Arsenal putting players before staff shows how unequal football has become

A year ago, on the club’s official YouTube channel, Arsenal released a great little video.

It featured the club’s star players in distinctive north London settings, talking in distinctive north London dialect. ‘Looks fresh bruv,’ says Mesut Ozil, born in Gelsenkirchen, to his Turkish barber.

‘The game today is ours for the taking mate,’ says Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, captain of Gabon, over a greasy-spoon breakfast. 

The message was simple enough but poignant: Arsenal was, at heart, a community institution.

The forces of globalisation and commercialism that had propelled the club to where it is today would not change that – if anything, they enhanced it: the global and the local, the players and the fans, the big guys and the little guys, all as one. 

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It’s a video worth revisiting in light of the club’s announcement that it plans to make 55 staff redundant due to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

On the one hand, fair enough. When faced with a choice over whether to prioritise the future of the business or keeping everyone’s jobs safe, many companies are siding with the former. Without saving the business, how do you save jobs?  

Except in this case the choice is emphatically not as clear cut. Arsenal may have seen a drop in revenues of late but the club’s income from broadcasting is still eye-watering (around the £200million-a-year mark in 2018-19) and its commercial department pulled in more than half that again. 

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As if to prove the point, the club have spent the past few days in negotiations to sign Willian, a decent but largely unremarkable forward, from Chelsea.

Reports say he’s been offered a £10million signing-on fee, with wages somewhere around £100,000 a week. Or to put it another way: Arsenal is not a company on the brink of collapse.

The redundancies were made, in the words of the club, ‘to ensure we are operating in a sustainable and responsible way, and to enable us to continue to invest in the team’. 

To spin the sacking of 55 non-playing staff – who, according to reports have an approximate combined salary of £2.5million – as a means of facilitating investment in new players is especially shameless.  

It is clearly a cheap attempt to hide the cruelty and human cost of such decisions behind the modern fetish for big-money signings. In truth the two things have barely any relationship to each other at all.  

Football’s defining feature in recent years has come to be a rampant, grotesque inequality. This is generally framed as existing between clubs. Manchester City bask in the sovereign wealth of Abu Dhabi while Bury, six miles down the road, go out of business. The country’s six richest clubs bring in as much as the next 86 put together.

What the Arsenal episode has shown is that there’s an inequality within clubs, too: not just in terms of money but in terms of human worth. Ozil, a player who can’t even get into the team, is earning £350,000 a week. He is not in danger of redundancy.

Football’s defining feature in recent years has come to be a rampant, grotesque inequality

Arsenal are not alone. Indeed their behaviour yesterday was broadly symptomatic of the money-mad cynicism that has become football’s MO in the Premier League era. 

The immediate response to the coronavirus crisis by Liverpool FC (annual turnover: half a billion) was to furlough roughly 200 staff. 

Newcastle remain under the ownership of Mike Ashley, whose Sports Direct shops were likened to a ‘Victorian workhouse’ in 2016.

There are those who will say this is simply the world we live in. Maybe so, but that ruthlessness is well disguised when it comes to season-ticket renewal time, and fans are fed cosy rhetoric about how they are the club’s real owners.

Indeed, Arsenal’s news yesterday was delivered to the fans under the banner ‘An update from your club’. It’s a nice idea but – unlike, say, in Germany’s Bundesliga where the requirement for a club to be under members’ control is written into legislation – Arsenal fans are no more the club’s proprietors than the staff now collecting their P45s.

To imply otherwise is to invoke the spirit of community with their words while trashing it with their actions. And yet, like all clubs, Arsenal are a real presence in the local community, running schemes for employability, home learning and social inclusion, and across all age groups.

In fact their community work is even more conscientious than most – and these gestures are authentic and meaningful. They make a genuine difference. But the good work of some is badly undermined by the working practices prescribed by others. 

When Liverpool tried to furlough their workers in April, it sparked a furore from a number of parties, not least the club’s own fans and eventually good sense – and good ethics – prevailed.

A similar public response has met Arsenal’s latest announcement, but whatever the outcome, both episodes have shown the same knee-jerk instinct. In the boardroom, community only counts so long as it hikes up the bottom line.

After all, that video was made in order to promote the club’s home shirt, RRP: £59.95.

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