Most professional clubs and leagues are sponsored and professional players wear the name of their sponsor on their shirts. The league season in the UK officially runs from August to May (although professional soccer seems to be expanding continually in one way or another, with competitions such as the international UEFA Cup in the summer). There’s no mid-season winter break, as in many other European countries, although many clubs would like one (British soccer players are real men and play in all weather conditions).
Most matches are played on Saturdays, although some clubs play regularly on Friday evenings and there are Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday afternoon and Monday evening Barclaycard Premiership and Nationwide Football League matches most weeks, which are televised live on Sky TV. It isn’t necessary to buy a ticket in advance for most matches, although Premiership games, local derbies (matches between neighbouring clubs) and cup matches are usually ‘all-ticket’, meaning tickets must be purchased in advance. The thriving market for tickets which are acquired and sold on at a fat profit is testimony to demand far exceeding supply.
In England, the Football Association (FA) runs the world’s oldest league competition (instituted in 1888) and now consists of three divisions with a total of 72 clubs (24 in each division). At the top is the FA Premier League, with the top 20 clubs and below this is the Football league, with three divisions of 24 clubs. The three worst-performing Premiership clubs face relegation to the First Division each season, and three First Division teams are promoted in their place. The Premiership has created a huge gulf between its top clubs and those in the lower leagues. Relegation from the Premiership can cost a club over £20 million in lost revenue from TV, sponsorship, advertising and ticket sales (and precipitate the loss of a club’s best players).
In Scotland, a Premier division was established in 1975/76 to improve competition and increase gate receipts by restricting the league to the top ten clubs, who play each other four times a season (a total of 36 matches).
The cost of tickets in England has risen at well over double the rate of inflation in recent years to fund expensive new all-seat stadia and they now average around £40 for Premiership games. Season tickets are even more expensive and English Premiership fans pay from around £500 to £1,000 or up to four times more than their continental counterparts. The high price of tickets does not deter supporters and many premier league clubs sell out every home game. However, the top clubs are pricing many traditional working class fans out of the game. Football in England (and to a lesser extent Scotland) is now big business, highlighted by US tycoon Malcolm Glazer’s take over of Manchester United for £790m in June 2005 (they won the league in 2007 against all the odds, so maybe it wasn’t such a bad deal).
Thanks to the millions pumped into soccer by sponsors and TV companies in recent years, top British clubs now compete with the richest Italian and Spanish clubs for the best foreign players. British football has been revitalised over the past decade by this, although it has had a detrimental affect on the development of up and coming home-grown stars (some Premiership teams regularly field only one or two English players). It’s often cheaper to buy top-class players abroad than in the UK and many clubs have resorted to doing this, as prices in the UK have skyrocketed. Transfer fees of £5 million or £10 million are commonplace and top players command fees in excess of £30 million. This has also put severe pressure on clubs’ wage bills: salaries have gone through the roof since the Bosman ruling removed transfer fees for players who have reached the end of their contracts. Many clubs (often without huge resources) spend tens of millions of pounds on wages in an attempt to remain in the Premiership. Premiership salaries are typically £20,000 to £30,000 a week, but many players receive over double this and world class players earn over £100,000 a week (in contrast, many players in lower divisions earn around £500 a week).
England has a number of other semi-professional leagues, including the Vauxhall Conference League, from which teams can be elected to the English Football League division three. The Scottish League has three divisions, each with ten clubs. Northern Ireland has the semi-professional Irish League and Wales the amateur Welsh League (although three Welsh teams, Cardiff, Swansea City and Wrexham, play professional football in the English Nationwide League).
In addition to national league football, the UK also has a number of national cup competitions. In England, the main knockout competition is the FA Cup, instituted in 1871 and open to amateur clubs, the final of which is usually played at Wembley Stadium. From 2007 the final returned to the new Wembley Stadium in north London. Cup final tickets cost from £50 to £95 but can easily go for around £1,000 or more a pair on the black market. Other national cup competitions in England are the League Cup (or currently the Carling Cup after its present sponsor), in which all league clubs take part, and various other competitions for professional teams in the lower divisions of the Nationwide Football League.
The FA Community Shield is competed for in an annual match between the FA Premier League champions and the FA Cup winners on the weekend before the start of the English football season. It’s currently played at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium while Wembley Stadium is being redeveloped. In Scotland, teams compete for the Scottish FA Cup and the Scottish League Cup, which opens the Scottish football season. There are also cup competitions in Northern Ireland and Wales. British clubs also participate in European cup competitions, including the Champions League (for national league winners and other top–placed teams) and the UEFA Cup for top-placed teams that don’t qualify for the Champions League, and domestic cup winners.
The English football league is among the most competitive in the world and even matches between teams from the top and bottom of divisions are usually keenly contested. English teams have had considerable success in Europe over the last few decades, despite the fact that top English clubs usually play many more matches than clubs in other European countries. The points scoring system in the English league differs from that in most countries, three points being awarded for a win (instead of two) in order to discourage negative defensive football at away matches (it works). However, other countries have adopted this points system in recent years.
Controversial changes to the rules governing foul tackles in the last decade have tended to make the role of referees far more prominent. How they interpret the rules determines the course of the game and this can vary widely. Although generally of a high standard, some referees seem to play by their own rules and a few appear bent on ruining the sport by booking (yellow card) and sending off (red card) players for trivial offences. British referees are generally much harsher than those in other European countries. Players who ‘take a dive’ in the penalty area can expect little mercy – if it happened in Italy or Spain there would be nobody except the goalkeepers on the field after ten minutes!
There are dozens of websites devoted to football, but two which are useful for orientation are the BBC’s (www.bbc.co.uk/football) and the Scottish Premiership website (www.scotprem.com).
This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.