For the coming weeks, in a series of articles, I will be looking at a concept caused by the paradigm of the day and how it has seeped into football, how to spot it, and what football, as a lens, can teach us about the goings on in the broader societal landscape, away from the pitch.
Unknown Information Alert: Football is the most popular sport in the world.
4% of the world’s population actively take part in the sport – which accounts for around 270 million people as of 2014. The task of determining how many people regularly watch it is a lot more difficult, but to get an idea, over 3 billion people watched the 2014 world cup according to some outlets. Football has conquered the globe like no other sport – over 200 countries have football associations.
If ever a sport could channel wider trends, it’s football. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum after all. In fact, I will hopefully show how it exhibits, is driven by, and can be used to spot and even critique the prevailing paradigm at work in wider society. Today, that main paradigm is economics, chiefly neoliberalism, and it has been that way since the early 1980’s.
Firstly, let’s look at the etymology of football and soccer to get a sense of its roots. It is derived from ‘association football.’ The noun ‘football’ is both instructional and illustrative enough to not merit explanation. Soccer is the more interesting of the two. The first three letters of that word come from Latin, and means ‘partner; comrade’. This 3-letter collocation is found in words such as: associate, association, disassociate, social, socialize, society, socio-, unsociable.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that football has ‘socialist’ roots – after all, your teammates are your comrades, you work together to collectively be greater than the sum of the team’s parts. It brought together people from factories, workshops, schools, universities or the same town. To give a few examples, Stoke was formed by apprentices of a railway works, Arsenal by workers from Woolwich Munitions and West Ham was started by workers from Thames Ironworks. It unites people, gives meaning and purpose to the collective and it allows the player (and fan) to feel part of something bigger than him/herself.
Contextually, it is also unsurprising that English football came about at the back end of the industrial revolution. The changes in the UK leading up to the formation of clubs had a marked effect on the process: the decriminalization of trade unions, and the consequent increased control they had over working conditions dramatically increased leisure time for men. Governmental legislation did the same for working women and children, meaning there was more time for the setting up of community based football teams.
Let’s fast forward to the 1960’s. Bill Shankly, when asked about socialism, famously said: “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.” The context in which he said this, in the 1960’s, was the end of the great post war boom. The Labour Party, having been entrusted with the task of rebuilding Britain, had nationalized Britain’s main industries, including coal, electricity, steel and the railways. The welfare state had also been set up in the late 1940’s, to great success. Keynesian economic policy led the nation, on the back of an, almost paradoxically, unifying experience (the Second World War), which wholly embraced the ideals of social liberalism. To contextualize the period further, through British football, it was a time of the 1967 European cup win by Celtic in Lisbon. 14 of the 15 men were born within a 10 mile radius of Celtic Park. Looking back on that era, for the modern fan, and it seems parochial and antiquated, but it was arguably the last epoch in which the game’s socialist origins were clearly manifest, namely 11 men representing a defined and certain geographical or conceptual entity. Because things were changing.
The 1970’s had extreme economic downturn. The above mentioned public institutions’ high costs were unsustainable; inflation was at 24% in 1975 in the UK, for example.
So, at the end of the 1970’s, the ‘west’ reached a juncture – a nexus of ideas had come to the fore and had to be confronted, discussed and actioned. Millions of deaths in Russia and China, a cold war predicated on a narrative of good (capitalism) vs evil (communism) and successful, US-summoned, destruction of socialism in Latin America meant wholesale embracing of capitalist policies, or better said, an even more predatory form of capitalism. The two most influential global societies voted in the era of neoliberalism: Thatcher and Raegan concurrently injected their states with a hyper-individualised form of capitalism, which, among other things, rejected the notion of society. Thatcher (in)famously said ‘there’s no such thing as society’. She, and those that mattered, believed in the individual, in privatization and in the free market, and importantly, those concepts’ power to change everything for the better. At the same time, the third and most recent explosion of globalization happened. The deregulated, free market approach meant that corporations could take advantage of cheap labour in far flung, non-regulated countries.
