• Monday, Mar 27, 2023
  • Last Update : 09:54 am

OP-ED: Is football leaving home?

  • Published at 08:12 pm April 20th, 2021
esl football
12 of Europe’s top clubs form the breakaway Super League REUTERS

European football eats itself. Wall Street wants to finance a football league, built on greed. China is the market and perhaps the ultimate destination

Michael Douglas’s mantra that “Greed is good” should be the tagline for the European Super League (ESL) as JP Morgan and private equity announce their $8 billion backing. 

It is not as if football currently is clean. The football legend, Michel Platini, was banned for shady dealings at the heart of world football. How many bribes were needed for Qatar to host the World Cup next year? Only Norway has condemned this travesty.

The injuries and deaths of Bangladeshis and other South Asians constructing the stadiums have generally not registered on the conscience of an uncaring elite in Doha, FIFA, or UEFA. 

Barcelona has long since been “less than a club” betraying its Catalan political heritage. Once it used to pay Unicef to promote it on its shirt. Recent years, it took gas money from Qatar. Paris St Germain and Manchester City went even further. The English Premier League is really the Pirates League, stuffed with dubious oligarchs. 

Regarding the new European Super League, the sense of public outrage is so intense that two leaders in Paris and London, not known to have any clue about the sport, are vehemently rejecting it. 

The core objection is not that an even larger share of money will go to 20 clubs. It is that none of the clubs can be relegated, and others promoted. This is a “no-risk” system beloved in the US. It means a “closed shop.”

All the dozens of other clubs are demoted to meaningless kickabouts. If there is no relegation from the Top 20 there can be no promotion from below. 

The myth has always been that all teams have a chance. The ESL formally crushes that dream. If European football has been on moral life support then the ESL pulls the plug on it.

In the football business, the “consumers” are primarily Asian. Europe’s stadium fans are the props. When even the FT says football should be far more than “for profit only,” you know extremists have taken over. Today’s football eco-system has long been unmoored from its local community, class, and cultural origins.

The Germans have thankfully said “nein” to the ESL. Incidentally, ticket prices in the Bundesliga are lower, and it has the highest attendance levels. A glimpse of relative sanity?

China is the dream

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has been demonstrating his passion for the game long before he got into power. Among the many successes achieved by the Middle Kingdom over the last decade, football has not been one of them. And China matters. 

Two out of every five global spectators of the main European leagues are Chinese. In other words, China is the largest single market and growing fast. But Xi Jinping does not want 1.4 billion people to remain merely passive “consumers.” His three goals are for China to regularly qualify for the World Cup, to host the finals soon, and try and win it around 2050. This is a determined, long-term vision. 

Ironically, China’s recent private sector football failures may be a good thing. Suning, the owner of Inter Milan, allowed its winner of the Chinese Super League to collapse recently. There have been 20 club bankruptcies in the last few years. China’s big business tycoons misunderstood the message. Importing highly paid footballers like Brazil’s Oscar and Ramirez was a model that failed in the US. China has now slapped a 100% transfer tax. 

What the Chinese leader called for is something entirely different. He identified the existence of mass grassroots enthusiasm and the need to encourage domestic organic talent. The football authorities have thus embarked on a massive scale. So far, 70,000 football fields have been built, meaning one field per 20,000 people. The number will double to 140,000 by 2030. 

Additionally, 24,000 specialized football schools are in operation. A healthier, sustainable Chinese football league is set to emerge. 

Globally, there is also an outlier. What if a rising South America and Africa, powered by Chinese investment, were able to afford to retain their best players in the medium term? The new Messis remaining in Buenos Aires, not flying to Barcelona. What then for the avaricious European Super League? 

Going home?

When England hosted the Euro 96 finals, the theme was “Football is coming home.” Imperial Britain did popularize the game everywhere. But was it the first? 

During the Chinese Han dynasty (circa 2nd century BCE) there was apparently an earlier form of the football game. Players kicked a leather ball filled with feathers and hair into a small net held by bamboo poles. Maybe the broader Global South will show the North that there is a better way.

But back to today, let’s hope the money merchants ruining European football have gone so far that they have galvanized a ferocious social backlash.

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.

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