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Feb 11, 2014

Football's dominant role in London's future?

It is 2062. Outside the stuccoed ghettoes of the super-rich, London is in the grip of a poverty epidemic. Thousands of teachers and nurses and other blue- and white-collar workers have been forced to flee to the north and west, to Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, spending hours commuting into their jobs in the capital on the straining high-speed rail network.

The City, London's financial heart, has collapsed. The housing market, too -- for so long predicated on endless growth, the philosophy of cancer -- fell almost immediately afterward, as many of the oligarchs and the traders and the wolves and vultures moved elsewhere.

After more than 60 years of starving the country to feed the capital, failing to invest in any sort of manufacturing, belittling the concept of decentralisation and sacrificing generation upon generation on the altar of the financial services industry, the London bubble that had artificially sustained and inflated Britain's economy has shattered and burst.

There are only three "true global financial players" left in London -- only three corporations with any influence or sway on an international stage. Their wealth, built on new media, is such that they have been afforded governance roles in the City and their chief executives handed tsar-ships in an attempt to stimulate the economy. They run education, too, providing free schools in those areas where comprehensives, chronically underfunded by a bankrupt government, have shut down.

Their names are Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.

That sounds like the premise to a particularly far-fetched dystopian thriller -- kind of like "Blade Runner," but starring Daniel Levy -- but it is not. Instead, it is -- with perhaps one or two editorial changes -- a vision of the future of London set out by academics at University College London as part of a study titled "Imagining the Future City: London 2062."

Futurology, like being a weatherman or a football journalist, is not a real job; as those involved in the study admitted, "for a city as complex as London," accurate predictions are impossible. They set out several visions of what the British capital might look like in 2062, including one where it is a "prime megacity" built on technological innovation and another -- this one has the ring of truth to it, to be honest -- where quite a lot of it is under two or three feet of brown water. That one of their scenarios centred on football, though, is telling. Not simply because few companies in Britain are quite so buoyant or recession-proof as major football clubs, and not simply because the Premier League now, probably, stands as this country's most significant export -- apart from stag parties and Prince Andrew.

Rather, it is telling because it is a tacit acknowledgment of the role football plays in shaping society. That, in many ways, is its glory. Football is a prism through which we can examine our own values. In the way we play it and the way we react to it, we can tell a lot about our attitudes, our beliefs, our world-view, our anger and our joy. It enables us to discuss issues that may otherwise go unspoken.

But it also has the converse power: It can help change the way our world is, not just through that process of self-assessment, but in a much more immediate and apparent way, too.

The most urgent example of the physical manifestation of football's power to effect change is the transformation of East Manchester as part of Abu Dhabi's plans to turn Manchester City into a truly significant footballing power. The Etihad Campus, encompassing the club's academy, could revamp and rejuvenate a deprived part of the city in a way that no council, no government and no other industry has either the power or the resources to do.

In London, too, there are those with similar plans. Queens Park Rangers and Tottenham are both planning new stadia in the capital -- the former at Old Oak Common, a dilapidated part of west London full of recycling plants and tumbledown buildings, and the latter at roughly the same site as their current home in the north of the city, an area torn apart by riots not yet three years ago and resolutely resistant to gentrification.

The plans put on show by both sides make their new stadium the centre-piece of a more ambitious redevelopment including shopping centres, housing and improved transport access. QPR want to tie theirs in with High Speed 2 -- the much-anticipated sequel to George Stephenson's "The Train," which coincided with the last major revamp of Britain's rail network -- and Crossrail, a hugely expensive transport development designed, as far as anyone can tell, to boost house prices.

This is still football, but it extends way beyond the sport. It is football as the engine of the city. Most clubs already have links with schools and projects in their local areas, not getting nearly enough credit for it -- as Phil Neville has long said, football is far more generous with its time and money than, say, banks are. Also, most are seen as valuable partners in all sorts of charitable pursuits, from campaigns against forced marriage to literacy and numeracy.

It is not hard, then, to see how UCL's academics conjured up a future where "three global football corporations" are the most powerful institutions in the Britain of the second half of the 21st century, where Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs -- though in the study, only the first two were named -- are key players in the daily life of the country.

In the week when West Ham United confirmed they had sold Upton Park as they plan for their move to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, though, it is worth considering another version of the future, one that will come into play far more quickly. By 2022, West Ham will have long since moved into the Olympic site. Tottenham will have finally built the Naming Rights Arena -- that's what it looks like they'll call it on the plans, anyway -- and QPR should be ensconced at Old Oak Common, their 40,000-seat stadium named after the club’s greatest legend, Joey Barton.

All three clubs see these moves as safeguarding their future, enabling them to move on to the mythical next level. There was a stage when match-day revenue was not quite so important as it used to be, thanks to the gargantuan television deals secured by the Premier League, but all three have identified game income as the best way to maximise the benefits of Financial Fair Play. The more fans who come through the doors, the more money they can spend on improving their teams.

But what if the opposite is true? What if this is not the way to protect the future, but simply buying into a bubble? Can television revenue increase exponentially? Will the carcinogenic dogma of endless growth hold true in football, because it does not anywhere else? What if there comes a time when the Premier League is simply not as fashionable as it is now? What then? Does this not leave QPR, in particular, in negative equity with a home too big for their requirements?

Perhaps, though, that is too negative a prediction. How about this: What if there are not thousands of fans waiting to go to see West Ham play, if only they had a bigger home? What if the idea that tourists will flock to any Premier League game at all is flawed? What, in other words, happens if the next level is already full?

London is an enormous city. It can more than accommodate the dozen or so teams it possesses. But it is a natural fact of life that only some of those can be successful at any one time. They cannot all move into wonderful new stadiums and expect to fill them. It is a zero-sum game. For one to succeed, another must fail.

That does not mean that Spurs, or QPR, or West Ham, should just accept their place in the firmament. It is their absolute right to be all they can be. But it does mean that a new home is no more a guarantee of what the future holds than the imaginations of those academics who saw football at the heart of everything.

Even in a bubble, there are no sure things.

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