The fight for football’s soul
Off the pitch, all is not what it seems. David Gorin delves into the dirty facets of the beautiful game
Seeing only beauty in the things we love, adoring football fans unite in tribal support of their teams, behind the benevolence of owners who engineer big-money player purchases, and grateful for corporations who pump in bulging sponsorship funds.
But scratching beneath the game’s glossy veneer reveals the Machiavellian flipside of human nature, manifesting in abuses which turn into self-parody phrases like Fifa’s "football family" and Uefa’s "financial fair play". Football’s foundations are now reinforced with politics, power and money.
Sportswashing is a neologism for reputational laundering through sport. Even unconscionable, awful affairs: Amnesty International describes it as "glossing a human rights record, to wash a little blood away".
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposes the death penalty for adultery, tortures political prisoners and engages its military in Yemen’s civil war, estimated to have caused 100,000 civilian deaths and threatening starvation for millions. Yet, 6,000km away, Abu Dhabi is seen as a saviour by the blue half of Manchester. Fans extol the virtues of Emirati royal Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who bought Manchester City in 2008 and whose billions — tied closely to UAE state activities — have resurrected City’s fortunes after a half-century in the shadow of bitter rivals Manchester United.
Schalke 04, a proud workers’ club in Germany’s Ruhr, is sponsored by state-owned Russian gas giant Gazprom. The current €150m deal is the second-largest in German football. Gazprom is also a ubiquitous advertiser in European soccer stadiums; TV broadcasts beam the brand globally in one of Vladimir Putin’s PR programmes which blur the manoeuvre of Russian forces in Syria’s strife and the continuing occupation of Crimea.
Moral conundrums arise. How clear is the line separating this from paying to watch Arsenal, whose US owner, Stan Kroenke, donated $1mto Donald Trump, and who accepted a £30m shirt sponsorship from quasi-dictatorship Rwanda, where a third of the population lives in poverty?
Wealth and power have always infiltrated football, but the process of awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups marked a watershed.
Fifa’s decision to grant the globe’s greatest sporting tournament respectively to Russia — scourge of human rights — and Qatar, a tiny desert enclave where football has almost zero footprint, confirmed that something corrosive has infected the sport.
For two years leading up to the vote, Qatari billionaire Mohammed bin Hammam ran a comprehensive plot to bribe decision-makers or influencers. As president of the Asian Football Confederation he directed the shuffling of funds to serve Qatar’s cause — or he simply used slush money from his private company, illicit payments totalling multimillions.
Bin Hammam has never faced criminal charges, and the World Cup is still slated for Qatar, 50° summer heat notwithstanding. Shockingly, Fifa is consistently silent about the rising number of migrant workers — 1,200 so far — who have died constructing white elephant stadiums.
Gianni Infantino, current Fifa president, is a businessman with a disregard for player wear-out or fan fatigue. He’s compiled a consortium of little-known investment firms, Abu Dhabi sovereign fund Mubadala, and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to market a new 24-team World Cup Club tournament, further cluttering the football calendar — and garnering an eye-watering $25bn for Fifa’s coffers. "Fifa should be a governing body about good practices, not about entering commercial joint ventures with unknown investors," says Juventus chair Andrea Agnelli.
Indeed, Fifa is now a toxic brand.
Red card reputations
Greed also permeates more directly onto the field of play. The game’s European governing body, Uefa, implemented FFP (Financial Fair Play) regulations in 2013 in an attempt to ensure that clubs operate stably and to prevent billionaire owners pumping huge liquidity into clubs, inflating wages and transfer fees in an unsustainable financial bubble.
Two clubs most clearly demonstrate why the FFP regulations are necessary. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Manchester City are de facto owned by Gulf states. Extraordinary cash inflows have poured in, billions used to build giant squads of elite players on huge wages, and to leverage record-breaking transfers of marquee players, witnessed in the recent combined €400m fees bringing Neymar and Kylian Mbappé to PSG. Both clubs were fined contextually paltry figures of €20m in the early days of FFP implementation. Uefa re-opened an investigation into PSG in 2017, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport has just dismissed it on a technicality.
Qatar and the UAE are forging beachheads in the world’s leisure sectors, hedging against when the oil and gas run out. Football is also a carefully chosen conduit to better political relationships with the West, "the soft-power strategy of the [states’] ruling family," says Christopher Davidson, Middle East politics professor at Durham University.
Certain European clubs also engage in a new form of colonialism. By establishing cross-continental club networks, and youth academies in developing countries, they access and control young players in an exploitive supply chain.
Chelsea were recently fined Sf600,000 and banned for two transfer windows for relocating 29 under-18 players without proper consideration for their families. Chelsea were initially investigated for transgressions involving no fewer than 92 youngsters; the club currently has more than 40 players on loan to other teams, and the transfer ban will make barely a dent in its player resources. Nor will the fine worry their owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, whose personal wealth Bloomberg puts at $15.7bn.
The nub is that a small number of extraordinarily wealthy clubs, by taking advantage of skewed power dynamics and economic disparities in the developing world, commoditise young people and "[limit] the freedom of movement of players in an unacceptable way", claims the international players’ union, FIFPro.
But billionaire investors in the European game will largely be content. Records were broken in 2018: Real Madrid cracked the €750m revenue milestone; Liverpool made mega-profits of £125m. Forbes values the top 20 ranked clubs at an average of $1.69bn, up 14% from 2017 in US dollar terms.
The value of Sheikh Mansour’s £150m Manchester City purchase has rocketed 12-fold since 2008, though procuring top players and coaches has burnt his pocket by about £2bn.
Many fans hail their benefactors for buying success. However, neutrals who love the game feel disillusioned by a thinning competitive landscape, illustrated respectively in Italy and Germany, where Juventus have won their eighth consecutive title and Bayern are on track to secure their seventh in a row.
It’s what’s hidden that reveals much. Football’s stratification is cruel for those not near its pinnacle: bottom of the standings in the unforgiving trenches of England’s fourth-tier sits Notts County. Founded in 1862, the world’s oldest professional club is about to be relegated into obscurity.
Politicians, billionaires and financiers may never lose the lust for lucre, nor the willingness to treat football as a shiny plaything in more powerful games. But fans are experiencing an erosion of passion and a rising nausea at the cynicism of some tainted club owners and greedy administrators.
The game goes on, and isn’t yet in crisis. But its roots are becoming poisoned, and o jogo bonito has never looked so ugly.