Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How Money Threatens the Future of Soccer

 Samuel Eto'o (Tommy Klumker/Flickr)
U.S. sports fans probably haven’t paid much attention to the latest news in football (as soccer is called outside the U.S.): Cameroon international and Inter Milan striker  Samuel_Eto'o  will be transferred from Italian club Inter Milan to Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala  for a transfer fee of $38.9 million (which is a lot but was dwarfed this season by other transfers such as $42 million for Barcelona striker Fabregas, $60 million for Paris St. Germain player Javier Pastore, and $62 million for Machester City player Segio Aguero).

If Eto’o’s transfer fee is not a record, what makes it so special? First, his annual pay is a record at $28.8 million. That still doesn’t tell the full story. If you have never heard of the Russian football club Anzhi Makhachkala, you are not the only one. It's a club based in Makhachkala, capital of the southern Russian province of Dagestan , quite obscure till it was purchased earlier this year by..............
billionaire Suleyman Kerimov the world’s 136th wealthiest person. Since then, its ambition was to become a top club in the Russian league, a league which itself aspires to be as successful as those of England, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Dagestan is located in the Northern Caucasus, on the Western shore of the Caspian Sea next to Chechnya. It is a region marred by violence due to the overflowing civil war in Chechnya, and also due to civil unrest in Dagestan itself. The British Foreign Office, for example, advises against all travel to the region. Dagestan is also one of the poorest provinces of Russia, with over 75% of its population of nearly three million living in poverty. As we know, Russia itself is not a poster child of progress and prosperity: its life expectancy is 68 years and its annual income per head is $14,500. It’s ranked as the 66th country on the UNDP Human Development Index  (the top three are Norway, Australia and the Netherlands, implying they are leading in “human development” according to the UNDP); it is number 143 on the Corruption Perceptions Index (the top three are New Zealand, Denmark and Finland, which means they have the lowest perception of corruption in the world); and number 108 on the Happy Planet Index (the top three are Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, meaning they have “the least environmental impact and highest level of human well-being” according to the New Economics Foundation New Economics Foundation, a British think-tank). 

Clearly, Dagestan is neither a happy, prosperous or safe place to play football. It’s telling that due to the potential risks to the players, they live and train outside of Moscow, approximately 1,250 miles from Makhachkala where they play their “home games”. 

Let’s now put Eto’o’s pay into some perspective: Eto’o is originally from Cameroon , a country with 20 million people located in West Central Africa. Life expectancy is 51 years and its annual income per head is $2,031 (Eto'o's pay would cover over 14,000 Cameroonians' pay.)  Cameroon is ranked 150 on the UNDP Human Development  Index UNDP Human Development Index ;number 134 on the Corruption Perceptions Index; and  number 126 on the Happy Planet Index Happy Planet Index  Again, a place that could benefit from economic progress and development.

In a more sane world, one would doubt whether paying these kinds of salaries to players from the poorest countries to play in one of the poorest regions in the world makes any sense. I don’t want to dwell now so much on the pay for star players or whether money should be spent on more needy goals, although these are clearly important questions. However, I want to highlight a trend in European football that is threatening the fabric of this game.
European football has become the playground for billionaires flocking to English and other European teams (for example Russian Abramovich owns Chelsea, the American Glazer family owns Manchester United, an Abu Dhabi based investment group bought Manchester City, the Quatar Investment Authority recently bought Paris St. Germain, the Agnelli family owns Juventus, and the list goes on), and their investment of vast sums of money has resulted in a growing divide among national leagues and among clubs with many negative side effects.

Smaller national leagues, such as the Dutch league, have seen its top talent disappearing abroad at younger and younger ages, making its top teams no longer internationally competitive. Traditional team rivalries are less appealing as teams have hardly any local or even national players left on their team. While in the past smaller teams would upset established and wealthier teams once in a while, now the increased wealth gap has made winners and losers all pretty much predictable.

U.S. readers may wonder what the problem is, used as they are to professional sports' leagues dominated by money issues. However,  thanks to globalization and a run-away capitalism of the last decade, European football that was once an exciting game filled with local passions and traditions, is being transformed into a business where only money counts, the owners are global, the players mercenaries with less and less connection to their club or ‘hometown”, and the fans dulled into complacency, just like with alcohol and drugs. I can’t help wondering how the world would look like, if the wealthy football investors would use their business acumen and money to create sports facilities for children in Dagestan, sponsor education in Cameroon or revitalize poor neighborhoods in London or Paris, and football was still a beautiful game.  Wouldn’t that be a nice thing to write about?

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