Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Nonsense on Stilts

Rummaging through some old press clippings, I came across an interview with Michel Platini in the FT from last September (that is to say, just before he became UEFA President). It's an intriguing interview, because he makes a lot of sensible points while at the same time occasionally making an incredible howler.

The best bit: Football has always been based on identity and rivalry. There were the people of Arsenal against the people of Tottenham, the people of England against the people of France, Moldova against Georgia.

This is good, sensible stuff. Football is very tribal, with the caveat that unlike in real life, you get to pick your tribe to a certain extent anyways. Football is not really about peace and love, as Sepp Blatter and the FIFA-heads would have you believe: it has a hard edge that cannot be dulled. Bravo, Michel!

He continues: Today there is no more rivalry. If the President of a club like Chelsea isn't English, if the coaches aren't English, if the players aren't English, I wonder why Chelsea plays in England.

Here's where he goes off the path. Even those of us who find incessant Sky yammering about "Super Sundays" incredibly irritating have to admit that there is in fact quite a bit of rivalry about these days, not all of it contrived. And part of the reason is that Chelsea fans are damn proud that all these foreigners have chosen to sign up and fight for Chelsea's colours. Why should Chelsea fans care who fights for them on the field or coaches them from the sidelines? To care would be to suggest that people who aren't from South London aren't fit to play for Chelsea - which to my mind borders on racism.

I would say that the popularity of football has been based on this sense of identification and on sporting rivalry between people. Never on turnover. Today, if you have money, you win.

Good Christ. Where to begin?

First, the idea that results have never been based on turnover is just wrong. In most countries, there have always been a couple of very large and well supported teams (e.g. Juve in Italy, Real Madrid in Spain, Benfica in Portugal) who have used their financial muscle, based on gate receipts, to buy the best players available. And second, to the extent that in some countries there were factors that restrained big clubs from using their full financial muscle, this restraint could only be exercised by limiting the rights and remuneration of footballers through things like maximum wages and restrictions on player registration.

There has never, ever been any restraint on teams making money: only restraint of allowing players to earn their full worth on the market. So what Platini is really so dreamily nostalgic about is the days when players knew their place and could be well exploited

(Platini himself, of course, famously spurned a move to Arsenal in favour of La Signora Vecchia, as players in Italy were much freer to earn large amounts of money).

I know it is fashionable to bash "big money" in football and a lot of people - including Platini, apparently - get a certain amount of anti-capitalist cachet from doing so. But it's bullshit. Big money, fundamentally, means playing players well. And lord knows, I'd prefer my money to players than to owners. They play, they entertain, they are the ones who give us the games we love. For the most part, they deserve the money.


Anonymous Tom said...

I'm not sure if you aren't being a tad unfair to Michel. Whilst you're right that the ability of players to make their full worth changed the playing field, I wouldn't agree entirely that "There has never, ever been any restraint on teams making money".

Or rather, I'd argue that there were restraints that ensured (and I'm only referring to England here, not knowing enough about elsewhere) the top teams did not absolutely dominate due to their ability to make more money from television and gate receipts -- as these were shared much more equally before the advent of the Premiership. Income was thus artificially restricted and redistributed.

Of course, when that changed, it meant an inflation of wages as some teams could then afford to pay much more, perhaps making your original point right after all. Maybe I'm just making a circular argument, but do you think that Platini is really completely wrong?

12:19 AM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

Hmmm. I think you're making two fair points: one, that in England gates used to be shared more fairly and two, that concentration of income feeds a spiral effect - more cash means more expensive players, means more cash requirement...etc.

Where I think Platini goes wrong is in suggesting that the situation today is *significantly* different than it has ever been (the sums are greater, but the concentration of money at just a few teams isn't substantially different). Turnover has always played a hige role in club success. And, to the extent that turnover did not play a role, it was because players were getting screwed.

What has changed, I think, is the perception of clubs - especially in England. Back in the day, even though players were getting screwed, the primary beneficiaries were not club owners but fans. This is because clubs tended to be run by local worthies as a sort of form of community service. It wasn't until the Ken Bates' of this world came along and showed that money could be made from football that it would even have occurred to anyone that they were getting screwed. Now the fact is, most owners are losing money, not making it - it's just that it is wealthy foreigners losing money (or just breaking even) as middlemen between fans and players instead of wealthy locals doing so.

Why anybody - especially the head of a multi-national body like UEFA - finds this objectionable is a mystery to me.

9:59 AM  

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