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Football and politics: the unhappy history

By Alex Fairchild



BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 19: Lionel Messi of Barcelona runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions League group G match between FC Barcelona and FC Spartak Moscow at the Camp Nou stadium on September 19, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain
BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 19: Lionel Messi of Barcelona runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions League group G match between FC Barcelona and FC Spartak Moscow at the Camp Nou stadium on September 19, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain

Stefan Szymanski is a sports economist and professor at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology. He is the author of several books and co-authored Soccernomics with Simon Kuper. I spoke with him about the issues that face football today and their relation to society as a whole.  

Soccer, Sport and the World:   I don't think the history of sport and politics is a very happy history on the whole. The capacity of sport to generate peace is pretty limited. Whatever Didier Drogba might say or do in the Ivory Coast, the next morning it's still a very poor and underdeveloped country. The real issue for a country like the Ivory Coast is how can they come to have the same standard of living that you and I enjoy with access to things like shelter, healthcare, and education - something you and I may take for granted day-to-day - is something that they're miles and miles away from. Nothing that Drogba is going to do is going to change things - maybe a just a bit. The capacity of sport in general to produce great social change is very very limited. I wouldn't look to sport to solve the world's problems.  

The Importance of Sport:   I think that people overstate the power of sport to change things. Football is a very convincing reflection of us as human beings. Our obsession with sport reflects the sort of things we're obsessed with - competition, winning, our side being better than your side, etc.. Those could be quite negative things. But we're also obsessed with the beauty of it, the elegance of it, and the excitement that it can bring. I think sport reflects us, but I don't think sport has the power to transform us in any serious way. If you talk about the normal problems people have in everyday, as I mentioned earlier, these are the fundamental challenges for most people's lives and I don't think sport gets any where near solving these problems.   

Shanghai Shenhua: The Next LA Galaxy? - Chinese Football   Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? Obviously they're aiming to be a dominant team - but is that what China really needs? I think the Chinese would like to see lots of big, international football stars. There could be a migration of talent toward China. There are more than 100 Chinese billionaires now. Why wouldn't 20 of them think it'd be fun to have a football team just like Roman Abramovich? When you have that money it's just that kind of thing. Most of the big billionaires in the US have some involvement in a team somewhere. Billionaires in Europe do too, so why not the new Chinese billionaires? I think that could have an impact on European football. The idea that the only place in the world where you could host an elite football championship being Europe has been true for a century, but just because it's been going on for a century doesn't mean it will remain being true. China could have a dominant football league before it solves most of the day-to-day economic problems of its people.  

The Business of Football:   Football's a lousy investment! Never put any of your money into a football team! I've got one good piece of advice for you, and that's it. You won't fail if you follow that advice. The difference here is between the commercial organization which owns the football club and the football club itself. The football club is immortal, so no one seriously thinks that there won't be a Rangers Football Club next season or the season after that, or in a hundred years' time.

The business that currently owns it has disappeared and it's been taken over by a new business, but that new business might fold in a matter of time. That's one of the interesting things about football: the underlying running of a football club. Those things are so attractive to people - to own or run these things. Clearly, the buzz rich people get from owning these things is so great that no matter how badly run the business is, no matter how much they fail, someone comes in and gets them back on the road.  

"Moneyball" Tactics and Statistics:   I think we're at a stage where to some extent the role of football statistics, analyzing and data crunching has been over-hyped somewhat. Like many things people have extreme views. They either tend to think statistics will solve all the club's problems or they think statistics can't help you at all. The truth sadly is rather boring and in-between, which is on their own the statistics don't save you, but they might help you see things that you can't see with the naked eye. Some people say that the human brain has the ability to hold onto 7 facts at the same time - you'd have to check that - but even if it's 7, 8 , or 9... Statistics analysis allows you to hold 100s of things in your analysis at any one point in time and pin-pointing the effects of each separate item. That clearly could add something to someone's gut, but it won't replace a gut instinct. When it's developed it will be an added tool in the kitbag. It won't replace the existing tools.

Secondly, it's not properly developed yet. Where we are - we're at the stage science reached about 300 years ago - it was a point in history where science went from alchemy to science, to see if things were really true or not. That's the problem. There's a lot of people claiming to know stuff they can't really prove. There's a lot of people looking and trying to find different things. Lots and lots of things will have to be tried out.  

The Search for Tomorrow's Messi:   Clubs should look wherever the other clubs haven't been looking. But that's the trick - finding things people haven't seen or finding things they saw that they didn't know were for real and stuff they rejected it. Initially, this starts out as a geographical search, which is why we've had an influx of African footballers into Europe over the last 20 years. Now, you read about people setting up academies in India, because out of 1 billion people, there's got to be some football talent, but you've got to find it!

