World Cup '98, Football, Big Business and Politics

This is supposed to be, as the media are forever telling us, the people's game, our World Cup, etc., etc. But we have little or no say in it. We generate the passion but all the officials see are the buckets of cash. The governing bodies of football, both national and international, are remote, out of touch and above all travesties of democracy. So long as big business and the multi-nationals control the game and shape it in their interests, this will continue to be the reality of things. The fightback should start now, starting with the grassroots supporters groups, to ensure that fans have a say in the game, alongside the players and coaches, and that big business is given the red card.

World Cup '98. It will be the biggest event in sporting history - the biggest money raising event that is. Billions of dollars will be generated as companies seek to achieve their greatest ever pay day. Of course it is we who will be doing the paying. It was the good old Olympics which led the way in showing what can be achieved by forgetting about sporting ideals and concentrating on the money instead. The members of the governing body of the Olympics, the IOC, have made themselves rich on the backs of the tremendous profits they have been able to bleed out of what is supposed to be a movement based on ideals. Life for them is one long junket of free trips and binges as they travel from country to country, usually making vague promises in return for, well you can guess.

Any country interested in staging the Olympics know full well that they will have to butter these people up big time. Everything is conducted behind closed doors and in the worst possible taste. Problems are hushed up as the twin gods of the new Olympics, television and the favoured sponsors, are kept sweet. Only occasionally is their sheltered existence disturbed such as when the Winter Olympics went to Norway in 1994. According to the book "The new lords of the ring" by Andrew Jennings, the Norwegian people for some strange reason still believed in the principles behind the original Olympic concept and took umbrage against the rampant commercialism of the IOC (along with the pro-Franco Fascist record of its President Juan Antonio Samaranch).

Public hostility was widespread and the Norwegian Olympics ended up being run on exceptionally uncommercial lines in order to pacify the mood of anger. The call from the Norwegian people was: who are the representatives of the IOC? where is the democracy? why do they care so much about money? Samaranch and his gang left under a cloud. But nothing was learnt from this because the status quo was too good for those fortunate enough to be elevated to such high office. The 1996 Olympics were even more commercial-and even more lucrative - than ever before.

Naturally their pals in football are all too keen in following suit. So who runs world football? Ex-Footballers? Managers? Supporters? Hell, no. The ranks of football's world governing body, FIFA, are drawn (like the IOC) from a motley bunch of ex-politicians and bureaucrats, well heeled and well steeled in the art of big business and diplomacy. Ditto for the European equivalent UEFA. Caring more about their own fiefdoms they seek to preserve their privileges and power at any cost. The current mainman, FIFA President Joao Havelange, is coming towards the end of his time in office (he finally retires this month aged 81) and wants his old mate Sepp Blatter, the current general secretary of FIFA, to succeed him as Capo Di Tutti Capo. However UEFA president Lennart Johansson is also keen on the job and has called Havelange "a dictator." The job carries no salary but the FT reckons that perks etc. can add up to $500,000 pa for the lucky winner—plus the prestige. Hence a not inconsiderable amount of behind and not-so-behind the scenes lobbying is going on as the various power blocks manoeuvre around. Needless to say behind the individuals are the big money concerns—the voices who really count in world football. No one knows better than Havelange the importance of these companies—Adidas's Horst Dassler was a prime mover in getting him elected in the first place.

Friendly unity?

Surely events like the Olympics and the World Cup are about bringing people of all nations together in friendly unity and so on? Far from it, these great occasions are the modern day equivalent of going to war with most of the benefits and few of the costs. In these events the media are all too quick to talk about "our girls and boys" going abroad to achieve "great victories" over the foreigner. The concept of the common achievements of humankind is all but forgotten when national interests are at stake. The American TV coverage of Atlanta '96 was referred to as the Oprah-isation of the Olympics as the companies set about abandoning general reporting in favour of an endless montage of "heart warming" stories and American sporting successes. Likewise at this years Winter Olympics, UK media coverage virtually disappeared when it became apparent that no British competitor seemed likely to win a bean. A far cry from the days of national hysteria over Torvil and Dean! We all, of course, remember the Dads Army tone of Euro 96 with the Spanish and the Germans particularly coming in for stick. Anything to keep the masses occupied and the cash flowing in. When companies refer to football as the modern equivalent of religion they might care to remember what Marx had to say about that subject.

