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Vienna | 26.4.2008 | 07:07 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

My New Red Shirt
  I spent yesterday afternoon chatting with Austrian financial journalist Robert Prazak, who has written a fascinating little book about money and football called Der Rubel Rollt.

We discussed why it was important that Red Bull Salzburg failed to win the Austrian football league this year, and why it was that all pre-Euro 08 advertising in Austria wants to portray football fans as tunelessly bawling men who appear to have consumed rather too many fizzy beers. Faced with the most exciting event in this country in years, is this image as far as our imaginations can stretch?

But all the time that we were talking, a day ahead of the biggest fixture of the Premier League season, I had just one thing on my mind - my new red shirt.

Rude Friends
  After years of inhibitions, I finally took the plunge, fulfilled a lifetime's ambition and bought myself a fan's replica shirt of my favorite team. I put it straight on in the shop, and, beaming with pride, rushed off to show it to some friends on Vienna's sun-bathed Yppenplatz.

On my arrival, my friend took a glance at the huge sponsorship emblem pasted across my chest and said: "Well done mate, you've just paid 70 Euros to advertise a car insurer."

I asked him whether, on more careful consideration, he didn't think that my shirt encapsulated the sex and glamour of European football, whether he thought I looked like a blonde Christiano Ronaldo? "No mate. On more careful consideration I think you look like a prize Charlie."
"Football Has Lost It's Soul"
  Is my red shirt a statement of romance? Or am I a pawn of the most successful money-making businesses in the world - owned by a pair of American brothers who, on the face of it, have little or no passion for "The Beautiful Game".

My Dad calls football the "Opium of the People" and insists that he came up with the analogy all by himself. I'm sure he's as wrong about this, as he is wrong about the virtues of skiing with your knees clamped together. Yet sometimes I do feel that my passion is the lining rich men's pockets in a way that would have Che Guevara pulling out strands of his beautiful hair.

Increasingly, football fans in England are complaining that football has lost its soul.

Loss of Atmosphere
  Most people I know tell me, incessantly actually, that my team never had a soul to lose. For my sins, I'm a fan of Manchester United, for decades already one of the richest teams in the world. I feel entitled to this luxury since I grew up in the hills not far above Manchester, when my wise old phrase-maker Dad also worked (in Eccles!), and the nearer team - Huddersfield - had a team strip that was manifestly uninteresting to a kid with a sense of style.

United, as opposed to the Gallagher brother's beloved Manchester City, has never been admired for the salt of the earth quality of its fan base - even in the 1980's the club was said to have more fans in Asia than in Britain.

But in recent years the debate has been stoked from those inside the club. The iconic former captain Roy Keane coined a new social insult when he railed against the "prawn sandwich brigade" in the VIP stands and then this season. Sir Alex himself complained that United fans were too quiet and failed to get behind their team.
Money, Money, Money
  The prawn sandwich munchers (is a Shrimpbrot really so posh?) have become synonymous with the rise and rise of the Premier League. So has the new league destroyed the soul of English football?

Well, the PL has certainly been a fantastically successful business venture. When I first started watching United play, barely being able to sleep for excitement the night before a televised game, I was waiting to see hard-working players like Mike Duxbury (Manchester born and Bred) and the Scot Brian McClair playing an honest, no-nonsense game on muddy potato-field of pitch.

Now, when I can see them every week in the pub thanks to the miracle of satellite television, I see matches played out on manicured turf featuring the sublime trickery of Portugese magician Christiano Ronaldo and the sophistication of Frenchman Patrice Evra. It's vastly more spectacular.

And it's important for me to admit, as someone who actually finds prawn sandwiches quite tasty, that I'm probably the sort of fan who has benefitted from the development. Matches are even rescheduled to make them convenient for my TV screen.
Can't afford the tickets
  But many fans in England are very disillusioned with the way the game has developed - and not only because our national team has become so hopeless. To keep players like Ronaldo in the country and to satisfy the foreign shareholders, clubs are forced to find ways of increasing revenue, and ultimately, profits.

Inevitably this has led to an increase in ticket prices which has priced a large section of working class fans across the country out of attending games. A season ticket at Chelsea costs over a thousand Euros - imagine taking the 3 kids!

Defenders of the League say that has out-priced the hooligans, that football has become more genteel, but that theory might be more based on snobbery than real research into the economics of football violence. A recent TV documentary showed that nowadays the more violent fans actually tended to have lucrative jobs in the City!
The Gaps, they're a growing
  In the mid 1990's I was distraught as Blackburn Rovers snatched the league title away from Manchester United. This came not long after Leeds United pipped 'us' to the post. In between those two seasons Aston Villa gave us a pretty good run for our money. Such a scenario is pretty much unthinkable nowadays. The top flight of English football is now dominated by just four clubs - Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool.

Talking to in 2004 about Chelsea's spending power, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger asked, "Who can compete with Chelsea? They go out first and buy what they want, and then everyone else comes in, so it's very hard to compete".

Hard for Arsenal to compete? Think about Wigan, Mr. Wenger!

Through sponsorship deals and TV rights to the lucrative Champion's League, the big clubs earn several times as much pitch-related revenue as smaller clubs like Wigan - money then, hopefully, partly available for new players. In terms of quality, the gaps in are inevitably growing larger.

There are growing fears that the English game with end up like the Scottish Premier League where Celtic and Rangers take turns each season to win the league.
The Big Fish Eats The Little Fish
  So nowadays, as a United fan, I am in an absurd but pleasant situation on Saturday.

For the first time ever, I am no longer rooting for the most disparaged big-buck team in England. When the Red Devils play their title deciding match against Chelsea, known as Chelski for their Russian gas dollars, the anti-capitalists will probably be on my side.

However disgustingly big your fish is, it's refreshing when it eats a bigger one!

Chelsea vs Manchester United, Saturday, 13.45.

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