Europe's flat-footed response to the rise of Asian sports

November 22, 2017 15:52
New Chinese owners David Han Li (left), Yonghong Li (middle) and Marco Fassone, the new managing director, hold AC Milan jerseys during a news conference in Milan. Photo: Reuters

In recent weeks, several high-profile figures, including the English Football Association chairman, have been questioned in the British parliament as part of an ongoing government investigation into governance in sports.

There is something rather tiresome, dispiriting even, about this as it is only six years since the last British parliamentary investigation into sports governance (then, it was focused on English football) was concluded. And before that, only five years since a previous investigation resulted in the publication of the Burns Report, on the structure and organisation of football.

It seems the British are stuck in a perpetual cycle of introspection, caught between the need to instigate change, but somehow forever struggling to contend with their sport governance problems, and how to address them in an effective way. However, Britain is not alone in this, indeed countries across Europe seem to be faced with a similar conundrum.

There is no doubt that European nations are home to some of the most important, iconic sports, events, clubs and teams in the world. As such, the continent continues, at least for the time-being, to play an important role in global sports. But most European sports somehow seem to be partly stuck in the past, courtesy of their 19th-century socio-cultural heritage.

At the same time, EU nations seem to have a limited conception of what constitutes sports. While health and education through sports have attracted some attention in some European countries, as have governance matters, other forays into protecting and promoting European sports have been somewhat stunted.

Several years ago, European Union (EU) attempts to formulate an industrial strategy for sports, aimed at globally capitalising upon Europe’s sports industry assets, foundered. A need to reconcile the EU constituency’s disparate needs will always be a challenge, though its liberal, at best socially democratic, politics is an issue too.

As such, apart from getting people to exercise more with a view to securing subsequent economic efficiencies in their health services, this largely appears to be the extent of Europe’s vision for sports. For some observers, this may not seem like a problem, in fact, many may see this as a noble, if not entirely natural, approach to sports.

More critically, the approach could be labelled as being naïve, somewhat ignorant, and possibly a trifle arrogant, too. After all, Asia means business in sports, and the continent’s governments have chosen to adopt a more direct, proactive and strategic approach to the economics and business of sports. And as they have done so, the EU and Europe’s sporting institutions have largely stood idly by as Asian investors have run rampant across the continent.

Two recent cases aptly illustrate what has fast become a major issue for Europeans, to which they have failed to react. During the summer, Brazilian Neymar was transferred to French football club Paris Saint Germain (PSG) for just short of £200 million. The purchase, fuelled by Qatar petrodollars, smashed the player world transfer fee record and for what? So the small Gulf state could make a soft power statement to its near neighbours with which it is currently in conflict?

Alternatively, consider the case of Italy’s AC Milan: for most of the past two years, it has sat like a rusting super-tanker stranded on the rocks, waiting for a Chinese investor to acquire the salvage rights. Yet, when the rescue eventually came, as recent reports in the New York Times have highlighted, AC’s new Chinese owner (Yonghong Li) seemingly carries with him some deeply troubling baggage.

As the Qataris have heavily skewed player transfer markets and challenged UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules and Chinese investors have continued harvesting assets, Europe’s sporting institutions, its governments and the EU have responded by doing, well, nothing. It seems like Europe has unquestioningly opened-up its arms to Asia with little thought for the consequences. Even the Germans are now debating the merits of abandoning their 50+1 football club ownership rule so that overseas buyers can acquire the country’s teams.

Europe’s sporting assets are therefore becoming Asia’s sporting assets, suggesting several pressing issues. Most fundamentally, one must ask whether western liberalism will contribute to the ultimate downfall of European sport? That is not to suggest that the British and their close neighbours should reconfigure their political systems towards authoritarianism to save the Tour de France and Wimbledon. However, it does imply that the EU and other European institutions should at least have a sense of how they are going to respond to Asia’s rise.

This demands that Europe adopt a more interventionist approach to its sports, as well as to its notion of what sports mean. As countries like Qatar and China have used sports to build soft power, secure natural resource partnerships, build national brands and generate jobs, Europe has done nothing but now rapidly needs to start playing the same game.

Adopting sports as a major policy tool will be a big challenge for Europe, which means that in the short to medium-term, the continent’s political and sporting institutions must adopt a more robust approach to the governance of its sports. There was little by way of a convincing regulatory response to Qatar’s acquisition of PSG or to Li’s investment in AC. Hence, the continent is now living with the consequences of its lethargy and inactivity.

To a list consisting of Qatar and China, one must add the likes of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kazakhstan. And with Saudi Arabia currently undergoing a massive program of renewal and development, it is likely that we will see Riyadh joining Beijing, Doha and the like in continuing to cast acquisitive eyes at European sports’ assets.

The questions for Europe are thus: does it want to respond, can it, or is it simply too late? Until it decides, then with each passing day of the British government’s latest governance inquiry, it becomes ever more emblematic of Europe’s parlous sporting state. One sincerely hopes that is not too late for London, Brussels and the rest.

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During the summer, Brazilian Neymar transferred to French football club Paris Saint Germain for just short of £200 million. Photo: Reuters

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