Football in the Last Ten Years

In 1998, Argentinean journalist Juana Libinsky published a series of articles on UK academics, including a feature in La Nación on my work on international sport culture and world football. In 2006, invited to publish her journalistic work in book form, she asked whether I would respond to some questions that would help her update the piece.
Below are my responses to Juana’s interesting questions:

In what way has football changed since we spoke in 1998?

Generally speaking resources underpinning top-level football have gravitated more and more to the established clubs with the most lucrative Western European markets. There, the sponsors are more willing to pour in unprecedented levels of income, complementing the television money that the rights-buyers fuel towards the elite. This means that players from Africa are nurtured in small clubs away from their homelands and groomed for the top European clubs. In England, Arsenal and Chelsea have fielded teams containing no UK-born player. Obscene sums are paid for run-of-the-mill players within Europe, and merely solid players (but of international reputation) from poorer football nations in Eastern Europe or South America. West Ham United, in East London, is the latest alleged beneficiary of this, with its two Argentinean recruits from Corinthians. It would be easy to idealize a never-existing past phase of loyalty and long service, and I do not want to do that; but the era of the global mercenary is now truly with us.

The stakes in this are of course very high, with levels of income generated by, say, UEFA Champions’ League success. The consequences of a widespread combination of paranoia and arrogance can be seen in the corruption that has been exposed in Italy’s Serie A, with club officials working on referees to guarantee victories. A consequence of the increasing commodification of the game is that the product is constantly at the fingertips of the public: a live match can be watched on virtually any day of the week if you have the right digital box or satellite dish. The rhythms of contests and tournaments are now lost, the product dispersed too much to suit the diaries of television schedulers. There are avid supporters of big-city clubs who have given up their season tickets because they have so many fewer Saturday afternoons in the club’s fixture list. And life goes on in other spheres – family, work, hobbies – on Sunday afternoon and Monday evenings.

Do you like Blatter more than you liked Havelange?

I would not use the word ‘like’ here, about either of these FIFA presidents. In the book Badfellas I have described how Blatter flatters and charms his dependents and hangers-on; Havelange simply instilled fear in them. What interests me most about the two of them is their slipperiness, their organisational unaccountability, and essentially their loneliness. They might be influential and powerful but they are not liked by their FIFA families. During Germany 2006 in the lobby of Berlin’s exclusive Adlon Kemplinski hotel just by the Brandenburg Gate, you could see Havelange being greeted by FIFA people from all over the world, respecting him and looking to shake his hand even eight years after his retirement from the presidency. There was a mixture of awe and respect in these people as they approached him and his wife. I have a feeling that people will be less respectful of Blatter after his retirement, if he ever leaves the FIFA presidential position at all. As one long-surviving veteran of the FIFA executive committee has put it to me, Blatter does not have the gravitas of Havelange. Though all have benefited so much from his/FIFA’s largesse that they are happy to collude and survive with him.

And Julio Grondona, the Argentinean vice-president of FIFA?

There is no doubt that FIFA and CONMEBOL continue to make life very stimulating and pleasant for Mr Grondona – though in the Adlon Kemplinski on the evening of Friday June 30 he looked quite strained as he took in good spirit his national side’s defeat to the German hosts.

How do you evaluate the last World Cup?

On the field of play, there was much too admire in panache and organisation; but the deceitful diving and playacting too often undermined the values of fair-play. There was beauty – Argentina’s rout of Serbia-Montenegro – and injustice – Italy’s disgracefully awarded penalty against Australia. It was generally a good World Cup, in playing level – and refereeing – way above Korea/Japan.

Off the field, Adidas came home to celebrate its top sponsor status. The sponsors generally got their moneys’ worth, apart from the beer fiasco with Anheuser Busch. Most interestingly, the innovations of the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics – huge screenings in welcoming outdoor settings, replicated in Korea in particular in 2002 – were truly successful. The ‘fanfests’ were carnival and football passion mixed in an unthreatening public expression of collective enthusiasm, national pride and – most importantly- cosmopolitan tolerance. We need such public spaces in the contemporary world: despite the hypocrisy at the heart of football administration and governing body rhetoric, the public football culture in Germany was a joy. Young and old, male and female, many nationalities multiple ethnicities – all these mixed in the squares and bars and parks of Germany.

British football and money … Does Chelsea prove that more money means that you win?

Abromavich represents everything that some of us predicted on the setting up of the Premier League in England – that you could buy success. In England the Premier League has for the most part comprised three divisions: the elite four or so clubs, sniping at each other over resources and relative status; the established clubs that are confident about survival (if well-managed financially), but know that they are unlikely to ever sustain a challenge to the elite; and the clubs that know that mere survival would be the success, but some of which yo-yo between the Premier League and the division below in the English hierarchy (currently the Coca-Cola Championship).

But you also need to use the money well. Look at Real Madrid, trophyless over the last few years, its galactico strategy utterly exposed in terms of sporting achievement. UEFA, though, is right to call for an investigation into the finances of English football. Perhaps something could be learned here from the regulatory principles of top-level US sport.

Has hooliganism been controlled by making going to a match a more luxurious experience, and have the demographics of those attending matches changed?

The demographics have changed to a limited extent. Families are catered for more by all-seater stadia; below the Premier League clubs chase explicitly a family audience. And more girls and women attend games. The celebrity profile of top Premiership clubs attracts more female spectators, who feel more secure in these all-seater stadia or cocooned stands and boxes.

But hooliganism is controlled mostly by effective forms of policing and preventative measures. There will always be outbreaks of residual prejudice, or uncontrolled aggression – but this is more contained by the combination of policing and the changes to the spectating environment.

Apparently Greece, as a nation, has never been happier than when it won UEFA’s championship of nations. What do you think of the way football scores affect moods, both of individuals and countries?

The Greek win was memorable, but a one-off. Greece then did not qualify for the Germany 2006 World Cup; and it was linked to the hysteria leading into the Summer Olympics, where of course drug controversies and logistics soon pricked the balloon of optimism. All these national celebrations are real, yet transient: they affect moods but not economies. And there is always a next time. The seasonal calendar of sport offers these marvellous prospects of renewal: we will be back next time, we will be better prepared for the next tournament. That is both the joy yet ephemeral nature of sport. It matters but it doesn’t. Most of us do not commit suicide or beat our partners when our home or national team loses: we look forward to the next encounter in the soap-operatic cycles of competitive sport.

Maradona?

It is marvellous that Maradona can act as an ambassador for football. His very survival has confounded many critics, and I wish him well. His personal sadness is that the longer he lives, the more the heroic persona of his playing prime seems to be the life of another, a different world populated by a very different human being to the post-heroic scarcely recognisable figure of the early years of this century.

© Professor Alan Tomlinson
University of Brighton UK
September 15 2006

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