You would not think a global industry could be built around a man kicking a ball into a net.
But a goal at the World Cup or in a European match is like hitting the jackpot at a casino.
Kylian Mbappe of France got all his numbers matched at that huge slot machine that was the 2018 World Cup, and he now earns €18m a year.
Lionel Messi is paid €46m.
Serial scorers are assured of huge earnings and glamorous lives. Soccer has become a game where players rush to score goals at an increasingly frantic speed. They are thirsting to get that ball into opponents’ nets, knowing that each goal is a life-changing event. Clocking up goals becomes an exercise in pure capital accumulation.
The speed of the modern game is a reflection of that utter desperation for almost instant wealth. Games have become faster, goals more difficult to score, with defensive strategies increasingly impenetrable.
Players know that conceding a goal is like giving away a large chunk of their capital. The more goals a team concedes, the less money they earn, especially if it results in defeat.
Watching a game from the 1970s comes as a shock today: surprise at how relaxed the players seem, how relatively slowly they move, how much more pleasure they take in the game, revelling in dribbling and passing skills.
Poor goalkeepers cannot score, except in the most extraordinary circumstance (generally own goals). So they are rewarded for stopping their side from being robbed of money and glory. They might be valued, but you would be hard pressed to find goalies among the likes of Messi or Ronaldo.
Of course, money has always been a part of sport, but something happened during the 1970s: television turned the sport into an industry, and cable TV turned it into a sector of the economy, and that is how Fifa makes most of its money, selling the rights to screen games.
Advertisers, not allowed to interrupt games, instead emblazon stadia surfaces with irritating LED ads. Or they stitch their clients’ names onto team gear. Worse, they buy the players themselves, with what they
Advertising hooked the sport up with allied industries: replica T-shirts, boots, leather goods and plastic models, but also research institutes that explore friction in balls, streamlined fabrics and grass that better enables movement.
Information technology is another allied industry: cameras hooked into complex systems enable replays, freeze-frames, views from every conceivable angle and mind-boggling statistics on ball possession, or how many kilometres players run and at what speed. You can bet on any of these stats: the betting industry follows wherever chance operates.
With the corporatisation of the game, coaches have become the CEOs of soccer, deciding which scorers or facilitators to field, which to buy and sell, and at what price.
Coaches have also become financially ranked, and those heading top teams earn fabulous incomes, the ever dissatisfied Jose Mourinho clocking up £15m a year, which is proof that money does not necessarily make you happy.
Fifa, that reverse ATM that sucks up money from fans, sponsors, corporates and nation states, reportedly made $6bn from the World Cup in Russia, 25% more than in Brazil. With that kind of money, corruption is sure to follow, and we have yet to hear the final toll of Sepp Blatter’s crooked machinations.
Some players resist being sucked into the obsessive money machine, but not many who reach the top. It is not all about money. It is also about soccer, about skill, synchronicity, chance and coincidence, giants falling and the humble soaring. By and large the money machine colonises the pleasures, frames the achievements and turns everything into a commodity, especially the goal!