Soccer Needs a Soul


"I think sport should have nothing to do with politics," a school friend of mine thundered as we discussed the ban on apartheid South Africa back in the day.

If only that were possible. Politics and football are entangled because football is part of a larger world. We might like to think we are entering a dreamscape when the whistle blows and the Bacchanalian revel begins, but it is only a brief illusion.

Once the gates open again after 90 minutes, the rest of the world floods back in.

The politicisation of football is at times overt - the World Cups of 1934 and 1978 were stamped by the respective regimes which hosted them - fascist Italy and the Argentine Junta, but it more usually involves a leader leeching off a good side, making sure they arrange lunches and photo ops with the players.

At other times there is a theme of soft power - Silvio Berlusconi launching his political career on the back of Milan's 1990s success or Russia's capture of the World Cup 2018 vote were textbook examples, and in 2022 Qatar will be doing its best to soothe its angry neighbours and spruce up its reputation. 

We cannot keep politics out of football but we can at least try to keep it at arm's length. It would be tragic if there were ever a government-sponsored boycott of World Cups in the way the Superpowers ruined the 1980 Moscow and 1984 L.A. Olympics.

It is much harder to kick big business out of football, desirable as that may be.

Although the 1966 World Cup is often cited as the start of the global commercialisation of the beautiful game because television had mushroomed, perhaps the first milestone was in 1923.

Big business married football as car giant FIAT bought Juventus F.C

That day in Turin, big business married football as car giant FIAT bought Juventus F.C.

The corporate takeover may have begun accidentally in Germany in 1904 when Leverkusen's Bayer pharmaceutical company started a works team, as happened in the Netherlands a decade later with the Philips Sports Union (P.S.V.) 

More recently there is Red Bull Leipzig and over in Japan Yokohama F.Marinos, who began life as Nissan Motors. 

Presumably Marinos fans like Nissan cars or else they would support someone else. It can be hard to cheer for something you do not believe in. Lothar Matthaus said the only thing he did not enjoy about being Germany's 1990 World Cup-winning skipper was having to wear Adidas: He had grown up in the Puma side of Herzogenaurach in Bavaria, a town split down the middle by the Dassler brothers' sportswear companies.

If you want your club's owner's values to tally with yours, the list of English Premier League club owners today makes for sobering reading - a motley crew of bankers, oligarchs and industrialists who have all scrambled to be part of the highest-profile and most exclusive executive club.

Globalisation is to the fore, with China and the Middle East predominating and barely a quarter of England's top sides owned by Britons.

The latest failed takeover of Newcastle United drew howls from human rights groups because it came from Saudi Arabia but there has been comparatively little ballyhoo about Sheffield United's owner, Abdullah Bin Musa'ed, a Saudi prince.

Manchester City has been plagued by criticism of owners from Thaksin Shinawatra to Shaikh Mansour Al-Nahyan but most of their fans shrug and move on.

Their club's transformation from the eternal bridesmaid has left some feeling uncomfortable, however. David Conn, the award-winning journalist, wrote of his difficulty as a lifelong City fan in squaring his team's new-found glory with the reasons behind it in his 2012 book, 'Richer Than God'.

Chelsea set a billionaire-owner precedent when a certain Russian oligarch arrived in 2003. "Abramovich Earthquake - Never seen one like this before", screamed the headline in Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport, and his questionably-gotten gains remain dyed into the fabric of the blue shirts to this day.

PSG's historic first Champions League Final appearance this year was similarly coloured by reminders their owners were an actual nation and one with a poor human rights record to boot. What a far cry from the factory owner or well-to-do businessman owning their local club.

I lived in Parma in 1994 and marvelled how such a modest town's team could be winning European trophies and acquiring talents like Faustino Asprilla, Tomas Brolin and Gianfranco Zola. That club was a plaything of the local Parmalat dairy company, which went on to collapse in a sea of money-laundering and corruption in 2003, £13 billion in the red, a European record for bankruptcy.

Chelsea lift cup

Club owners do not get much dodgier than Pablo Escobar, the popular owner of Colombia's Atletico Nacional in the late '80s and early '90s and the world's most infamous narco, so the bar is set pretty low.

Is there anything football can do?

Well yes there is. The 'Fit and Proper Person Test' used to vet potential owners in English football could do with an overhaul. As it stands it debars those bankrupt or at risk of financial insolvency or who have conflicting interests in other clubs but there is nothing about potential owners being involved in kidnapping, robbery, torture or other crimes.

FIFA tried with their Financial Fair Play test to at least limit the excesses but the regulations are riddled with exploitable holes, as Manchester City recently proved.

Until the football authorities shore up their defences and show some real moral fibre and backbone, we will have to live with the risk of our teams finding success on the back of others' misery. 

Supporters alas, do not seem strong enough. The rebellion against Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United failed to dislodge him, although it did give birth to the fan-run F.C. United of Manchester and reminded everyone that football owners should at least be football-lovers.

Owners should represent their club and fans' noblest ideals and qualities.

We should not turn a blind eye to who is in charge of football. FIFA's scandal-ridden Executive Committee was rightly purged only recently after the clamour got too loud so why not clubs' bad apple owners? Ethics matter to us on a personal level so there is no reason they should not apply everywhere. 

Football is part of the world and everything is connected. And as with people or businesses, it is vital that it has a soul. 

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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