How money is erasing sport’s traditions

Capitalism is changing sports. From South African rugby teams going to Europe to European football teams toying with the idea of new leagues, the common denominator is money and greed.

No fans were present for one of the greatest upsets in football history. But Zinedine Zidane was. And as Deportivo Alcoyano’s players celebrated Juanan Casanova’s 115th-minute winner at the Estadio El Collao, the Real Madrid manager couldn’t hold back a disbelieving smile of his own.

Such is the magic of cup football. Real Madrid, still challenging for a fourth Uefa Champions League title in eight years, were beaten by a team of semi-professionals who ply their trade in the Spanish third tier, and from a town with the highest coronavirus rate in the country.

The vast majority of stones from David’s sling find nothing but air. But occasionally they hit their mark and fell a giant. Not that a consortium of suited executives care about all that. A proposed European Super League would ring-fence the continent’s top clubs and exempt them from unglamorous contests with lesser opposition. 

The idea is rooted in populism and capitalism forces. Casual fans watching on television, playing on PlayStation or contemplating the purchase of a football shirt are mainly drawn to household brands such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester City. These aren’t just clubs, they are multinational corporations that produce content and merchandise for a receptive global market. 

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Back in 1998, representatives from 12 top clubs – including Real Madrid, Liverpool, AC Milan and Manchester United – threatened to form a rival competition to Uefa’s Champions League. Spooked by the notion, the continent’s governing body reformed its most lucrative money-maker and expanded the tournament from 24 clubs to 32 in the hope that the mega-rich would be satisfied by the extra broadcast revenue from the added games.

The tail had wagged the dog. Over the next 10 years, the Champions League became a behemoth at the centre of the football universe. It also became predictable. Across the 22 years preceding this expansion, 15 clubs from nine different countries – including Red Star Belgrade, Steaua Bucuresti and Nottingham Forest – lifted the European Cup. Since then only nine clubs from five countries have laid a claim to being the best in Europe. 

That circle has grown smaller. Five clubs – Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Liverpool – from just three leagues have won all ten of the most recent Champions Leagues. 

The super clubs had their expanded competition and the revenue influx that came with it, but there was always the promise of more. Talk of a breakaway resurfaced in 2009 as Real Madrid’s newly appointed president Florentino Pérez championed the idea. 

“We have to agree to a new European Super League which guarantees that the best always plays the best,” Pérez said a month after assuming office. “[That is] something that does not happen in the Champions League.”

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Of course the best had been playing the best for some time, at least towards the knockout stages of the Champions League. Early fixtures quickly became ceremonial warm-ups for the larger clubs. A chasm had been created between the elite and everyone else.

Some minnows have managed to swim against the tide. FC Porto’s win in the 2004 Champions League and Leicester City’s bewildering Premier League triumph in 2016 stand out. But the chance of a repeat, particularly in the Champions League, is unlikely. Whenever a smaller club like Ajax Amsterdam, Borussia Dortmund or Monaco assemble an exciting squad, the bigger clubs rip them apart.  

In the last decade, there have been first-ever 100-point seasons in England, Spain and Italy; first-ever trebles in Italy and Germany; a first domestic treble in England and unbeaten seasons in Italy, Portugal, Scotland and seven other leagues in Europe. Bigger teams win more often and by more goals. Upsets are headline news. A momentary run of poor form is enough to sack a manager.

Entrenching football’s divide 

Money is at the heart of the issue. Simply reaching the Champions League group stage last year earned clubs €15.25 million (R280 million). As clubs become regulars they widen the gap further. According to Deloitte, teams need a minimum of €400 million (R7.4 billion) in annual revenue just to compete. Those with deep pockets can expect regular competition only from their equally wealthy competitors.

In his excellent report “How modern football became broken beyond repair”, The Independent journalist Miguel Delaney captures the problem: “This disparity has led to a corresponding disparity in results. And thus the unpredictability of football – the lifeblood of the sport – begins to dissolve.”

In October last year Sky Sports claimed that Fifa, with the assistance of a potential $6 billion (R91 billion) funding package, had been involved in developing an 18-team European Premier League. The new competition would dispense with tradition, adopting an “American-style” structure without relegation or promotion and entrench football’s class divide. It is worth noting that the two English clubs at the front of this power grab – Liverpool and Manchester United – are owned by American companies. 

