Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021.
“Football wasn’t invented in 1992, ya know?”
There’s an expression we’ve all heard at some point during a debate between fans down through the years. And while, of course, it’s true, let’s take a look at why that particular year is so significant in terms of football history.
First up, maybe it’s all too easy to say that it was the era when the Premier League was initiated and Sky Sports grabbed a firm hold on the broadcasting rights that changed everything. Certainly that was part of it, but in truth, there was a wider European, global and consumer-based cultural context on the go at the time which also played as key factors.
#1: ‘Taking Down the Iron Curtain.’
As a continent, Europe underwent a massive transformation – largely aided by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – and thus, greater freedoms and better relationships between nations and states was within grasp.
The breakup of the Soviet Union and the decimation of communist regimes had many feeling that a new structure to the European Cup was required.
With the notable exception of the former Yugoslavia, Europe fell into relative peace and harmony. Something which would’ve been unforeseen just five decades earlier.
Let’s wind the clocks to 1991; the final year of ‘Old Football.’ Red Star Belgrade were the European champions, domestic league matches all kicked off at the same time on the same day, most teams were limited to just two foreigners and Vanilla Ice was telling us all to ‘stop, collaborate and listen.’
By the time the summer of ‘92 came around, Denmark became the victors of the European Championship, despite not having actually qualified, and a meeting between German businessman, Klaus Hemple and British composer, Tony Britten at the tournament, would change everything.
Hemple was in the early stages of revamping Europe’s premier club competition and was well away with his plans to introduce group stages and seeding for all the participating sides.
This meant that teams were guaranteed a minimum of six games; replacing the old two-legged knockout round that saw Napoli and Real Madrid both having early exits in 1987 and 1989 respectively. Hemple’s new format promised more games, but it also pleased UEFA as they’d have final say on the advertising rights and on a standard kick-off time – midweek, 7:45pm GMT.
The corporate hoardings around the pitches and in the stands would be standardised, but to make the new competition seem more lucrative, Britten’s composition of the theme music gave the tournament an air of sophistication … even if it was a total rip-off of Handel’s classic anthem of ‘Zadok the Priest.’ The listeners of Classic FM seemed to approve, however, as they saw it as rekindling an old gem with a more modern spin.
Prime-time viewing delighted the endorsing companies like Amstel Bier, MasterCard and Continental Tyres to name but a few and, after some deliberation and debate, the name of the ‘UEFA Champions’ League’ was born. Early footage broadcasts by ITV do show poor Ian St. John and Bob Wilson occasionally stumbling over the name of this new competition.
#2: ‘And It’s Live!’
Back in England, things had plummeted to an all-time low. Sponsorship deals were often modest at best while crowd trouble and hooliganism was still synonymous with the game. The better players were plying their trades in Italy and Spain and even some of the best British players (Gary Lineker, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Paul Gascoigne) were all playing abroad.
The year of 1992 was also the year in which the old First Division would morph into becoming the newly-formed FA Premier League and when Australian media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, recognised its potential, football as we know it would change forever.
The BSkyB Corporation took inspiration from American television in how they covered matches.
Customers who’d availed of the Sky Sports coverage were there to be entertained and educated in a manner which reselmed how the networks across the Atlantic Ocean did theirs. Matches on a Sunday became the [Ford Escort] ‘Super Sunday’ and ‘Monday Night Football’ entered the lexicon of the everyday fan on the street.
The radical changes in how the game was broadcast was evident right from the start. The “Whole New Ball Game” would hold five hours of screen time on a Sunday with ex-players in suits and ties using tactics boards and graphics to discuss their thoughts on a given topic. Even the Monday night games at Crystal Palace and Coventry City had pre-match cheerleaders.
Football became trendier than ever and it seemed as though, in the top-flight anyway, that the days of rioting crowds on rickety caged-terraces of the 1980s, had been banished from sight.
The arrivals of Eric Cantona and Denis Bergkamp brought some early flair to the league and by the time Chelsea landed a series of Serie A players in the summer of 1996, the facelift was well underway. The backbone of Arsenal’s double-winning team in 1998 was dominated by a flurry of French internationals who went on to win the World Cup in their own country that summer.
#3: ‘So We’re All Agreed?’
Jumping briefly back to 1992 again, there was another important political development which helped shape all this. The signing of the Maastricht’ Treaty in Brussels essentially afforded the freedoms that all European Union member states now enjoy: the ability to live and work in any other country within that jurisdiction that they chose to.
This agreement had paved the way for an influx of foreign players to come in and light up the Premier League as they were free of the restrictions that had often impeded them from doing so. The development of the Bosman Ruling in 1995 then made it possible for players to leave on free transfers once their contracts had ended. A matter of profound implications.
On the other hand, football had also become pop-culture. The old days of ‘Roy and the Rovers’ comic-strips were replaced with fancy computer games (some where you played as a team and some where you even played along as the manager). Televised dramas like ‘Dream Team’ hit our screens and, for a brief period anyway, the Premier League even had it’s on breakfast cereal … which was minging, by the way!
Players dated pop-stars and drove sports cars, David Beckham’s haircuts made front page news and, to this day, Liverpool’s decision to wear white suits to the FA Cup Final in 1996 still probably gets more coverage than anything from the actual match that was played that day.
All in all, it showed that it wasn’t just the Sky ‘takeover’ of the Premier League in 1992 that changed the game – some might say for better and some might of the more traditionalists might tend to disagree – but in an overall sense, it was also down to the changes in Europe’s political structure and how we all became part of a mass consumer culture.
The year of 1992 was not the year in which football was invented, but it was certainly a year in which it saw it undergo a massive rebirth.