The World Cup - Who's Cashing In?

As the 2006 World Cup kicks off in Germany Steve Jones looks at the commercialisation of football and the impact of profiteering on the sport and the fans.

When any new country comes into existence, they always have two immediate ambitions: to become members of the UN and to affiliate to football's governing body FIFA - and not always in that order! Football remains the dominant global game, played by millions and watched by billions. As a source of revenue it far surpasses any other sports-related source of income, a fact not unnoticed by the major sports companies.

Global firms such as Nike, Puma, Adidas and the rest produce stuff that costs them pennies to make and then sell them worldwide at a massive mark-up. No wonder they call football the beautiful game.

The last few decades have seen a staggering advance in the commercialisation of football as capitalism has rushed - with the willing compliance of football's authorities - to fulfil the massive potential for profits.

TV companies, taking advantage of the huge expansion in channels made possible by satellite technology, have bought up the rights to show games left, right and centre. In return for their millions, football has made these games available at times and places to suit TV requirements, irrespective of the wishes of individual fans. Supporters have therefore found their seasons being shaped by the whims of TV programming schedulers.

The rich, powerful clubs - in league with the sportswear multinationals and TV companies - have ripped the game apart and reshaped it in their image. The old European competitions have been restructured into more profitable entities such as the Champions (and their rich chums) League, complete with seeding to avoid any early departures by the top clubs. A wholly unofficial clique of European clubs called the G14 has increasingly exerted an unhealthy influence on national and international footballing bodies. This has included our own Premier League, which was itself created to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor and which seems more than happy to dance to the Highbury/Old Trafford marketing department tune.

Not unsurprisingly with great wealth comes great corruption. First Germany was hit by a refereeing scandal involving bribes, now the whole of Italian football is being convulsed by a major scandal involving the top clubs who have been accused of fixing matches and nobbling referees in their interests - a fact long suspected by most Italian football fans. This is only the start, but the footballing authorities will, as usual, fall to the occasion in not tackling this problem.

This is hardly the desired backdrop to football's highest competition, the World Cup, which this time is taking place in Germany over the summer. Yet somehow it seems appropriate. Anyone visiting the FIFA website and going to the marketing section will see how much care and attention is being spent on all the various commercial sponsors. For them it is not about sport but about how much publicity they can get. The global game has become the global market and the World Cup a glorified shop window for clubs, agents and companies.

Fans are Marginalized

And what about the fans who are the source of all this income? Dispossessed and derided their voice has been marginalized. They are treated exactly the same as an employer treats its workforce - the rules are the same - and therefore the response must also be the same. The movement against the Glazer takeover of Manchester Utd shows that the fans can organise when the mood takes them. Over the years fans have made efforts to organise, through various independent supporters groups etc, although these have often failed to stay the course. When Thatcher attempted to introduce football ID cards in the late 1980s, a major campaign involving supporters from all clubs was launched with some success. So it can be done.

However, efforts to organise have often been hindered by the exploitation of club rivalries, the 'we are not political' syndrome and attempts to absorb movements into the status quo. If football is to be saved as an important part of working class culture and community rather than just another source of capitalist exploitation and diversion from reality (please note there is no such place as Planet Football) then a new mood of mobilisation needs to develop. The Football Supporters Federation needs to be revitalised and linked into the various independent and genuine supporters groups. More importantly the nettle must be grasped on who owns and therefore runs football. The current bunch will never act in our interests - remember where (and from whom) the likes of Glazer, Ambramovich and the rest got their money from - and cannot be expected ever to do so. Clubs must be taken into public ownership and run in the interests of ordinary people as sporting not commercial operations. The various footballing governing bodies should also then be purged of the 'hangers-on in blazers' and replaced by people who have more than just an interest in the next freebie but who rather intend to defend and develop the game with supporters being fully represented at all levels. If this is not done then the relentless exploitation of the so-called peoples’ game will continue until there is nothing left worth saving.

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