Monday, 1 June 2015

The Global Game

Arsenal's FA cup win has been described  as evidence that they must now push on for the league title and a welcome reminder that "the sport we love" is about joy rather than bribes. That these two views were expressed by the TV broadcasters, who are the ultimate generators of the money that ends up in both player transfers and dodgy wire transfers, perfectly illustrates the psychosis of the sport. Despite being a season ticket-holder since the mid-80s, I didn't get a ticket in the ballot for the final (the odds were about 40%), my "seat" presumably being occupied by some other fan who paid a small fortune via the black market to the secretary of a non-league club (aka "the football family"). I'm sure the latter has conscientiously recycled the cash into a new set of kit, just as some of FIFA's largesse will have made its way through the sieve of intermediaries to fund an all-weather pitch in an African township. The Cup Final ticket allocation scam is an example of traditional English corruption, wholly unlike the bungs circulating among FIFA members.

Football is a gripping sport because goals are few and the team that scores is not necessarily the one that is on top. The grippingness didn't last long on Saturday. Despite a couple of late penalty shouts, Aston Villa were never really in the game. Arsenal controlled it and never looked in danger of not winning in normal time once Alexis Sanchez had scored the second goal. Wenger comprehensively out-thought Sherwood, and the Arsenal players showed no nervousness, unlike last year. In contrast, the Villa players looked tired from the kick-off and never really matched the Gunners' level of determination. My only disappointment was that "big Villa fan" David Cameron was otherwise engaged on the day - possibly discussing with Karen Brady how much more public money could be funnelled West Ham's way. As the match drew to a close, and the cameras picked up Randy Lerner bending the ear of the President of the FA (presumably saying "I'm out of here"), my thoughts turned to Friday's election to the post of President of FIFA and the oddity of another prince standing as the reform candidate.

FIFA reflects the state of global governance, which is why any exposure of its inner workings is unedifying, and why the product of nepotism can be advanced as the champion of probity. It was founded by the European powers in 1904, as part of the wider movement towards international technical coordination, but with a strong whiff of imperial soft-power about it. The UK (i.e. the four "home nations", but essentially England) has had a troubled relationship with the francophone organisation, marked by delusions of superiority and frequent sulking (out, in, out and then in again). The first twenty years were marked by volatile expectations of the positive, irenic impact of the sport on wider society - a style that lives on in the hyperbole of its modern PR and its love of fresh-faced, innocent children. The initial champagne toasts and goodwill to all mankind were dashed by World War One, then revived in the spirt of the League of Nations and post-war reconciliation, only to be further undermined by the strident nationalism of the twenties and thirties.

FIFA's history can be characterised as a simple echo of wider geopolitical forces, but this downplays the agency of the self-appointed elites who have dominated the organisation since day one, exemplified in the 1930s by their willing cooperation with Fascist Italy. The 1960s saw the temporary triumph of reaction, quite out of keeping with the times, as England's Stanley Rous became president, but the shifting geopolitical sands were evident both in the boycott of the 1966 World Cup tournament by the African nations, who had been denied a direct qualification place, and Rous's failure to get Apartheid South Africa readmitted as a FIFA member. The 1970s saw the emergence of two secular changes: the dominance of the developing world, as more countries joined the organisation, which provided the powerbase first for Joao Havelange and then Sepp Blatter; and the growth of revenues due to TV, which has transformed FIFA into a rent-seeking monopolist providing cash in exchange for influence (and presidential votes).

FIFA finds it difficult to hide its admiration for authoritarian regimes, from Junta-era Argentina to Putin's Russia. Much of the attraction of Qatar, beyond the bank transfers of uncertain purpose, is the ability of that country to build the required (and ultimately wasted) infrastructure through simple diktat. The deaths of construction workers are not a regrettable by-product: they're evidence of the sort of power that gives FIFA officials a hard-on. When Blatter & co talk about "legacy", they are dreaming the dream of Ozymandias, though as they showed with the US in 1994, guaranteed profits trump legacy. As an individual, Blatter may well be innocent of paying or receiving bribes, but then it's clear that what gets him out of bed is the adulation that the job brings: he's a power-junkie. His reputed $11 million salary can be seen as a cut provided by the grateful recipients of those bribes, but it can also be seen as a standard neoliberal reward for failure - i.e. turning a blind-eye to systemic abuse.

