Huizinga’s understanding of play as an autotelic activity has been destroyed in top-flight soccer a long, long time ago. But the problem today is far more dangerous than that. Soccer is developing into a ridiculously exploitative culture that treats everyone, players and managers especially, as mere commodities. This bears an eerie resemblance to Dunning’s description of how Rigauer saw the world of sports as a capitalist machine, except the soccer world is morphing at a quicker rate and into a more exploitative system.
In the past few decades specifically, we’ve seen the role of money in professional soccer exponentially expand from a mere aid for financially doomed clubs to a primary driving impetus for players and profiteers alike. Club after club has been taken over by some super-rich mogul somewhere seeking to morph the soccer industry into a long-term cash cow. Manchester City was bought from exiled Thailand Ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra by Sheikh Mansour, the Deputy PM of the United Arab Emirates; Manchester United was bought in 2005 by the New York-based Glazer family for a reported sum of around $1.3 billion; Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff City by two of the most famous Malaysian billionaires, Paris Saint Germain by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, Chelsea Football Club by a Russian billionaire, I could really go on forever.
This influx of money into a small number of clubs has molded the soccer system and the mental calculus of its participants to be governed solely by finances. This demanding system that necessitates huge spending to stay relevant is harmful, especially with the fact that no soccer league in the world except the MLS in America has a wage cap. The ramifications of not curbing this issue are two-fold in my mind.
Firstly, big spending would almost always cause a rise in ticket prices. Fans suffer. In the English Premier League (EPL), ticket prices are especially exorbitant. According to The Independent, even small clubs like Burnley have hiked prices as much as 47%. One of the worst cases, Arsenal Football Club, has season tickets costing up to $3200, as opposed to $2900 just four years ago. And that’s to watch a team that hasn’t won the Premier League in 12 years! But considering the ridiculously burdensome spending demands to keep Arsenal and Burnley relevant in the top flight, who can blame them?
Secondly, and most importantly, it would create, and is creating, an aristocracy in soccer, whereby only the rich can ever hope to do anything important. Acquiring top class players, managers, coaching staff, training facilities, and stadiums requires big spending. The case is especially visible when we look at purchasing of players. Lucrative purchasing fees and high weekly wages are a necessity both in acquiring players and keeping them. This creates an exclusive accessibility of only mega-rich clubs to great players. Clubs that don’t have a steady supply of cash from a super-rich owner cannot hope to challenge big spenders like Manchester United, Arsenal, and Manchester City – the three of whom spent more than the other 17 EPL clubs combined this season – let alone rich clubs in other parts of Europe like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid (who in 2013 purchased EPL Player of the Season Gareth Bale for a world record of about $140 million with weekly wages of almost $500,000 per week!).
Of course, the financial stability of soccer clubs is important, but club owners and stakeholders don’t aim for financial stability, they aim for long-term profits from player sales, ticket sales, broadcasting, advertising deals, and merchandise. The treatment of a sport as a profit-driven investment causes players and managers to be expected to give immediate performance, a kind of pressure not seen before in professional soccer. A common joke between EPL fans is about how Chelsea Football Club has hired and fired 8 managers in 5 years.
Soccer’s governing bodies like UEFA and The FA have tried to impose Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations on any club who wants to participate in certain competitions. This is basically a rule where a club cannot make a certain amount of losses in a fiscal year, intended to control the unfair spending patterns of super rich clubs and create a level playing field for smaller clubs. But time and time again, the clubs that are in a way, “too big to fail”, violate these rules with only fines being imposed on them. Granted, these fines that clubs have had to pay are significant and costly (it was £50 million and a squad cap in one case), but in no way are they enough of a deterrent for mega-rich clubs who have piles cash at their disposal. Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain, and Real Madrid have all violated FFP regulations with relative impunity.
If soccer continues at the pace that it’s going, it will become a predictable game predetermined by the depth of one’s pockets. Forget Huizinga’s and Suits’ understanding of play, in the future, the only way you could imagine anyone playing soccer in the top level is with a suit, monocle, and top hat on. We won’t get to see clubs like Blackburn Football Club – filled more with passion than cash – winning the Premier League as they did in 1995, or even getting anywhere near the top four positions unless some mega-rich billionaire invests billions in them. The environment that will be created will be more toxic than even Rigauer could have anticipated. The same clubs will repeat the same cycles of victory all over the world and eventually the passion and lustre of soccer will erode, slowly and gruelingly killing the beautiful game.