However, on 21 January, Fifa and all six continental federations issued a statement condemning the breakaway while threatening severe repercussions for those considering taking part. “Any club or player involved in such a competition would as a consequence not be allowed to participate in any competition organised by Fifa or their respective confederation,” read part of the statement. 

This firm stance was celebrated by Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission vice-president. “The European way of life is not compatible with European football being reserved for the rich and powerful,” he said.

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Fans too have had their say. A statement from Football Supporters Europe (FSE) released on 2 February welcomed the position taken by the EU and Uefa. Signed by 139 fans’ groups, including the Premier League “big six”, FSE did not pull any punches. 

“[The Super League] would destroy the European model of sport,” the statement read. “We recognise that the game is in desperate need of broad reform. But proposals to this end must seek to revive the competition balance in European competitions, protect domestic leagues, promote the interest of fans, and encourage fairer revenue distribution. A European Super League would achieve none of these objectives – quite the opposite.”

The storm has been weathered, for now. As was first reported in The Times, the proposal document for the Super League had suggested a start date around the 2022-23 season. As long as there is the chance for more money, more box-office contests between superstar athletes, more merchandise to sell, more content to create, the temptation to dispense with tradition will remain. 

It’s an unpalatable truth that sport is a business. The games we play were founded on noble ideals of competition, fair play and hard work, but these are now means to an end. The mythology helps sell the product. That is not to say that adaptation is inherently reprehensible.

The history of the rich getting richer 

A similar schism to the one facing European football occurred in cricket in 1977 with the launch of World Series Cricket. The brainchild of Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, the three-team competition pitting the best players against each other was born as a result of two central concerns. 

The first was the widespread frustration among players that they were being paid a relative pittance while their national boards grew fat on the profits generated by their talents. The second had to do with Packer’s desire to own the exclusive broadcast rights of Australian cricket for his Channel Nine network, something he eventually obtained as a result of his coup.

With handsome sums of money and the opportunity to compete against the best in the world, Packer lured just about every major name in the game to his jamboree. South Africa was already isolated from intentional competition so there was little risk in joining for the likes of Mike Procter, Barry Richards and Clive Rice. But those from other nations were treated as turncoats and sellouts by their traditional paymasters.

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No Australian that took part in Packer’s sideshow was selected for the 1976/77 tour of the West Indies. Tony Greig had the English captaincy stripped away for his role in recruiting others to join him.

Tensions led to court cases which led to resentment, but there is no denying World Series cricket changed the game forever. It gave cricket white balls, coloured clothing and day-night contests. It raised the standard of fielding and fitness as Packer demanded athletic performers capable of putting on a show. This tournament, fuelled by spite and greed, lasted just three years but is the ancestor of T20, T10, the Indian Premier League and the global circus that has turned cricketers into millionaires.

Tradition is like magic in that it allows us to speak to those from our past in a language they understand. When we watch a Test match at Lord’s or a rugby match at Newlands, we are connecting with our forebears. We sit where they sat. We enjoy what they enjoyed.

But tradition is also a wheel and, in sport, it needs money to turn. Traditions that lack resources wither on the vine. Lord’s is unrecognisable today with its state of the art media centre jutting out like a spaceship at a Renaissance fair. Newlands has already hosted its final game. The more modern Cape Town Stadium is the new home of rugby in the Western Cape.

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No sport can hold its nose up like some Roman patrician, scoffing at those who dirty themselves with the ignoble practice of turning a profit. 

It is the chance for more money that drove South Africa’s four largest rugby franchises away from their usual sparring partners in New Zealand and Australia and into the arms of new frenemies in Europe. It is the imbalance of money that has created disparities in football and cricket, separating the rich from the poor. It is the hope for money from a new generation that will see breakdancing included in the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. As the financial crisis emanating from the coronavirus pandemic continues to bite, sport’s established values might be among the casualties of disaster capitalism.

Though they can be at odds with each other, both tradition and money have forged the modern “sports-industrial complex”. Ultimately, one smothers the other. As history shows, the force that survives is the one that keeps the lights on.

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