Modern football more of an industry than a sport

Modern football more of an industry than a sport

For the next few weeks, even those with little interest in football will find it extremely difficult to ignore the beautiful game. Until the last ball is kicked in the final match of World Cup 2018 — in the newly renovated Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15 — the eyes of the world will be on Russia and the 64 games played in 11 different cities. Only one of the 32 teams that have started the tournament will be lucky enough to lift the iconic FIFA World Cup Trophy and be crowned world champions. More than 3 billion people are expected to watch the games on their TV screens, tablets and phones, following and debating every aspect of the competition. For one month, almost everyone will become an expert, who — at least in their own mind — could do better than the players on the pitch and most definitely the coaches in the dugouts. 

But the mystery remains: What is it about football that makes people so tremendously passionate, so ready to spend so much of their time, money and mental energy, not only watching it played, but having it endlessly occupy their thoughts? Football has for a long time now ceased to be just a sport. It is about big, very big, money; it is about power and politics; it is about prestige and fame; and science also plays a very important part in turning talented prospects into accomplished players and keeping their fitness levels at the very top. 

I have no wish to dampen the excitement about the World Cup and football, and I will probably watch more games than I initially intended. Similar to kids today who dream of becoming superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, I aspired to be as good a goalkeeper as Dino Zoff or Peter Shilton. Needless to say, that never happened, but my love for football has remained unabated. Yet the game has changed beyond recognition. Today it is one of the most globalized phenomena on planet Earth, which unites supporters in rivalry but, concurrently, much of the fiercest competition is taking place in the boardrooms rather than on the football pitch itself.

What is it about football that makes people so tremendously passionate, so ready to spend so much of their time, money and mental energy, not only watching it being played, but having it endlessly occupy their thoughts?

Yossi Mekelberg

Professional footballers still originate from working-class districts and poor neighborhoods, but they hardly ever stick with their local team for the duration of their careers. Scouts and agents are on the prowl to lure them to the big clubs and the mega money. Footballers are not local heroes anymore, but global figures with looser connections with the communities they have come from. And who can blame a young person for being dazzled at the prospect of being able to secure their and their families’ financial future by earning in a week what most people won’t earn in years of work, and without the adulation? Football is no longer about being successful and winning games and trophies. It is more about being rich beyond imagination, and turning into a celebrity. The outrageous transfer fees, the sponsorships, and the inflated commissions paid to agents have meant that ordinary supporters are being priced out, the matches are more about entertainment than a contest, and results are more appreciated than performance and sportsmanship.

The driver for the transformation of football into a global phenomenon and a lucrative business has been technology and TV rights. In the last TV deal to broadcast games from the English Premier League, the rights for the 2016 to 2019 seasons were sold for a staggering £5 billion ($6.6 billion). It is even more astonishing if we consider that the rights for the first five seasons of the Premier League, 1992 to 1997, were sold for about £200 million. Hence, football has changed from a sport to an industry in which the big leagues attract international players and coaches, owners of the clubs are international investors, TV rights are in the hands of global media moguls and only a miniscule proportion of the people watching the game are in the stadium itself. 

It has turned the fans who attend matches into part of the scenery, part of the backdrop, for those who watch the game remotely. The merchandise of some of the big teams such as Real Madrid, Manchester United or Juventus sells more units in the Far East than in Europe, not to mention the corporate entertainment aspect. 

The World Cup, like the Olympic Games, has for most of its history been an opportunity to project the splendors of the host country and its ability to stage a remarkable event, preferably better than the one that preceded it. It gives opportunities to national and world leaders to rub shoulders with one another and take credit for the success of their national teams if they do well. It might boost one’s standing in public opinion, and in any case won’t do one’s image any harm to be perceived as a “cool” football supporter. The power of the game today is so great that any association with it is seen as beneficial, to the extent that national football associations are spending enormous resources to bring the World Cup or regional championships to their own countries. Sadly, this has also created the space for crooks to operate in the international governing body, who have been prepared to take bribes and other “inducements” to support one country or another’s bid to host the World Cup, as well as other coveted international events.

Football, as with so many other things that we remember nostalgically from our childhood, has changed tremendously and irreversibly. Much of the less fancy and corporate football, where the fans can still afford to go and watch their team from the stands week in and week out, is taking place in the lower professional leagues and the increasingly popular women’s game. 

But, for the next few weeks, we will put aside our deep concerns about the changing character of our beloved sport and cheer on our teams in the hope that they do well, if not actually come home with the trophy itself. We will concentrate on the values that sport has instilled in us and the joy and passion it brings into our lives. Let the best team win.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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