This week’s international matches in London featuring Argentina, Colombia and the United States provides the most interesting example of how despite appearances the world of football has not changed. Europe still rules and everyone in the world game must continue to pay homage to the old world.
Now this may seem an absurd argument. If even a few years ago somebody had suggested that Argentina would play Croatia at Upton Park or that United States would face Colombia at Craven Cottage it would be seen as a time to call in the men in white coats. Surely it would be argued with the likes of Messi parading their skills on a cold autumn evening in the east end of London-not a place club football would normally bring him-this must mean that these countries see themselves as such attractive propositions that they can play a midweek match with which the home country has no connection whatsoever.
Yet their very presence here proves the exact opposite. They are here because most of their players play in Europe, a good many in the Premier League. A game in Europe brings in revenue and it cut costs as most of their players have a short journey. It also publicises their team to the most important market in the world game. All these countries are doing is accepting economic reality that Europe still controls the purse strings of the world game.
I accept that sometimes it suits countries, even FIFA, to pretend otherwise and talk of how football’s economic reality has changed or can be changed. Such talk was very common when the campaign to take the World Cup to South Africa was at its height.
That World Cup could not have had greater billing featuring as it did Nelson Mandela, the Gandhi of our time. One of the reasons for taking the Cup to Africa was that it would open up new football markets. This was a point made very cogently by Danny Jordaan the man who brought the World Cup to South Africa, with some help from Mandela, and then with no little skill and flair organised the tournament. Jordaan reinforced the emotional slogan of Africa deserving to host the competition with what was seen as the hard economic one of comparing football to Coke Cola.
If Coke, he argued, wanted to expand it would hardly bother with mature markets of Europe and America. There could not be much growth there, it had to reach parts of the world Coke had not reached before. And that new market for football was Africa. But Jordaan for all his great presentational skills knew he was over egging the pudding if not distorting the argument. And six years later it is amply clear the South African World Cup did not change the essential dynamics of the game. For all the growth potential in Africa’s virginal football markets they are and remain secondary to Europe. Their best players have to come to Europe to play and no foreseeable World Cup will change that. You do not have to search hard for such evidence. Just google 2015 African Nations and Morocco and see the chaos the competition is in, now that Morocco, because of the Ebola scare, has withdrawn from staging the competition.
Such a take-over of football is not going to happen as no country or continent threatens European dominance
In taking the World Cup to Brazil FIFA made some noises suggesting this dynamic may change. The hope was that the World Cup in the country which is truly the home of football, whatever we in England may claim, will return the game to what was always the historic relationship between Europe and South America. South America is the only continent that has seriously threatened European dominance, on the field and off and until South Africa the nations from the two continents had shared the previous 18 World Cups equally. Now Europe lead by two but it is worth noting that the German victory in Brazil was the first by a European country in South America. In the 50s there was also more money in South American football. So much so that European footballers were prepared to be banned by their FAs to play there.
Now it is the exact reverse, almost every prominent South American footballer plays in Europe. With so much of South American football financially impoverished their players’ migration to Europe is an economic necessity. Brazil, far from changing European football’s hegemony, has merely underlined this. The dreadful performance on the field of play highlighted how bankrupt Brazil is both with regard to players and resources. Indeed, even as I write, the Brazilian government is holding a study about how the country’s football can learn from Europe, particularly the Premier League.
FIFA have been hoping for sometime China may be a rival centre to Europe. But that has not yet happened and looks unlikely. Now hopes are centred on India where a new cricket style football Premier League has started. True, Indian cricket rules the world which even two decades ago would have seemed a fantasy. India’s dominance of cricket means cricket is the only sport that has passed into non-western, non-white, hands.
Residents of Singapore adjust their sleeping patterns to make sure they get up in the middle of the night to see Premier league football
But cricket is a very special sport, at the top level it is played by just ten countries. India with a population of 1.2 billion, of whom some 500 million have a standard of living comparable to Europe, can provide the financial muscle that nobody else in cricket can. The West Indies may be a magical name in cricket but the cricket team does not even represent a country but a collection of several disparate island and as the recent cancellation of their Indian tour showed they do not have the money to keep their players happy. It is Indian money that keeps them and many other Test playing countries, apart from England and Australia, afloat.
Such a take-over of football is not going to happen as no country or continent threatens European dominance. Indeed such is the mastery of Europe that in many parts of Africa you hear talk of a new European colonialism through football.
It is, of course, astonishing that this should be so. As the 1990s began it seemed European football was literally dying. The mid-80s had seen terrible tragedies in European football: Bradford, Heysel, and Hillsborough. The European Cup had not recovered from the Heysel disaster and the 1990 World Cup in ltaly was by common consent one of the worst in the tournament’s history. Preceded by fears of what British hooligans would do, it was followed by dreadful football which reached its nadir at the final between Germany and Argentina.
But within two years European football had reinvented itself through the launch of the Champions League and the Premier league, both starting in 1992. It is worth noting that the advent of both competitions was met with much scepticism from the media and the fans with dire warnings of how it would destroy football.
The reality today could not provide a greater contrast. The Premier league can rightly claim to be the most successful league in the world. So successful that residents of Singapore adjust their sleeping patterns to make sure they get up in the middle of the night to see Premier league football beamed live from England. Indeed any visitor to Asia can hardly miss Premier league or Champions League matches and even in Kolkata’s metro, the only really clean place in that city, you can see endless replays of matches from the Premier League as you wait for a metro.
Indeed such is the Asian appetite for Premier League football that it was the reason for the transformation in manager Jose Mourinho, from the arrogant sounding Special One during his first spell in 2004 – when UEFA branded him ‘the enemy of football’- to the “Happy One” now.
As Ron Gourlay, until recently chief executive of Chelsea told me, “When Jose came back to the club, we went to Asia and it was an eye-opener for him. He had been to Asia before but he hadn’t realised how much the fan base had changed. In Indonesia we had to cancel open training the day before the match because the police couldn’t contain the numbers who had come to the 100,000 seater-stadium. On match night, when Jose walked out, there were 85,000 screaming Chelsea fans and he said, ‘My God.’ Real Madrid couldn’t do this in Indonesia and [Jose realised] that Chelsea had changed dramatically.”
All this means you do not have to leave Europe to see the world’s best players. The result is World Cups may provide us new settings as it did in South Africa and will do so again in Russia and most significantly in Qatar but the players will be nearly all the ones we see every week in some European setting. As for the sort of sensation North Korea provided in 1966 that, like black and white television and footballers limited to earning £10 a week, is history that will never be revived.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback.