The people's game, but which people?

August 10, 2017 09:44
Neymar and PSG chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi pose with the club shirt at the player’s introduction last Friday. Photo: Reuters

If there is one sport that unites the world, from the cafes of France and barrios of Spain to the favelas of Brazil and souqs of Qatar, then it is surely football. The beautiful game, the global game, the people’s game.

Hence, it was with intense, at times frenzied, interest that many of us watched the unfolding of Brazilian player Neymar’s transfer from Spanish club Barcelona to Qatari-owned French team Paris Saint Germain (PSG).

The deal for Neymar was mind-boggling, way beyond what most of us will earn in our lifetimes. The 200 million British pound (US$260 million) transfer fee smashed the previous record, which was only set last year (when Paul Pogba moved from Italy’s Juventus to England’s Manchester United for 89 million pounds).

On top of this, Neymar will be paid a salary in the region of 40 million pounds per year. If correct, this means he will receive a weekly wage worth somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000 pounds per week. One suspects, too, that the player’s principle representative, his father, will also be earning a decent income from the deal.

To many, this probably does not look or feel like "the people’s game" many of us were born into and brought-up with. Instead, football increasingly seems like a plutocracy, a means through which a global elite of the super-rich have sought either to become even richer or else to extend their power and influence. They are still people, but not the people whom many of us recall kicking a ball in the street when we children.

Few come richer or more influential than Qatar Sports Investments, owners of PSG and the economic and political power behind the French club’s acquisition of Neymar. On a per capita basis, Qatar is currently the richest country in the world: US$124,000, compared to US$58,000 in the United States.

In turn, the country’s sovereign wealth fund has amassed US$180 billion worth of liquid foreign assets, as well as currency reserves exceeding US$25 billion. A significant proportion of this wealth has been allocated to spending on sport, of which the 2022 World Cup is the focal point. This reflects Qatar’s 2030 National Vision, which embraces the role sport can play in driving the country’s socio-cultural, economic and political activities.

Before Neymar and Qatar grabbed our attention, many of us had become preoccupied with China’s growing influence on world football. Indeed, although player transfer activity in the Chinese Super League has slowed down this year, now rumors have emerged that an investor from China is seeking to acquire an ownership stake in Manchester United.

China’s President Xi Jinping is making moves that come from the same playbook as the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. This emphasizes heavy state investment in and control over sport, with the intention of securing political goals, notably diplomatic and soft power influence.

There are some domestic benefits, too, around the development of a domestic sports industry and the promotion of healthy, active lifestyles.

Yet essentially, these sports investments are political. Qatar and China share a desire for global recognition, and for their acceptance as important members of the international political community. Football particularly forms a narrative around which nations congregate, which in turn can enable countries to exert influence on trade and international relations.

Courtesy of its rapidly growing economy, over the last decade China has proved to be particularly adept at doing this, notably in the way it has used a policy of stadium diplomacy. Whether to secure special access to oil in Africa or food in Central America, China has routinely gifted stadiums to countries with which it has sought to engage in trade.

The plutocratic utilization of football as a means-to-an-end is evident too in Russia. A decision is pending on the construction of a new gas pipeline into Germany, which would be the second such project following the opening of North Stream in 2011. To help facilitate the original deal, majority state-owned energy company Gazprom signed a sponsorship deal with Bundesliga club Schalke, and another with UEFA. It will be interesting to observe whether the Russian energy giant again invests in football to smooth the path of North Stream II.

Otherwise, the route of the now abandoned South Stream gas pipeline was contentiously debated for years. One option had been for it to be directed through Serbia, which saw one of the country’s leading clubs, Red Star Belgrade, become sponsored by Gazprom. Later, there was intense speculation that the Russian energy giant was on the verge of purchasing Red Star, rumors which have now dissipated following the project’s demise.

Gazprom sells gas to countries and nothing direct to consumers, hence its various activities in football strongly imply that sponsorship deals and proposed club acquisitions are as much about power and influence as they are about commercial revenues, not unlike Qatar and China.

This is not to say that the West has somehow been an innocent victim fallen prey to the political aspirations of the East. Indeed, over the last decade or so developments across the people’s game have been influenced more by people and businesses from the United States than by anyone else.

The trade in broadcasting rights, growth in sponsorship opportunities, emergence of stadium naming deals, proliferation of merchandise and development of stadium hospitality all reflect a North American, commercially-driven model of sport.

Manchester United is emblematic of what this has meant for football: remote foreign owners, sports entrepreneurs, people driven in their quest to build revenue streams, control costs, and make a profit. When United signs shirt sponsorship deals, it does so with American corporations. When the club goes on pre-season tours nowadays, it invariably seems to head Stateside.

And its portfolio of commercial partners looks like a classic US sports franchise with everything from an official risk management services provider (AON) through to an official logistics and courier provider (DHL). For United, see also Arsenal, Liverpool, Roma, Marseille and so on. A different kind of ideology to Qatar, China and Russia, but nevertheless still an ideology. And one that is far removed from the 19th century formation of European football clubs by groups of factory workers.

Such groups were those whom many see as being the epitome of the people’s game, both as players and as fans. However, with each mega-transfer deal, bumper commercial contract and politicized arrangement linked to natural resource access, those at the heart of the people’s game increasingly appear to be seated in boardrooms and political chambers rather than bars and cafes.

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Simon Chadwick is Director of Eurasian Sport, Professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry Director, Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry.