Foot­ball’s su­per-rich play the game by their own rules

The Foot­ball Leaks rev­e­la­tions show how lit­tle the views of fans and reg­u­la­tors mat­ter

The Observer - - Comment & Analysis - David Gold­blatt David Gold­blatt is the au­thor of The Game of Our Lives

Wik­iLeaks shone a light on the du­plic­ity of US for­eign pol­icy. The Panama Pa­pers laid bare the net­work of off­shore bank­ing, tax havens and le­gal loop­holes that al­lows the global su­per-rich, po­lit­i­cal dy­nas­ties in au­thor­i­tar­ian states and or­gan­ised crime to hide their cap­i­tal. But it may just be that Foot­ball Leaks, a web­site with a trove of in­sider con­tacts, as­tound­ing doc­u­ments and very se­cure servers, will be the best guide to the malfea­sance of the global econ­omy.

In 2016, the site re­leased doc­u­ments, in as­so­ci­a­tion with

Der Spiegel and a con­sor­tium of Euro­pean me­dia out­lets, that made clear the wide­spread na­ture of il­le­gal se­cret pay­ments and tax avoid­ance in both the trans­fer mar­ket and in the ways clubs paid play­ers’ salaries, not to men­tion the wealth and power that has ac­crued to agents. Since then, Lionel Messi, one of the high­est-earn­ing foot­ballers of all time, has been found guilty of tax eva­sion, though, un­sur­pris­ingly, he will not be do­ing any jail time.

Like the Panama Pa­pers, Foot­ball Leaks high­lights the in­ad­e­quacy of na­tional tax­a­tion codes in a global and off­shore econ­omy and the le­niency of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to­wards the rich. Put along­side the ob­vi­ous and ever in­creas­ing in­equal­ity that Euro­pean foot­ball gen­er­ates, the game is an ex­em­plar of our bro­ken econ­omy.

The ways in which rich in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions brazenly evade their so­cial and eco­nomic obli­ga­tions are odi­ous, but the lat­est tranche of doc­u­ments and sto­ries from Foot­ball Leaks points to some­thing much more dis­turb­ing – the sys­temic coloni­sa­tion, cor­rup­tion and co-op­tion of fans, play­ers, clubs and reg­u­la­tors by the rich and pow­er­ful.

The most ob­vi­ous form this has taken is the pur­chase of foot­ball clubs. For ex­am­ple, Liver­pool, Roma, Arsenal and Manch­ester United are owned by US bil­lion­aires. Rus­sian oli­garchs have been serv­ing their own van­ity and laun­der­ing their rep­u­ta­tions at Chelsea, Monaco and PAOK Salonika. Manch­ester City and Paris Saint-Ger­main are the prop­er­ties of the royal houses of Abu Dhabi and Qatar re­spec­tively.

How­ever, not con­tent to merely se­quester the col­lec­tively cre­ated pop­u­lar cul­tural cap­i­tal of a cen­tury of Euro­pean foot­ball and sub­ject it to hideous forms of con­tem­po­rary com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, they have be­gun to con­found and co-opt the na­tional and re­gional foot­ball agen­cies that are meant to reg­u­late them.

In the UK, at­ten­tion has fo­cused on Manch­ester City’s claimed cir­cum­ven­tion of Uefa’s fi­nan­cial rules (FFP or fi­nan­cial fair play). Th­ese were de­signed to pre­vent clubs gain­ing an un­fair ad­van­tage by run­ning up debts from pa­trons that would never be paid back or re­ceiv­ing im­plau­si­ble spon­sor­ship deals from com­pa­nies al­lied to their own­ers. PSG, City and their royal pa­trons, de­ploy­ing a com­bi­na­tion of ti­tanic le­gal bud­gets, threat, pressure and en­tice­ment, es­caped se­ri­ous scru­tiny or con­se­quence, a process that was fa­cil­i­tated by Gianni In­fantino, then the gen­eral sec­re­tary of Uefa, who bent over back­wards to “rein­ter­pret” FFP in their favour. This man is now the pres­i­dent of Fifa, at the very head of the whole rot­ten fish, where he is busy un­der­min­ing Fifa’s own ethics com­mit­tee.

PSG and City are not alone in elite Euro­pean foot­ball in their ef­forts to sub­vert the com­mon good and pub­lic reg­u­la­tion. If you can­not al­ways bend the world en­tirely to your will and de­sires, why not just opt out and cre­ate your own world? The same mean solip­sis­tic logic that drives tech bil­lion­aires to their an­tipodean sur­vival man­sions and the rich to gated com­mu­ni­ties has, in the world of Euro­pean foot­ball, seen a tiny group from among the rich­est clubs ac­tively mo­bil­is­ing to cre­ate a break­away Su­per League.

Th­ese clubs have used the threat of such a league to force more con­ces­sions and more money out of Uefa. Need­less to say, the opin­ions and in­ter­ests of ei­ther their fans or the rest of the foot­ball world have not and will never be fac­tored in.

The land­scape that Foot­ball Leaks is be­gin­ning to de­lin­eate is ugly, un­just and dys­func­tional. The clear­est tes­ta­ment to the power of ne­olib­er­al­ism to com­mod­ify every last cor­ner of the hu­man soul is surely the clause in Ney­mar’s con­tract with PSG that states he is to re­ceive an an­nual bonus of €375,000 for greet­ing and wav­ing to fans. Ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one has their price, runs the think­ing, and if there are le­gal, po­lit­i­cal or moral bar­ri­ers to that, they too can, seem­ingly, be dis­man­tled.

In his open­ing speech at the World Cup, In­fantino de­clared that “foot­ball will con­quer Rus­sia”. How­ever, as Vladimir Putin’s smile sug­gested, the op­po­site is true. The Rus­sian state, its po­lit­i­cal tech­nol­o­gists and its se­cu­rity agen­cies were in charge and foot­ball proved a very will­ing satrap in stag­ing such a sen­sa­tional Potemkin vil­lage. Un­der In­fantino’s Fifa, and in the ab­sence of se­ri­ous re­sis­tance, foot­ball, tra­duced and morally ex­posed, will re­main un­der per­ma­nent and ma­lign po­lit­i­cal oc­cu­pa­tion.

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