Much of the criticism Blatter is now facing is both legitimate and hypocritical, stemming from the failure of the England and US bids to host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. From Blatter's perspective, the awards to Russia and a Middle Eastern state were not only politically logical, they addressed a historic imbalance. Of course, it would have made more sense footballistically (to borrow a Wengerism) to have awarded the tournament to the USSR in the 60s or 70s, and Egypt would be a more logical Middle Eastern location even now (cooler, more fans, handy for Ozymandian ruins etc). As a rent-seeker, FIFA will always go where the money is, which means either disguised state subsidies or guaranteed commercial revenues. The US Soccer Federation and the English FA know this perfectly well. They don't have a problem with corruption, so long at it isn't too overt and accords with bourgeois norms - so Mulberry handbags are an acceptable "gift", prostitutes are not. Their real gripe is that the growth of the global TV audience is reducing their relative importance to advertisers.

The attraction of a global sporting event - and the Olympics is the only serious competitor to the World Cup in this space - is that it allows global brands to reach a global audience. But this in turn means that the attractiveness is biased towards emerging markets where those brands can achieve above average growth. The US and Europe are saturated markets where advertising spend is focused on brand maintenance. The Middle East, Africa and Asia are markets where the potential return on each advertising dollar is much higher. They are also the growth areas targeted by global TV companies, such as Sky, for the same reason. The consequence is that the money wants to pile into emerging markets, which suits the "democratic" structure of FIFA (by the way, the perpetuation of the separate UK associations, not to mention minnows like San Marino and Andorra, owes a lot to the "rotten borough" indulgence of UEFA seeking to maximise its own bloc).

It is unlikely that there will be any break up of FIFA. A fragmented tournament would see a collapse in commercial value, and could also result in a general waning of interest, much as the FA Cup suffered after the launch of the Premier League. European clubs already complain about the demands of regional tournaments other than the Euros, so you could expect to see any inter-continental tournament quickly reduced to an 8-team exhibition. The FA Cup has partially re-established itself, but it has done so by becoming more TV-friendly: the final at 5:30, wall-to-wall nostalgia, aggressive international sales. For that most English of institutions, it has become more and more of a global event, with fans watching in sports bars from Wellington to Washington, cavorting in their replica shirts from Lagos to Kuala Lumpur. Saturday's goals were scored by an Englishman, a Chilean, a German and a Frenchman, all playing for a global brand. I'm perfectly happy with that, but I would like the opportunity to see it with my own eyes.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment1 June 2015 at 17:28

    I predict Arsenal will once again under achieve next season by finishing 3rd or 4th. But they were impressive, even if Villa were hopeless.

    It isn't just the high value of a goal that makes football exciting, also those moments of mesmerizing skill, which Arsenal showed and Messi illustrated in the Copa Del Rey. So 2 predictable trouncings but still exciting for all that.

    The FIFA controversy all seems political to me, Blatter must go because he is the head of a corrupt organisation says Cameron. I can't remember him saying that about Murdoch.

    We are in a bit of a quandary when discussing FIFA because the alternative seems far worse, i.e. clubs controlling football and only the highly developed nations hosting big events (if the clubs even allowed such things).

    So we would have even more corruption and even less distribution.It would probably be more corrupt than the Olympics if that were at all possible.

    Now if I thought there was a chance that some movement could overthrow this FIFA kleptocracy and replace it with something genuinely democratic and progressive I would be all for it, but on balance, Viva Blatter!

    If you want rid of corruption get rid of money, if you don't want to get rid of money then shut up!!!

  2. I'm hoping the scandal broadens, deepens and offends as many sponsors as possible. I'm a Trotskyite when it comes to football and, like Herbie, I'm hoping for the final crisis of capitalist football when the money in the game evaporates. Not likely, unfortunately, but I did get some hope recently when my brother, who prides himself as a 'realist', declared that he hardly ever watched Match of the Day this season because the Premier League was boring and uncompetitive. I suspect that those supporting teams that cannot afford to buy World Cup winners will be somewhat less enamoured than you are with football's cosmopolitanism.

    The best way of avoiding the charge of corruption is to make sure that money changes hands openly rather than in brown envelopes. When multi-millionaire Xavi recently decided to leave Barcelona, did he decide to finish his career at a Catalan lower-league club, where his presence would put thousands on the gate, or spend time coaching young players, who would appreciate his experience? No, he went to earn stacks of cash playing sub-standard football in Qatar. Yet few question his decision, because earning a fortune is the raison d'etre of sport isn't it?

  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment1 June 2015 at 19:58

    I will distance myself slightly from Igor, as I want the final crisis of capitalism and not just capitalist football. Come the revolution I expect even more resources directed to football, as there is too much subsidising of middle and upper class sports. And hopefully schools would not be allowed to take football off the curriculum.

    While Xavi would be in my greatest ever team I have to agree with Igor's final point.