This year's World Cup will once again concentrate on the tried and trusted methods of raising cash. Everywhere you turn there are advertisements and TV commercials carrying the officially authorised symbols of the competition. Shops are full of appropriately logoed merchandise. To this can be added the official souvenir goodies of the various national associations. Players are popping up all over the place advertising all manner of rubbish. For some companies there is the additional "honour" of being an official sponsor—for this they get their name in all the best places. Not surprisingly the powers to be were so concerned about sorting out the commercial arrangements that they quite forgot to notice that there might be a problem about ticket arrangements. The French authorities had decided to severely limit the number of tickets for the event which would go abroad. Surely the representatives of the other European nations would notice and object? No way! After all they would have their own tickets already sorted. Indeed for those with the cash to buy the special business packages there would never be a problem about getting tickets. When it became apparent what had happened all hell broke loose. Extra tickets were supposed to be made available but the phone arrangements were nothing short of a disgrace. In reality the authorities don't want fans at the games except as TV extras—and for that the French will do as well as anyone. They seem to have forgotten what happened in Euro 96 when games which did not interest the home fans were watched by half empty stadiums where people were put off by the relatively high ticket prices. For FIFA keeping the TV companies happy counts for much. They pay a wad for televising such events as the World Cup and expect their money's worth.

National game

We should not be surprised at all this. After all look what has happened to the national game. First we saw the establishment of the Premier League to maximise income for the elite wealthy clubs at the top. Buoyed by a flood of cash from the Sky TV deal, the desire to fleece fans became something of an obsession for more than a few directors. A club's success became noted by the quality of their balance sheet rather than their position in the league table. More and more emphasis on merchandise on the one hand, rising seat prices on the other. When people talk about inflation being under control they obviously haven't tried to renew a club season ticket recently.

When the two Newcastle United directors were caught out rubbishing the club replica shirts, they exposed the cynicism which exists in club boardrooms up and down the country. The Newcastle incident was particularly interesting in that the club had helped establish a somewhat lucrative cult by which all fans attending a home game felt obliged to wear the overpriced replica shirts. When they talked about how great the Newcastle fans were, what they really meant was how great their credit cards were. The club had already endeared themselves to supporters by selling one of their key players, Les Ferdinand, seemingly just in order to ensure that the clubs financial report balanced for the benefit of the City of London. When Newcastle walked out to play second best to Arsenal at this years FA Cup final, their supporters must have cried out "Where is Ferdinand, Asprilla and, above all, Ginola?" All sold but at least the slide on share prices has been stopped which will be a comfort!

The Newcastle fiasco over shirts could not have come at a worst time for the leisure industry generally. Firms like Adidas, Umbro and Nike have been pumping millions into the game in loss-leader deals in order to try and reap the potential profits available. All was going well until the collapse of the Far Eastern economies dealt a serious blow to this potentially massive market. Clubs like Manchester United had already been dispatched on tours to the region to help drum up support. Now that market is in decline, share prices are falling and strategies are being hurriedly rethought. These firms now need—rather than hope for— a good World Cup.

The core sponsors are also desperate for a good World Cup. The establishment of such a special status for firms like Adidas, Coca-Cola, JVC, MasterCard and others has been central to sports sponsorship for nearly two decades. These companies pay a king's ransom but in return get the full benefits of exclusivity, pitchside advertising and so on. The establishment of a firm called ISL (International Sport and Leisure) in the early 80's has been critical in tying the sporting federations like FIFA, UEFA and also the Olympics IOC into a closer relationship with key companies. ISL has regularly won sole control of marketing and sponsorship rights for events like this year's World Cup Finals. However after a power realignment in Adidas following the death of Dassler, a new player has been established with German backing, The Event Agency and Marketing AG (TEAM). One of their major clients is UEFA and the establishment of the Champions League (or rather the Champions and their rich pals league, as some have called it) to replace the European Cup has been their most noticeable achievement. The aim, as one Dutch journalist recently reported a TEAM employee as saying, is to establish ".. a golden triangle, it's a field of power we call it—football, television and sponsors" More and more it is the commercial interests which will dominate rather than the sporting ones. The Champions League shows what is possible and they won't stop there.

Sport and politics

Politicians, especially Tories, are very quick to rant on about sport and politics not mixing when the industry - for that is what it is - comes under attack over issues like racism or supporters rights. But the reality is that sport and politics mix like a hand in a glove as they know all too well. At the slightest hint of "national" success they are the first to jump on the bandwagon. Glory on the sporting field can be quickly converted into votes at either local or national level. Politicians love to surround themselves with sporting heroes in the hope that by association some of the magic will rub off on them. Even Thatcher, who hated football almost as much as public transport, invited the 1982 England world cup squad to Downing Street. It was Thatcher too who realised how the Heysel deaths of 1985 could be turned to a political advantage by creating a back door for the introduction of ID cards. Only the tremendous reaction following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 scuppered that scheme. So socialists should not feel shy about raising demands as to how football should be run.

This is supposed to be, as the media are forever telling us, the people's game, our World Cup, etc., etc. But we have little or no say in it. We generate the passion but all the officials see are the buckets of cash. The governing bodies of football, both national and international, are remote, out of touch and above all travesties of democracy. So long as big business and the multi-nationals control the game and shape it in their interests, this will continue to be the reality of things. Words like Club and Association, as against say company or plc, are merely words now and the principles of the game are joining them in that sad status. The fightback should start now, starting with the grassroots supporters groups, to ensure that fans have a say in the game, alongside the players and coaches, and that big business is given the red card.