Bring football back to the people to bring the people back to football

At the beginning of this month BBC journalist Dan Roan wrote a fantastic piece highlighting the fact that participation in football in this country is not as high as the FA, or indeed the nation, would like. He notes, in particular, that there has been a “rapid fall in the numbers of 16-19-year-olds” in recent years. This fall is clearly a problem for the FA as they seek to improve the youth development process which has been lacking for so many years in comparison to nations such as Spain, Germany and France.

Roan quotes some Sports England figures in his article that are quite concerning: the number of people “playing regular football fell from 2,144,700 in 2007 to 2,090,000 last year”. The Football Association’s Just Play campaign attempts to get more people playing football (“150,000 more playing for at least thirty minutes a week by 2013”)  while the FA has apparently been warned by Sport England that their £25 million funding of the Whole Sport Plan could be cut if numbers do not improve. “The FA are worried”, and rightly so.
But while hurling money at campaigns and urging people to play football is necessary, it really isn’t sufficient. There must be a reason as to why kids aren’t playing as much football as they used to. Roan lists a whole host of reasons – all of which are probably correct – including busier lifestyles, a shortage of referees and the distractions of television and computer games.
But there is something that goes much deeper than this that is preventing kids from, firstly, playing football and enjoying it as a hobby and, secondly, going into a career in the sport.
Is a career in football an attractive proposition? There are a lot of sacrifices (perhaps more than most other careers) that have to be made if you want to make it to the top – which I’m assuming most footballers want to do – and it’s a career that is very much in the balance all of the time. Not to mention the fact that every move of a footballer is scrutinised, be it on the pitch or off it.
Even with the benefits that can be reaped from a career in football, I can’t imagine they’ll be many fourteen year-olds, when choosing their next path of life, who would choose football, or any sport for that matter, unless they’ve already made it into an academy or something along those lines – but even then, parents might be more inclined to make sure that their child is focusing on education to lead on to a ‘proper career’. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I don’t want to get into a ‘footballers are role-models’ debate (because it’s tedious) but I’m going to assume that parents don’t really like footballers. The way they act in the spotlight doesn’t make for a great advert for a career in football and, along with their obscene wages (a wage cap could help here but that’s another argument for another article for another day), sets footballers apart from the rest of the (non-celebrity) world. I think it’s fair to say that, perhaps on the whole, footballers aren’t seen as respectable human beings whom should be looked up to and admired for partaking in such a wonderful vocation.
Kids aren’t going to see Wayne Rooney swearing into cameras and think ‘I want to be a footballer’. Parents aren’t going to see Ashley Cole on the front page of The Sun and want their children to further their footballing exploits. No one sees the treatment of black players, women and the abhorrent and somehow-still-frequent homophobia in football and want to go and play the sport. If you want to make football an attractive career prospect you’ve got to clear up the image and the sport itself first.

Once you’ve done that, you can get more kids involved. Make football more accessible to everyone – not just those with money, or those lucky enough to have parents who will happily drive them up and down a county to kick a ball on a Sunday morning. Give more kids more chances to play football and, as Roan says, more places to play the sport.
Accessibility to the sport includes watching the game too. The more you watch something, the more you learn and, hopefully, the more you become interested in it. Ticket prices are so high in the modern game that if you want to go and see a good match with a high quality of football on show, you’re going to have to pay at least £20. A parent is very unlikely to pay that for one child for ninety minutes of entertainment – so lower the ticket prices and get more children involved in football.
It’s all well and good having Sky pump millions of pounds into English football and allowing them to blast the action into homes across the country but, again, only those lucky enough to have parents willing to pay for Sky get to watch the sport. Clearly Sky’s pricing is Sky’s prerogative and there’s little the FA can do about that, but they can impose restrictions on ticket prices (although that would probably mean that wages would have to drop quite considerably) and this would allow more people would be able to experience a football match, get a feel for the atmosphere and get closer to those people they worship so much and make them seem more like human beings rather than mythical beasts.
You could just throw money at campaigns to get kids interested in football but, at the end of the day, you can’t force them to be interested, even if Peter Crouch and Theo Walcott do turn up in quite fetching gear. Make football more attractive, make it more accessible. Turn the sport that is a fun pastime into an attractive career prospect.

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