Football’s dalliance with money could destroy its mystique

Blog by: Anand

Gareth Bale alongside president Florentino Perez.

Gareth Bale shows his new Real Madrid shirt as he stands alongside president Florentino Perez during his presentation at Santiago Bernabeu on September 2, 2013 in Madrid, Spain. (Getty Images)

Football, simply the most beautiful game in the world, is developing an ugly face even as it steers itself into an alternative universe propelled by money, merchandise and television.

On one hand it is among the most accessible of all sports – all one needs is a spherical object and a little open space. On the other, thriving on the adulation and awe of the billion plus followers, access to stadia and players is becoming a distant mirage that offers more hurt than hope.

The invasion of money has turned clubs and players into objects decorated by obscene wealth. It is a world that presents a stark contrast from the travails of the ordinary folk that embellish the game with their love. At the end of another round of hectic transfers, the staggering €2.3bn outlay from the five elite European leagues defies the grave economic conditions on the continent.

The economic disparities – between the game and the people embracing it – are a cause for serious concern. Just to pick an example, let us begin in Spain, which incidentally along with Greece and UK is considered the most unequal economies on the planet.

Translated to football, it means that the gap between the rich and poor is as wide as the difference between Barcelona and Zaragoza last season. It also reads that the chasm is widening at the pace of a tireless Gareth Bale working his nimble feet ferociously towards the goal.

Of course, we do not seek or hope that sport shall address the socio-economic ills that plague us today. However, considering that the wealth in sport stems from the unrequited love of the thronging masses, a disconnected existence can only lead to an unmitigated disaster.

In a country where high double digit unemployment has been a constant for well over two years, Real Madrid spent a whopping €101mn to acquire the services of Bale from Tottenham Hotspur.

It was the deal that broke all previous transfer records, turning the Welshman into the most expensive footballer on the planet. In fact, no other club on the planet has spent more during the transfer window, than Real Madrid.

The Madrileños, from a city struggling to deal with an unemployment rate of nearly 20%, spent a whopping €180mn shopping for talent during the window this season. A lot of that money was available with the Galacticos because their eager fans were willing to part with their hard earned savings.

A middle class fan – most of them make less than €1000 in a typical month – would pay around €20 to €100 per seat to watch their team at the Santiago Bernabeu. Obviously, not many make it past the gates. Interestingly, it is the inability of the masses to access the stadia that has kept advertising rates growing at a steady clip, despite the biting recession since 2008.

According to the Global Sports Salaries Survey, 2013 conducted by Sporting Intelligence – the average weekly salary of a Galactico is over €107,000 per week. In complete contrast, Government figures indicate that nearly 1.7mn of the 3.5mn households in the Madrid area have not a single employed member in the family.

As the recession deepens, football has to find ways to contribute to the communities that feed the sport. Otherwise, it shall risk losing its relevance among people, who remain loyal custodians of the heritage of a club. Fans often cheer the same club for an entire lifetime, sometimes across generations, unmindful of the coming and going of wealthy stars.

The situation in England, the nation with the most successful top flight professional league in the world, isn’t entirely different. Under the generous ownership of billionaire owner Sheikh Mansour, Manchester City has become the best paid team in the world, according to the survey by Sporting Intelligence.

An average City star is reputed to be earning nearly €119,000 each week for his efforts at the club. In a city where a season ticket could set you back by around €1,200, unemployment is estimated to be nearly 8%. It is believed that nearly 300,000 people in the area are without employment this year.

Over in France, just two clubs – Monaco and PSG have spent a whopping €180mn during this transfer period. At a time when the country is reeling under the effects of trade deficit (€4.5bn – €6bn this year) and double digit unemployment rates, the largesse of the clubs represents a frightening reality.

It appears that the depressive conditions around Europe have provided an ideal platform for the ultra-wealthy to sell relief from the pain by peddling sporting drama. While it does make great business sense, the massive investments ignore the fact that football is more than just sport on the continent.

It is a religion practiced by families and friends, enshrined in the cultural ethos of a devoted mass of people. As much as they worship the game and its Gods, continued commercial exploitation of their unadulterated love and devotion could lead to discontent and anger among the communities.

On a continent with growing inequities, it is time for the beautiful game to carefully re-examine the money trail, invest in the communities and rediscover the divine soul that connects football with its devout fans.


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