Thinking Aloud About Football

Instead, whenever belts need to be tightened it is invariably the players – the actual wealth creators – who are asked to shoulder the burden. The real lesson of Messi’s departure is of the ultimate powerlessness of the elite footballer in the jaws of unregulated capitalism, a reminder that even the very greatest are not immune to the game’s more malign and rapacious forces.

It’s not planned, two consecutive posts on the economics of sports, but it was hard to read this excerpt and not think about the parallels between what I wrote about yesterday and this sorry saga.

Jonathan Liew’s piece carries the headline “Messi’s sad exit shows players are at the bottom of football’s power structure”. It also carries this thought-provoking line: “How is it possible the greatest player of his generation – a man who has created more wealth, more content, more pure joy than any footballer who has ever lived – is denied basic agency over his career?”

So, two questions to think about:

  1. What does football’s power structure look like, and who is at the top, and who is at the bottom?
  2. What might be done to change it for the better?

First, about football’s power structure: are players at the bottom? Maybe so, although I would be inclined to disagree. I am a Manchester United supporter, and good luck trying to tell a fan of a club that has Paul Pogba within its ranks that players have no power. So while I am as sad as you are at the way Messi had to leave Barca, surely there is a spectrum at play over here?

Clubs aren’t particularly high on the pecking order of football’s power structure either. The European Super League was (is?) an idea born out of desperation, not strength.

Agents? The leagues themselves? Broadcasters? Who is, really, at the top of football’s power structure?

Or are they all just too overleveraged for their own good? Consider this, from 2018:

In the event of any general economic peril, such as a hard Brexit, future economic woes (this is a certainty, never-mind Janet Yellen), a liquidity crisis from lower attendance (due to wider economic problems) or reduction in revenue from cash-strapped owners, TV sponsors, or corporations, many of the Premier League clubs will find themselves in a fiscal crisis.

Chew on this delightful little segment…:

I don’t understand why in the United States the only thing that is really noncompetitive is sports. In Europe, the only thing that is really competitive is sports. In Italy, soccer you are the first division, second division, you are promoted or demoted, according to performance. You don’t buy your way into the NFL or the Major League, et cetera.
Here, you buy the franchise, and once you’re in, no matter how incompetent you are, you stay there, which is completely un‑American.

… and ask yourself if the Schumpeterian process of creative destruction is really so desirable when it comes to sports clubs. That is, having to compete for your very existence in a league that has relegation ends up being a zero-sum game in which overleveraging is all but inevitable.

Maybe the reason sports is noncompetitive in the United States is because one falls in love with the entities (the clubs) that are competing, rather than the process of competition? I’m happy to buy a PS5 rather than an Atari, but I would much rather watch Manchester United than any other club.

And hey, if that’s what you’re optimizing for (building a narrative around the clubs you support), maybe a franchise model is actually a good thing?

So, the answer to my two questions:

  1. It is a cut-throat, extremely competitive structure, European football, and maybe that’s not such a good thing. Nobody is at the top, and the weak (across all levels) are ruthlessly eliminated. Those that survive are likely to be overleveraged in one way or the other.
  2. I have no clue! Because I think lesser competition than now might be a good thing, but surely the ESL is a horrible thing? Turn the clock back to February, 1992?

Festina lente is (always and everywhere) good advice.