There are some amazing football stars in China. They must have had Messi, Pele and Maradona 10 times over - the tragedy is that nobody ever found them. But they will sooner or later.   

A few years ago, people were talking about football becoming a game played by these really muscular, powerful athletes. There was the French coach, Laurent Blanc, who made some racial comment about too many big, black people playing football for the national team. The racial part is just stupid, but you could see that the idea that big people could takeover football could come true.  You could sort of see it happening. But, with Barcelona it seems things are going the other way. I watched them play Inter Milan at the Nou Camp and it was hilarious, because from where I was sitting, you could see that Inter had these huge monsters and these little Barcelona guys were just running around them. It was just really funny. That's interesting though - what's the optimal size and strength of a footballer? In the end, there could be a scientific answer to that question - the right combination of strength vs. mobility and strength vs. size. There's certain amount of medical experimentation that will go on in football, which could be where clubs actually search.  

The American Footballer:   I haven't been here to wrap my head around this completely, but I've got one kid who's a football (gridiron) player and participation in that involves spending a lot of time in the gym. He spends all his time in the gym now. I'll ask him, 'Do you even have a short session where you throw the ball around?' and he'll say 'No, no, we don't do that.' That seems crazy, it seems an obsession with strength and conditioning. Even the girls' soccer team spends time in the gym and you think, 'Well strength is part of it, but surely playing the game is more so.' That just doesn't happen anywhere else in the world as far as I know. I don't think kids in Europe or South America are being sent to the gym and I think that's a bit weird, but that's not to say that it's wrong.   

What's more to say is that the American system mitigates against producing soccer talent. The idea of going to college and then being drafted into MLS is not a very attractive option to European kids. That's also a big issue, because from a social perspective the American system has advantages over Europe in that kids get an education so they've got something to fall back on. Imagine if Wayne Rooney hadn't made it? What would he have done? It's almost as if Europe should be forced to adopt the American system, of high school and college athletics, simply for the social benefits of soccer which leaves so many 16, 17 year old kids on the scrap-heap with no prospects at all. Already, in Europe, at the age of 12, every kid thinks they're going to play in the Premier League or La Liga, etc., and if they've got the slightest inkling that they've got talent and they're training with a club, which tens of thousands are doing, they stop studying. This has ill effects on student achievement from the ages of 11 and 12 and that's pretty scary.  

Financial Fair Play:   You don't want to start me off on this - I could go on for hours and hours. I think one thing is that you might be surprised by the amount of teams that end up breaking even. The truth of the matter is that UEFA does not want to get into a fight over whether Manchester City are going to be excluded from the Champions League if they qualified. If they do that, Manchester City has more than enough money to sue them in court, and it's not clear who would win.   

Let's distinguish two things. One is being insolvent, which is where you don't have enough money to pay your debts and then you go bankrupt. It's perfectly legitimate for UEFA to say that we're not going to have insolvent teams in our competitions. A court would say if you can't pay your debts that it's reasonable for you to be excluded - that's fair.    But, teams like Manchester City and Chelsea are not insolvent. What UEFA is saying is, 'You've got lots of money, but we're only going to count some of the money that you've got from selling tickets, broadcast rights, and merchandise, but we're not going to count the money that you get from your owner, who puts lots of money in.' That may not even be legal in Europe, as it has a free market system, like the United States, where if you want to invest in your own business, nobody can say, 'No you can't.' I'm not clear that will stand up to a challenge in the courts. And UEFA would probably want to see teams admitted. However, UEFA has a lot of flexibility. Nothing says that they would have to exclude teams from the Champions League. That is just one option amongst many. They could just write a letter to a team saying, "We'd like you to change your ways.' They could impose a fine, or maybe withhold 10% of the money they would get from participating. Teams like Manchester City and Chelsea are well aware of this and so aren't their lawyers. I think it's unlikely that teams like that will get excluded. What's more likely is that teams that are clearly bankrupt - that haven't paid their players, or owe a transfer fee to another club and haven't paid them - then it's very likely that you'll get excluded, because there's no real defense for that.   

Bein Sport and Soccer's Popularity:   It depends. If it [Bein Sport] goes onto basic cable it could be one of the biggest things to grow the sport in the United States. More and more networks in this country are interested in showing football - in particular, the Premier League, because of the American presence. I saw one story say that Google wanted to put a bid out for EPL rights. We have all of these companies sitting on tens and even hundreds of billions of dollars thinking about what to do and knowing that sport is the biggest thing on the planet and that soccer is the biggest sport on the planet. The game is already huge in this country. People who say that soccer isn't big in the United States just don't have any idea. It's huge here. But, it's fragmented. It doesn't have the focus of the NFL, where you can see the Super Bowl, which we know, is the biggest game. However, so many people are interested in different aspects of soccer that I think it's only going to grow.