The Aristocracy In Soccer

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.

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Even after winning the UEFA Champion’s League for the first time in Chelsea’s history, Roberto Di Matteo was fired after losing one match 3-0 a few months later. Not so happy now are you Bobby?

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.

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3 comments

  1. nicolesigmon · October 14, 2014

    While I agree with what you’re saying, I do think it’s important to look at clubs, such as Manchester United, who spend an insane amount of money on players and then don’t necessarily see the benefit they expected. For example, Manchester United finished 7th in the Premier League last year. This year, in spite of buying extremely expensive players such as Angel di Maria and Ander Herrera this past transfer window, they’ve still only won half their games this season. So while I do agree that having a massive budget makes it massively easier to do well and succeed in soccer, it is important to note that money doesn’t always equal a winning team. Even Real Madrid struggled early this season despite dropping 80 million euro’s on James Rodriguez during the transfer window.

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  2. dverdere · October 15, 2014

    I do agree with you in the sense that clubs with the most money are obviously reaping the benefits of great players, but I disagree that only the ones that spend the most do well. Atletico Madrid was in a very large debt and then made it all the way to the UEFA Champions League final game. After the season they sold three of their best players and then got young prospects to develop and do the same thing again. There are many clubs that are just spending at will, but there are also clubs that develop a roster and are able to be successful. Also, the club Borussia Dortmund was in a great deal of debt and was possibly going to have to shut down the club. Then, hated rival, Bayern Munich, in their league, Bundesliga 1, gave Dortmund a loan in order to get back on their feet and now Dortmund is a serious force in Bundesliga with many stars such as Marco Reus and Jakub Błaszczykowski. If it was entirely about economics and winning, Bayern would have watched Dortmund fall into bankruptcy, but in the spirit of keeping the game alive they helped out a team in need.

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    • azaryff · October 18, 2014

      Yes, there are a few outliers who develop young talents and create success from them, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund among them. I’d even argue Chelsea (the team I love to death growing up in near London) is moving in that direction, spending more frugally and loaning off younger talent to smaller clubs to develop them. No, money is in no way a 100% guarantee of football success on the individual club level. Yes, sometimes clubs put aside their financial thought processes to keep the game alive and I love your example, I’d go a bit further back to when United was in emotional and financial distraught after the Munich Air Disaster and English clubs aided them, instead of let a rival team die. I agree this is fantastic.

      But trends on the macro level suggest that a shift is moving football towards a system that rewards big and uncontrolled spending. Of the three main Dortmund stars that led their side to the UEFA Champions League final (Reus, Lewandowski, Gotze), only one is still playing for them today, and that guy is constantly surrounded by moves to the likes of United and Arsenal every transfer window. My main argument is that this shift is accumulating talent to an “aristocracy”, killing the game, bla bla bla. If today it’s not really about money, it soon will be. Call me a pessimist. Football governing bodies need to act to counter this or at least limit it.

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