Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Changing of the Guard: Politics, wealth and influence in modern day sport

After having time to reflect on the dramatic events of nine days ago, Dan Sabato has written this piece about the globalisation of sport and the price at which it comes.

December 2nd, 2010 - the day the nation of Qatar was catapulted from their position of sporting anonymity onto the world stage by the decision of FIFA’s 22 executive members. Sepp Blatter’s revelation that awarded football’s flagship tournament to a nation ranked 113 in the world represented more than just the unveiling of a new era in world football, it hammered home the idea that many were already full aware of; money and influence breeds success.

In truth, football is late to the party.

The globalisation of world sport is not something that is new or extraordinary. The focus of sport has been changing for several years, in line with the changing nature of political and economic power-broking. The man leading the exodus from tradition has been Formula One’s diminutive but astoundingly powerful President, Bernie Ecclestone. The F1 landscape, one steeped in history and tradition, has been subjected to a dramatic upheaval during the last decade. Comparing the 2011 calendar to its 2001 counterpart gives you some idea of how far the sport has evolved. Gone are the traditional Grand Prix at Imola, Magny Cours and Austria, replaced instead by circuits in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and for the first time, India.

Formula One – part sport, part marketing extravaganza – brings with it immense prestige alongside astronomical costs. Fortunately for the Formula One brand, the global economic spectrum shifted in such a way that it naturally fostered suitors with the financial clout and insatiable thirst for personal reputation. These backers were symbolic of the changing nature of world politics and economics, which allowed vast amounts of money to be invested in the sport and allowing Formula One to exploit previously untapped markets.
Seemingly, everyone was a winner.

It is perhaps symbolic of Formula One’s new global era that in the last four weeks of the season, the constructors were scheduled to race in Korea, followed swiftly by races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. Air-miles indeed.

Have Sepp Blatter and Co followed in the footsteps of Bernie Ecclestone and his cronies? At this juncture, the answer, by awarding the 2022 World Cup to a nation that intends to dismantle any development (and legacy) come the end of the tournaments, appears to be yes . We have been told to “Expect Amazing”, but what we can really look forward to is the searing temperatures (up to 50 degrees celcius in the Summer months), a nation where alcohol is illegal (I’m not saying that this makes or breaks a World Cup) and a remote chance of the host nation even scoring a goal if recent evidence is anything to go by. 

FIFA followed the money trail; that much is clear. The decision to award the tournament to Qatar was based on nothing less. Sepp Blatter justified the choice by preaching the lasting legacy that the tournament will produce by hosting the tournament in an Arab nation. Additionally, FIFA's private members club were won over by the promise of new stadia being transported to third world nations. In truth, the decision reinforces the idea of sports evolution along more political and economic lines. Qatar represents another Arab nation with money to throw at a pet project and a thirst for greater respect on a world stage. For the Qataris, the opportunity was there to announce themselves to the world, and in that respect they succeeded. On the other hand, FIFA’s blatant pursuit of wealth and influence has brought disgrace and suspicion on the much maligned organisation.

This is where Formula One and football differ. The heavily criticised extravaganza that has become of Formula One has identified the future of global political and financial influence, incorporating these pockets of support into the sports annual calendar. In doing so, Bernie Ecclestone has ensured the long term stability of his brand. In stark contrast, FIFA’s attempts to infiltrate new markets and guarantee long term stability may well have turned into an unmitigated disaster. Simply put – those that felt wronged; the traditional protagonists of world football, notably the English FA – are all too willing to restore the status quo. 

Bernie Ecclestone successfully adapted Formula One to the current political and economic climate. The power behind the Formula One brand is now truly global. 

Capitalism and sport are now intertwined. The events of the 2nd December served purely to highlight how chances for money-making come very much ahead of idealistic concepts such as fans' love for the game in FIFA's list of priorities. This is not to say that World Cups in Russia and Qatar do not have their merit. I think it is fair to say though, that FIFA's motives for making such decisions were based more in their capitalist hungers than sense of obligation to take football to new pastures out of a duty to 'try new things'. As such, the credibility of football’s governing body is once again being questioned, and rightly so. When a sport is being run out of a thirst for money and profit, the true essence of the sport itself can be lost. When winning bidders are chosen on the principle of 'where can we make the most money', then the integrity of the game is under threat. The now seemingly vague notions of fairness, equality and loyalty are discarded in favour of the chance to expand the game for the economic benefit of those who run it.

FIFA’s attempts to globalise their brand may prove to be their most destructive and divisive decisions in their history.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...


  1. Really interesting piece, Dom. Thanks. I'm looking to do my own piece on this sort of thing.



  2. Actually, just realised this wasn't, Dom!

  3. Excellent piece and very much agree with the general opinions expressed.

    The only reason to take the World Cup to Qatar is money, as it has no football heritage.

    The concern I have is that the typical culture of football fans (booze, burgers, bimbos) will clearly be in conflict with the current culture of Qatar; their current tolerance of "western ways" may not accept the more extreme behaviours of many thousands of traditional football supporters. This can only result in two outcomes; the conflict of cultures will lead to local unrest during the tournament or typical football fans will stay at home and watch the football in the comfort of their own homes or local bars. Either outcome cannot be for the good of football. From a financial perspective, the TV rights are more important for FIFA and half-empty stadia more of a problem for the host nation. If the reported forecast spend of $50bn to deliver the 2022 Tornament are true,then even these losses may be irrelevant to Qatar. But the risk of half-empty stadia will do immense harm to the reputation of FIFA and football in the middle east.

    IF FIFA were truly dedicated to spreading the sport of football to new parts of the world, then they could demonstrate this by buying up the new Qatar stadia, or at least pay for their relocation, and relocate them to the next FIFA tournament that lack the football infrastructure. I assume that this objective of "portable" stadia can be delivered. A spin-off for the world may be the development of better Solar panels as the aim is to have the new stadia powered this way. If this can be delivered then this would provide a legacy beyond football. I think third world countries would appreciate efficient green technology more than large football stadia.

    The comparison with Formula 1 is interesting. I accept that the commercial development, following the "changing nature of politics and economics" does seem similar but from a sporting perspective they are quite different things. I cannot see International football becoming the "next Formula 1", but more likely that the elite football clubs will become brands and take part in a global league (already signs of this with Man U, Barcelona, Real Madrid etc). A year or two ago no one would have believed that Qatar would stage a world cup so is this is any more ridiculous? This does remind me a little of the scenario in the film Rollerball - scary. If football does start moving in this directiont there is no way to know how it will end. Again, it is hard to resist money and power.

  4. Yeah this post is by Daniel Sabato, Rob. But it is certainly extremely interesting and tackles a massive issue in football right now, namely, the impact of economic factors on the fabric of the game.

    Vin Re, I completely agree. FIFA does not care about the legacy of the World Cup in Qatar nor has it shown any commitment itself to the policies of the Qatar bid. It has simply used the idea of the 2022 World Cup helping third world countries as a means of covering their true motives - it is a rich untapped market ready to be exploited. This is where the link with F1 comes in. It too is driven by expanding the sport purely to exploit new markets in every corner of the planet. If there are large numbers of empty seats in the World Cup in Qatar then FIFA's reputation will be harmed because all their critics will have been proven right. How the culture clash effects people's decision of whether or not to travel will also be very interesting.

  5. Absolute shite, Dan. Could do better. C+

  6. It is impressive that there are lot of influential people in spots but it is a pity that mafia and drugs are involved too.


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