In his book The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt expertly captures the sweeping economic, political, and social changes of British society in the post-Thatcher era through his analysis of football. The sheer scale of football and its central place in British cultural life renders the sport a ripe medium for exploring Britain’s changing character. Goldblatt exploits his expertise on football—he is also the author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer—to derive profound insights about the state of the nation in the 21st century.
Goldblatt contends that football is the ideal prism through which to dissect change because it is a “social-democratic game in a neo-liberal world” (Goldblatt 287). The sport’s industrial roots are a far cry from the contemporary game, but they haven’t been eradicated even as money has transformed football from a working-class pastime into big business. “In the absence of powerful local government or strong provincial civil societies, football clubs have become a vital component in sustaining distinct urban identities,” he writes (Goldblatt xxv). Commercialism has not prevented football from retaining its intensely local character. Local fans continue to fill the increasingly glittery stadiums, comprising up to 90 percent of the crowd at the smaller northern clubs. Football owes much of its allure as a spectacle to the passion of these fans, but they are not one of the main sources of the billions of dollar of revenue generated by the sport. In 2013, half of the Premier League’s £2.3 billion revenue came from television and media rights (Goldblatt 16).
Sometimes lost in discourse about football as big business is the inability of clubs to control the costs of doing business. Goldblatt paints a vivid portrait of the new football economy, also documenting the rampant mismanagement the sport has been plagued by in recent decades. The assumption that the deluge of cash in football translates into extraordinary profits is erroneous. In fact, the new football economy has hardly been profitable at all. Moreover, clubs have fallen victim to the whims of indulgent managers, administrators, and owners. Goldblatt writes, “The misgovernance of English football has often traced an uncannily similar arc to the misgovernance of the country as a whole” (Goldblatt 243).
Goldblatt’s criticism of contemporary football does not stop at his lamentation of commercialism’s encroachment on the sport. He reviews the history of racism in football and the increasing diversity in clubs over time, comparing the racial landscape on the pitch to that of British society at large. “Afro-Carribbeans had found and staked their place in English football as they had in the wider society, where a few reveled in their presence, more found it uncomfortable, even threatening, and most viewed the whole experience through a lens still badly distorted by ignorance and prejudice,” he writes (Goldblatt 147). He acknowledges the decline of overtly racist behavior—the jeering of black players and use of racial slurs is widely considered unacceptable—while noting that racism continues to be a fixture in British football despite the rarity of explicitly racist occurrences. The persistence of institutional racism in the game is evidenced by the underrepresentation of blacks in management roles and the stereotyping of black players by managers.
Although Goldblatt is honest, pessimistic, and at times even scathing in his critique of football and contemporary Britain, in his eyes, all hope has not been lost. He expresses his sincere wish that football in its all glory can lead an attempt at national renewal, at the creation of a “more, joyous, brighter, and fairer society” (Goldblatt 288). Whether Goldblatt’s hope is at all realistic is a question only time can answer.