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Bill Shankly and Gareth Bale - How Football Lost its Soul

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What are we to make of the state of football in the same week as the 100th anniversary of Bill Shankly's birth and the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee of £85.3million?

The 'people's game' that Shankly knew, loved and served is no more, lost to the mammoth sums of money that has on the one hand undoubtedly elevated the English Premiership to the status of the most exciting league in the world, but at huge cost in terms of the game's lost association with words such as community, solidarity, and tradition.

Shankly, the man was the product of an Ayrshire mining village in the west of Scotland. One of ten children - five boys and five girls - he grew up in poverty, early imbued with the type of unbreakable inner strength, spirit, and determination which poverty endows the few it doesn't break. From a background of working class solidarity and pride, he never lost his socialist principles, and in fact applied them to the game to forge a management style which rightly earned him the veneration his name continues to evoke.

Bill Shankly's legend is inextricably linked with Liverpool, a city and a football club that he made his own and which in turn took him to its collective heart. The aura of romanticism and magic which still pervades Anfield was built foundations laid by him during his decade at the helm from 1959 to 1974.

In his era players still played for that palpable honour known as 'the jersey'. Shankly was driven by the belief that his players were privileged to play for the people who paid their hard earned wages following them on the terraces week in week out. He understood the centrality of football to the lives of working class men who spent their days toiling in the mines, the factories, and shipyards for a pittance in wages. Football allowed them to let off steam, forget their problems for 90 minutes, and enjoy the life affirming experience of collective solidarity with thousands of other fans packed into a stadium on a Saturday afternoon. This is where his most oft repeated quote on football being more important than life and death stems from.

What he meant was that the game's spiritual and emotional importance to the working class of the era in which lived could never be overstated.

Today football is a global hegemon, a business in which vast sums of money reward those fortunate enough to be at the top with obscene salaries, endorsements, and fame. David Beckham, the footballer most synonymous with the modern era of celebrity footballer, has been a veritable money making machine for most of his career. Undoubtedly a talented player in his time, the ethos of individualism, personal ambition, and desire for personal enrichment which has defined his career would have had no place in a team managed by Bill Shankly.

But, then, just as the values which motivated Shankly were rooted in the society in which he lived, so are David Beckham's. It's not so much the game of football has changed out of recognition but that society has changed, with football reflecting back to us the values by which we live.

The key difference between the Shankly and Beckham eras is the extent of inequality which not only exists today, but has become accepted.

Back in June The Independent published a global league table of football clubs according to the average salaries of their players.

It comes as little surprise to learn that sitting at the top of the table is Manchester City, which now pays on average over £100,000 a week to its first team players. Just behind them sits Real Madrid at just over £90,000 per week, then Barcelona, and so on.

Focusing in on the English Premiership, the gap between the top paying club, Man City, and the second, Chelsea, is quite considerable at £100,764 per week against £78,053 per week respectively. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the Premiership league table for salaries, is Norwich City, paying its players a comparatively modest £19,434 per week on average.

If anybody was still in any doubt that the relationship between the real world and top flight football was at best now a tenuous one, a cursory glance at these figures should end them. Football has become an increasingly corrupt global business that reflects the very worst excesses of a free market gone haywire in its corrosive impact on wider society. Ostentation and obscenity sits at the apex of football, just as it does in every private multinational business, with no time for anything approaching restraint or decency. It is particularly telling that it is in Spain and the UK where the highest salaries in top flight football are paid, considering that it both countries ordinary people are paying a particularly high price economically and socially under the weight of the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s.

Gareth's Bale's six year contract with Real Madrid, which will reputedly see him being paid a salary of £300,000 per week, takes things to a new level.

Bill Shankly once said, "The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That's how I see football, that's how I see life".

The game he described back then longer exists, nor the values which lay at its heart. It is for this reason that despite the enormous sums of money and fame enjoyed by the Beckham's and Bale's of modern football, they could never come close to replicating the impact which Bill Shankly had on the sport.

The legend of Shankly hasn't lessened with time, it has grown.