Karl Marx observed that if you change the dominant mode of production that underpins a society, the social and political structure will change too. The point being that the now widely accepted best means of production has transcended national control. Marx also critiqued that, in a capitalist framework, money will triumph over traditional institutions. If we install the idea of a ‘nation’ (even though the idea is, as we’ll see below, a modern and post-Marx one) as a traditional institution, can we see that these ideas have started to take hold in football?
Until the mid-19th century, the majority of the world was a mass of empires, city-states and principalities. No passports were needed to traverse land mass and there were very few adhered to borders. For example Italy was not unified until 1861, and Germany only took its current form 10 years after that. Industrialization made societies more complex, and consequently a need for large, centralized bureaucracies grew in order to manage them. Improved communications unified language, culture and identity. Imperialistic expansion spread the nation-state model worldwide, and by the middle of the 20th century it was the only game in town. It was no different for football. The World Cup was the biggest show on earth.
However, since the late 1970’s, globalization, led by the aforementioned neoliberal policy, has been eroding nation-states’ power to enforce change. Corporations and financial institutions can simply pack their bags and up-sticks if they don’t like what they are told. The idea of a nation’s government having near to absolute control over the actors within its borders has been diminished. To boot, the internet has heralded a border-less, free, national identity-less future. Many users see themselves as global citizens. And the major global concerns: climate change and cyber-crime all seem beyond the nation-state’s abilities to manage. Are we seeing this in football?
Think about the current situation of national teams versus clubs. Ask yourself if they are on an equal footing. Has the Champions League and club football overtaken international football? It is a debatable point (there are many people who still prefer international football – although I don’t know many), I personally believe it has, and irreversibly so. I can’t help but notice general listlessness when it comes to International football (in Europe, may I add). The recent proposal and introduction of the UEFA Nations League really reeks of a final roll of the dice in an attempt at bucking the trend towards a preference for club football.
Neoliberalism has unquestionably helped global corporations. Cheap labour, tax havens and murky international law has been exploited for corporate interests. Lawyers have spun their spells to give them the illusion of being sentient – in the US for example, legislation has even given them the same rights as people (corporate personhood). In football, the big ‘corporations’ are the European super clubs: Barcelona, Bayern, Manchester United, Real Madrid, PSG, Chelsea, Manchester City, Juventus, Arsenal. Since Western Europe is the joint purveyor of neo-liberalism, it’s no surprise. Clubs now operate in remarkably similar ways as the big global corporations. No market is unexplored. Pre-season friendlies in Timbuktu, talk of a 39th Premier League game, Serie A have played their version of the Community Shield in Beijing. This is the tools of corporatism at work. The goal is to create a global brand and tap everywhere. Think of Apple. They have ‘fanboys’ on the back of their brand; customers who are almost unsusceptible to price changes for a now perceived inelastic good. Football’s no different, and football’s corporations actually have an advantage in this respect – you are much less likely to change affiliation to a football team than a smart phone.
When did this corporatization of football start to take hold? The early 90’s brought about the Champions League and the Premier League. The latter being the model on which the other European football associations would base their domestic leagues. It was predicated on exclusive rights awarded to a non-state owned, private entity (Sky) in exchange for an enormous quantity of money. After this was set in motion, for the first time, clubs floated on the stock market and subsequently made (short term) profits the goal ahead of anything else. The parallels with the neoliberal era of privatization, brought in by Thatcher, hopefully aren’t getting lost here. Wages and, consequently, ticket prices went up to alleviate the costs of a fraught battle for worldwide talent – all to enhance possibilities of on-field success, and off the field, gain a footing in untapped markets. Before Sky, the average player’s wage was 5 times that of the average worker. In 2010, the figure was 50 times that of the average worker. Wealth inequality is another concept at the heart of neoliberalism.
And the money train didn’t stop. English clubs, recognizing the seemingly make or break nature of the league, started to try to get aboard the bandwagon by risking everything – and some notable ones failed (Portsmouth and Leeds, to name two). Around the same time as the inception of the Premier league, the Champions League was introduced. It utilized the same models of exclusive rights, huge prize money and advertising. Most importantly, from a neoliberal perspective, was the expansion of the competition. No longer did you have to win your domestic league to qualify for the competition. This allowed for the formation of the European football elite. A few, select number of clubs were able to guarantee income streams, and, in turn, ring fence their profits and interests from smaller clubs. In wider society, corporations tend to do this by collusion, mergers or by snapping up smaller companies.