One thought on “Thinking Aloud About Football

  1. Manchester United fan myself, I disagree with the Pogba comment. No individual player has ever been bigger than the club in our case. We’ve had world class players who wanted a move away and we let it happen to rebuild again and stronger than before. The constant speculation around Pogba’s future is quite annoying but its more because of his despicable agent Raiola (who Sir Alex disliked too!) rather than Paul himself.
    Sure, he could come out and re-confirm his intentions to want to stay every time the media speculates about his future but I think its more important that this is sorted between the player and manager behind the scenes. We know Mourinho isn’t known for equitable man management and since Pogba fell out of favour with him, his intentions to leave (if true then) were completely justified, Especially since he has been waiting to have a squad rebuild that can actually compete for trophies since he signed and the club has been disappointing on that front.
    With Ole in the side now there has been a radical change for the better in a lot of aspects. It pays to have a United man to be at the helm and get back at least what this club is about even if one can quite rightly debate if he is world class as a manager. I do want him to succeed but even if he stays only to restructure and rebuild after all the damage caused since Sir Alex retired. He has gotten rid of deadweight, changed the type of football we were playing under all previous 3 managers (maybe Moyes could’ve been given more time?) and most importantly gotten a hold on the wayward wage structure that was the norm the past few years. If not, we would’ve overspent like Chelsea, Man City and PSG are doing at the moment with the stark difference that we don’t have the same level of capital infusion from the owners.

    Messi, Barcelona and spanish football is a completely different topic because of one important feature which is not that prominent in English football. Boardroom politics. Cruyff’s autobiography is a brilliant insight into how things used to be (still are) at Barca and Ajax. He was a remarkable player of his time and he faced issues not dissimilar to Messi’s frustration the past few seasons. But being a less patient man perhaps, he chose to leave when the politics impeded the football. Messi was on the verge of leaving last season because of Bartomeu. At that moment it really did feel like a player could be bigger than a club since Messi got his way and Bartomeu had to reliquish his post. His successor Laporta has a better relationship with Messi. But I believe in the long run a player can never come above the interests of the club. This entire debacle looks like Messi was the bargaining chip Barcelona was using to strongarm La Liga to dissent about the new CVC investment which they (along with Real Madrid) believe is not good enough for the big clubs. Hence why the announcement clearly tried to shift the blame entirely on La Liga rules. And also the Real Madrid statement just minutes later about the same. This is also why the two clubs have still not abandoned the plans around ESL. I did expect La Liga to succumb to the pressure and tweak their rules to allow Messi to stay on. Whether it would come back to haunt them (probably could initially) remains to be seen.
    But this whole episode and how bad the financial condition of Barca, is can be equated to United if we continued down the path of more manager overhauls, lack of permanent vision, panic buys, exorbitant player wages and leaches as owners. However ever since Ole has arrived and the fans have rallied against the Glazers, we have arrested the plummet. Barca and Real haven’t. Hence the ESL- only viable option to get back on top for them and out of the mess their execs themselves have created.

    The Americanisation of football is the last possible solution. MLS is a business. The cost of entry even at a grassroots level is is too high and it is definitely not sustainable in the European football context that actually lives and breathes this sport. Football clubs now have become a lucrative investment vehicle any way around the globe, so capitalism is well and truly pervasive in the sport. However it needs to be balanced out with what the fans want, as a priority. The MUFF idea of ’50+1′ could well be seriously considered as well.
    I think the only remedy that could be possible is the national FAs need to string up a more robust mechanism for football across all levels. With so many clubs (English context) facing financial issues even before Covid shows just how mediocre their efforts have been to employ the ‘trickle down economics’ to try to bestow equitable treatment to all the clubs.
    Also, the governing bodies along with FFP rules need to get their act together and actually do their jobs. One cannot help but wonder how different football could be if UEFA was actively looking to pursue the case against the Neymar transfer to PSG. That move broke football.
    The likes of City, Chelsea and PSG need to be reigned in. Not only is it unfair to assemble squads that can field sides A and B and still be better than 85% of the rest of the league, but this pushes the other clubs trying to play catch up to them and preserve their history to concoct stupid ideas like ESL or bleed their clubs dry while riddling them with debt.

    The multiple divisions need to be sustained. The relegation-promotion model is perfect. And we need the Leicesters to give us reasons to back the underdog every now and then. Less competition would not be the solution. Fans involvement in the running of the club needs to be more active, they will of course nominate a competent intermediary to reflect their views aptly. Most importantly, FAs and UEFA introspecting and rectifying their horrid role through the years, and also rethinking the effect playing 3 times a week can have on a player and scrap competitions that serve no purpose (we have the FA Cup across all divisions, why do we have the Carabao Cup?!)

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