Beautiful game scores winners
It is known worldwide as 'the beautiful game' although you might not know it from recent ugly behaviour on and off the field, and indeed in the courts of China. But a spate of surveys and statistics has shown that football is the world's most popular and most lucrative sport.
According to the superficial judgment of Facebook 'likes', Barcelona is the world's most popular football team, with 23.76 million 'likes'. That makes Barcelona the globe's 31st most popular personality, behind US President Barack Obama, who has 24.29 million 'likes'. Real Madrid comes in second with 22.45 million 'likes', followed by Manchester United with 20.88 million. Film star Jackie Chan has 21.83 million.
By the less ethereal calculations of how much football clubs are worth, Forbes calculated in April that Manchester United was worth US$2.24 billion, making the club the world's most valuable sports team, US$385 million more than baseball's New York Yankees or the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys. Real Madrid is worth US$1.88 billion and Barcelona US$1.31 billion.
Another firmer, but still incomplete, financial measure is how much sports stars earn. The Sportingintelligence website calculated last month that Barcelona players were the world's best-paid, with players collecting an average of US$166,934 a week, or US$8.68 million a year. Real Madrid players came second with US$149,935 a week, followed by Manchester City (US$142,380).
According to another list, of the highest-paid footballers this year, Lionel Messi of Barcelona is the world's highest-paid footballer, earning Euro33 million (HK$401 million), followed closely by Englishman David Beckham, of Los Angeles Galaxy, on Euro31.5 million.
The real superstars are able to earn as much off the field as on it. Messi's money comprises only Euro10.5 million in salary, another Euro1.5 million in bonuses and a massive Euro21 million in advertising and sponsorship deals. Beckham similarly makes large sums off the field.
But footballers are not the best-paid sports stars. Despite his fall from grace, golfer Tiger Woods is second among the world's high-earning sports stars, with earnings of US$58 million, after boxer Manny Pacquiao's US$67 million, according to Forbes. The magazine puts Beckham - the best-paid footballer - in seventh place behind basketball players, tennis star Roger Federer and golfer Phil Mickelson.
In fact, the best-paid footballer for his work on the field is Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o, who signed a three-year deal for Euro20.5 million a year not for one of the top European clubs but for FC Anzhi Makhachkala of Russia.
His move sparked speculation as to whether rich owners of Chinese football clubs might also move to boost their hopes by hiring famous foreign stars, which was encouraged by rumours that Chelsea's European Cup-winning star Didier Drogba was on his way to Shanghai to join former Chelsea colleague Nicolas Anelka.
Football is big business, with little room for local sentiment. The prospect of making money in the English league has lured Americans, Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs, Indian businessmen and not forgetting Hong Kong's Carson Yeung Ka-Shing to buy clubs, so that only half of the 20 top clubs are British-owned.
Manchester United is a prime case in point, with American owners who are heartily disliked in large parts of the city, not least because they bought the club with debt and settled it on the fans' beloved club. The Glazer family, which also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers American football team, has been trying to float part of Manchester United on a stock exchange while maintaining near-majority ownership.
They tried first in Hong Kong, but were rebuffed when Hong Kong authorities did not like the dual shareholding structure. They switched to Singapore, but reports last week say that they are unhappy with the slow approval pace and the difficult IPO environment in Asia, and may seek a New York listing.
The big question is when a rich and booming China will reclaim ownership of the game it claims it invented 20 centuries before the English set the modern rules.
Will the potential move of Drogba, whose boot scored the winning European Championship goal last month, to Shanghai, or maybe to Guangzhou, put China on the world football map? Or will the conviction this month of the former head of the Chinese Football Association and 10 others for bribery and match-fixing start a clean-up and revival?
Don't expect quick or early progress. Shanghai Shenhua has income of about US$3 million a year and survives out of the deep pockets of its owner Zhu Jun. The Chinese league has been described as 'Wild East football' and the standard of play and organisation, not to speak of the financial backing, is poor, with corruption long rumoured to be rife.
There is a story that the Buddha came to China and said he could grant the people one wish. 'Please lower the price of property in China, so that people can afford it,' one person asks. Buddha sucks a deep breath, so another person asks: 'Can you make China qualify for the World Cup, please?' Buddha sighs: 'Let's talk about property prices.'
Barcelona's ranking on Forbes' valuations of the world's soccer teams, with US$653 million in revenue