Europe's consternation at latest football leaks

November 08, 2018 15:54
FIFA is still struggling with the same old issues that hounded the organization during the time of Sepp Blatter, according to the leaked documents. Photo: Reuters

Following another hack of FIFA’s computers, we have a new set of leaks about global football.

Having already covered everything from a proposed European club breakaway league to the flouting of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, the leaks look set to continue dripping for some time to come.

In Europe, the reaction to world football’s latest revelations has predictably been one of uproar. It is no coincidence that materials garnered by the hacker, someone commonly referred to as "John", were given to the continent’s news outlets, each of which shares the freedom to publish without the threat of state sanction, as well as common western liberal values.

The continent is therefore a captive market for stories of malfeasance, helped by the fact that many of them originate in and refer to Europe. After all, the continent is not just the administrative home of global football, it is also the place where many of the self-proclaimed "best clubs and leagues in the world" reside.

In spite of the leaks’ obvious allure, they were hardly surprising. Rather, they have merely served to confirm what most of us already think we know. For instance, although FIFA officials have claimed the governing body has changed since the times of Sepp Blatter, the organization is clearly still subject to bureaucracy, politics, and the cult of leadership personality.

As for documents appearing to confirm that Manchester City (and its Abu Dhabi owners) and Paris Saint Germain (and its Qatari owners) both inflated the value of commercial deals to ensure they were compliant with UEFA Financial Fair Play rules, we knew this already, right? What appears new is that football’s authorities were somehow complicit in helping them.

All of which suggests that standards of ethics and governance remain an issue in football. For the game’s administrators, perhaps the biggest challenge they face is in the recruitment of ethical hackers, who might be able to address the susceptibility of governing bodies to external cyber attacks. The first rule of deviance is surely not to get caught?

Yet the cut-and-thrust of claims (and counterclaims) in some ways constitutes little more than tinkering at the edges of something more profoundly fundamental. That leading clubs across Europe are considering a breakaway league, that many of them are owned by non-Europeans (or else are owned by corporations from other industrial sectors), and that governing authorities have apparently turned a blind eye to all manner of infractions, are the effects, rather than the causes, of world football’s travails.

To critics and cynics, it might seem obvious and natural to blame FIFA or UEFA for the situation they find themselves in. And it may seem cathartic to point a finger at Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain because this helps one make sense of a complex, confusing world. But, all of these organizations are mere instruments in an environment that is characterized by the accumulation and manifestation of power.

Power can be thought of as the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others, or the course of events. Even such a simple definition resonates with the information recently revealed by Football Leaks. This inevitably raises the question of where power comes from, and it is in answering this that the real causes of world football’s challenges are rooted.

In a world where there is increasing demand for natural resources, there is a consequent scarcity of them. This means that countries fortunate enough to have the territorial rights to extract and sell resources such as oil and gas possess considerable power (economic and otherwise) which manifests itself in terms of the ability to control.

In turn, this broad notion of resource-based economic power has been legitimized and enhanced by a sense of political power. The latter has been the result of states such as Qatar and Abu Dhabi (as well as the likes of Russia) being sanctioned by their governments to utilize football as a means to acquire other resources (like soft power influence and nation brand strength) in which these countries can be deficient.

As some Europeans become ever more flustered by Football Leaks’ latest revelations, so another group of Europeans blissfully continues to revel in the myths of a supposed global dominance by their clubs and leagues. Yet the apparent willingness of numerous entities in European football to accommodate people such as Nasser bin Ghanim Al-Khelaïfi and Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Khaldoon Al Mubarak says something about how significant the power balance has shifted towards non-European football owners and investors.

Indeed, nobody and nothing has stopped what has been taking place over the last two decades. Liberal European governments have failed to step in, and the European Union has largely remained silent on such matters. Even football fans have typically welcomed overseas investments, more excited than concerned about what the spending might bring.

But this is not just the domain of Asian autocrats; resource-based power in football is also manifest among North American sports investors. These people have similarly spent big on European football, generally without hindrance. They have brought financial resources, but also entrepreneurial resources and commercial competence that have seen football morph into something considerably different to what most Europeans have historically encountered.

While fans in Manchester, Milan and Munich might bemoan the mysterious majlis of Doha, the pressure for breakaway leagues, overseas games and the relentless pursuit of revenues has come from the boardrooms of New York and Los Angeles. This is them, the entrepreneurs, exercising their power and control in pursuit of their goals, not the tiny oil- and gas-rich states of the Gulf.

So, where does this leave Europe, its governing mechanisms, and its football? The continent’s adherence to liberal values has effectively created an ideological vacuum that American capitalists and Asian states have been happy to fill. Though there is something about global economic shifts, which European is still struggling to convincingly address.

All of which leaves the continent in its current position: of grappling with the effects of problems that it has created for itself. Indeed, unless London, Paris, Berlin and other European governments change their positions and develop the stomach for a fight, then Football Leaks’ regular reports may ultimately become an epitaph on the gravestone of what European football used to be.

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Manchester City celebrate after winning the Premier League title. The club allegedly inflated the value of commercial deals to ensure it was compliant with UEFA Financial Fair Play rules, according to the leaked documents. Photo: Reuters
Paris Saint-Germain’s footballer Neymar left Barcelona to join PSG in a record-breaking transfer deal. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.