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Opinion

Street soccer brings home the redemptive power of football

The amount spent on top-tier footballers is outrageous, but we fans still cling on to the dream. In these desperate times, however, the game can still be a beautiful force for good

Being a football fan brings two main afflictions.

The first is delusion. And how that colours belief. Before kick-off, particularly if you’re going to the match, the delusion grips. It comes around 20 minutes before the referee blows his whistle. There are few greater feelings than walking into a football ground 20 minutes before kick-off. There are people around, buoyant, heading to the same end as you, sharing the same feeling as you. Regardless of any result previously, despite how poor any player’s performance has been, despite all evidential reality, you are gripped with a belief that everything will turn around. You are probably lying to yourself, you may know you’re lying to yourself. But at a core molecular level, for a brief moment, hope wins. Then the whistle goes. 

The other issue is a belief in your own potency, that your singular input changes the output of the team, that you explaining to your mate that ten Hag has got the high press wrong, then taking to social media to SHOUT ABOUT IT, will change everything at your club. Tied to this are transfers. Every fan is an expert. Every fan knows the best players to bring in and when their owners are getting it criminally wrong. The swine. Then, we become invested in complete strangers and the vast sums of money it takes to tie them to a contract.

I support Manchester United. I’m a grown man with a family and a job and many concerns, and yet I was VERY anxious about the purchase, for an obscene amount of money, of a young Brazilian called Antony, a man I hadn’t heard of a number of months ago. I felt a great deal of relief when he signed. This is ludicrous. It also raises a few moral questions and presents real contradictions.

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Antony, an attacking winger, since you ask, cost Manchester United over £80 million to buy from Ajax. Clearly, I am aware of the cost-of-living catastrophe about to grip millions of people. I back a growing number of the grassroots movements, including Gordon Brown’s Anti-poverty Alliance, calling for an emergency budget and a cap on energy bills. I think there should be a fairer wealth distribution more generally. I watched with growing horror the video, that many of us will have by now seen, of the dinner lady breaking down as she described the increasing number of schoolkids she had to turn away because they couldn’t afford school dinner. Imagine the feelings of hunger and shame those kids carry. And that woman’s heartache. 

And yet, there I was shouting that Manchester United should pony up millions and millions for a footballer. The billions spent each year in the top-tier footballing economy are in many ways disgusting. The best we can hope is that players act more like Marcus Rashford by agitating for change, or like Juan Mata who tithed a certain amount of his salary to good causes, or like Sadio Mané who went back to his village in Senegal and essentially rebuilt it. We can push our clubs to be more like Southampton and Everton and Celtic, who do so much good in their local communities. We can find ways to make fan power mean something.

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There is another side, of course. The redemptive power of football is never too far away. Our cover next week is a celebration of how football, away from the glitz and the money-shame, can lift spirits and change lives. Good people like David Duke and his Street Soccer network have devoted their own lives to it. They deserve so many plaudits.

Ultimately, idiots like me will continue to support the clubs we support. Once it’s in you, you can’t escape. Now, if Antony could bag 20 a season…   

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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