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
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.