slightly smaller population and about 670 more pitches.

But it’s not just the lack of pitches that’s to blame. As I mentioned earlier, my brother did get onto an empty pitch, he just wasn’t allowed to stay there. Ever since a Labour council in Glasgow handed our sports facilities to a private company; Culture and Sport Glasgow (now ‘Glasgow Life’) on whose board some of the people responsible for the decision then sat, the invisible hand has held shut the gates to our football pitches. We can spend tax money on the Commonwealth Games under the pretence of encouraging participation, but while the ‘ain’t shit for free’ attitude prevails, we’ll have enthusiastic kids watching sport instead of playing it.

I emailed my 4 local councillors on Thursday night to complain about this situation. So far two have gotten back to me (one Labour, one SNP). Both said they shared my frustrations, but neither could offer much beyond expressions of hope that there will one day be freely accessible pitches in my part of the city.

Wimbledon starts today. No English man or women will come close to winning. A Scot might, but he had to leave the country for Spain as a child because we didn’t provide for somebody hoping to excel in that sport either. The English Premier League, meanwhile, charges more for match day tickets than any other major league in Europe, and pays its players more too. Britain has the prestigious tournaments but it doesn’t have the athletes, because the public’s job is to sit on our arses and pay for Sky Sports, buy beer, buy fast-food, the head down the bookies.

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How we’re supposed to experience sport

There’s no money in providing free sports facilities for the public. There might be a World Cup trophy in it, an Englishman might win Wimbledon, but while the profit-motive is all-pervading, even at my local sports centre, I’ll just have to enjoy more nights on the sofa watching England crash-out and trying to forget that their reasons for plummeting are the same reasons Scotland doesn’t even get off the ground.

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