Neoliberalism has a Social Darwinist principal at its core – the idea of a meritocracy – in short, the motivated cream rises to the top and deservedly so. But what has historically happened is that, after initial meritocracy, those who get to the top gain the power (money), and then use every trick in the book to keep themselves at the top table. It is basically a rigged game. The illusion of meritocratic values is there, but ultimately unachievable for anyone else playing. Corporations do this by leaning on governments to regulate and deregulate where they wish. This is mainly achieved through hefty campaign contributions and lobbying. The European football corporations did it a different way, they set up G14 in 2000. Europe’s top 14 clubs (and later 18) were to be consulted on any regulatory change they deemed to be counter to their objectives (earn money). They put pressure on the governing bodies to, among other things, compensate the clubs for allowing their players to represent their countries. In 2005 and 2006 they took FIFA to court demanding such.
The European football corporations’ desire is always to achieve even greater profits, so the most efficient ways to do that is by using the profitable vehicles of domestic football and the Champions League. International football consequently takes an inadvertent hit.
For a sustained period of time, Pele was almost universally considered the best player in the world. He played for Santos of Brazil. He finally ventured out of the Brazilian league in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos. His reputation came from his playing for Brazil, the nation. Now imagine Neymar, with exactly the same career as Pele, achieving what he did. It’s not only impossible conceptually. It’s impossible in the current framework, too. The European football corporations have deployed their scouting tentacles across the globe and have consolidated their localized financial muscle sufficiently enough to simply throw enough money at the hypothetical modern day Pele. In turn, this version of Pele would have grown up in a globalised society which revers money and so, would never turn down a hefty financial offer in order to pursue the old fashioned notion of playing for your local team.
To further contextualize the point of the international football/club football bait and switch, during the days of the cold war, the greatest technologies were owned by state owned national companies: NASA was at the forefront of new technological development. Now, after years of market led, non-interventionist policy, Tesla, a private company, has just launched a rocket into space. Football is on the same path.
The Balloon D’or started in 1956, and it was, until 1995, for European players only. This is instructive as it shows how increased globalization can be seen in football at that time, since the Europe-based Milan employed the Liberian, George Weah (winner of the 1995 award).
The winners of the award in the years up to 2010 are also instructive. In World Cup years in which a non-European nation won the trophy, the award was nearly always given to players such as Raymond Kopa (1958) and Josef Masopust (1962) for their outstanding contribution in International football in those years. There are some exceptions to this ‘rule’, such as Kevin Keegan in 1978, who did nothing internationally and ‘just’ won the league with Hamburg in Argentina’s world cup winning year. But the general rule is that the players who won during these years did for a World Cup performance for their nations, highlighting its importance.
The last player to win a Balon D’Or for their international performance was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. However, 4 years later – and this is around the time, I believe, the corporation-led step change has made itself evident in football – in 2010, for the first time in the history of the Ballon D’or, a player eligible for the award, who was from the winning side of the World Cup, didn’t win it. Messi did. Iniesta came second. In the 2014 World Cup, Manuel Neuer finished third in the poll after Germany’s victory. Ronaldo won the first prize and Messi finished second. This was unheralded.
Now, this ‘trend’ has coincided with Ronaldo and Messi being far and away the two best players in the world, you can easily argue that it’s for that reason and that reason alone. I can’t unequivocally say that reason for the award not going to World Cup winners is purely down to club football and the Champions League’s ascension over international football. But I think it gives tangible evidence to a general trend, and when I think about my own and my friends’ apathy towards international football in general, I think there’s something in it. And even more so when I see projected future revenues of European football’s corporations. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues after Messi retires.
Now, it is not a complete corporate coup. International football is still important. I’m arguing that the wider societal trends point to it being increasingly dislodged by the neoliberal facilitated corporatization of the major European football clubs, coupled with the lesser importance of nation states in a globalized, connected, world. After all, in our current paradigm, money talks – and international football doesn’t pay.