More money in football means more scandals, less local connection

Stephen Vines says Fifa head Gianni Infantino has had a less scandal-plagued run than his predecessor, but his grand plans for new global club competitions will mean more corporate dollars and a loss of the local feel fans crave

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 10:43pm

There is only one thing more worrisome than the appearance of sporting matters on the business pages of newspapers; this is when they also start appearing in the crime reporting sections. Fifa, which presides over international soccer, and is one of the world’s most powerful sporting institutions, has seen its name prominently splashed over both these news sections. 

It should be noted in parenthesis that the virus of corruption has affected many other sports, so football does not stand alone in the doghouse. 

Yet there was something lamentably special about the way that this towering sport, arguable the only truly international ball game, was dragged into the mud during the reign of Sepp Blatter as Fifa president. His regime was tortuously brought to an end in 2015. 

Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, is frequently featured in business news as he makes his way around the world of multinational corporations in search of sponsorship for two new types of world cup competitions – one will expand the global competition between clubs, not nations, and the other will create a new football league. 

Behind all this is the prospect of some vast sums of money; Japan’s Softbank, for one, is reportedly pledging funding to the tune of US$25 billion and clubs able to participate in this fandango are promised incentives involving over US$1 billion at the top end. 

No wonder then that the business aspects of all this are overshadowing the noble art of kicking a ball through a couple of goalposts. 

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Football has a special place in the world of business; nowadays it is hard to think of a single prominent team that has escaped the branding of its sponsors. When the players erupt on the field, the corporate logos are the most prominent thing that spectators see, assuming that they have missed the relabelling of stadia with corporate names. 

The speed with which business has embraced and transformed the sport is pretty breathtaking and evident at all levels, most obviously in the way that the professional game has been internationalised, not just in terms of the fans in remote corners of the world but also in the teams themselves. Teams now may be locally based but their players are no longer even vaguely local. 

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At this point, I should declare an interest in this matter because I attended what can only be described as an Arsenal school, it was near the club and my school was a regular supplier of new blood to the club. Arsenal coaches and players were frequently seen at the school and, of course, the home games were heavily attended by the pupils. 

Actually, I have only the slightest interest in footie but in the interests of self-preservation became a tribal Arsenal supporter; anyone in my school supporting the “other” North London club, somewhere over in Tottenham, could expect regular beatings. Yet some leeway was given to an eccentric who supported Millwall (whose fans are famous for chanting, “No one likes us, we don’t care”), presumably on the grounds that his team was unlikely to ever seriously challenge Arsenal. 

I mention all this to emphasise the intensely local nature of football and the almost visceral links that teams used to have with their local communities. Moreover, it used to be relatively cheap to go to matches and local lads with a bit of talent had a realistic chance of becoming professionals. 

All that has now gone and in its place is a massive global entertainment industry with sporting connections, where practically all the money is funnelled right to the top, leaving little left for elsewhere. The net result is that football at the highest levels is arguably enhanced but the glories of “the beautiful game” elsewhere are diminished. 

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Free market enthusiasts will say, “Why not?” If the market is there for big-money soccer, the market should be allowed to exploit this opportunity. Indeed, it is argued, business should be applauded for giving so much to the game. 

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So, here is the classic question for those who have a fervent belief in free markets. Is the market the right place to determine all manner of human activity? Has the intrusion of the business world into the world of sport been beneficial? 

The answer, from the perspective of football, must be mixed. The big money has spread the game to places where it never went before, but along the way, it has immersed football in scandal, and done much to kill off smaller clubs and organisations which were important to local communities. 

As for the question of whether it has improved the game, well, that’s probably for the sports pages. 

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster