FOR a month, starting on June 11th, the eyes of half the world will be rolling in exasperation, boredom or indifference. The eyes of the other half will be glued to television and computer screens in living rooms, bars and (admit it) offices, watching soccer matches beamed from South Africa. The FIFA World Cup, the biggest international festival of the most popular sport on the planet, is about to kick off.
Because a vast, global audience is worth a fortune in broadcasting and marketing rights, FIFA, football’s global governing body, can expect a healthy profit from Africa’s first World Cup, even though it recently had to find an extra $100m to make sure everything would be ready on time. Citigroup, a bank, estimates that the previous tournament, in Germany in 2006, yielded $1.8 billion. Most of what FIFA makes is reinvested in the game–for example, in coaching youngsters.
The players in South Africa are employed not by FIFA or the 200-odd national federations affiliated to it but by clubs, chiefly in Europe. Some, such as Lionel Messi, of Barcelona and Argentina, joined their clubs as boys. There are few other industries in which businesses must lend their employees to a higher authority, but FIFA obliges clubs to do just that. In effect, FIFA and its affiliates can use their monopoly over football to borrow clubs’ best assets (and sometimes return them tired or damaged). Like it or not, the clubs must comply.
Players must be released not only for the World Cup and its qualifying matches, but also for regional tournaments and friendlies (matches unrelated to a competition). Clubs face losing players to international calls from all parts of the globe, not just to their own national teams. The damage to the club can be severe. Michael Essien, a Ghanaian star, has not played for Chelsea, his London club, since being crocked in training for the Africa Cup of Nations in January. It is not the first time he was injured while playing for his country. He is missing the World Cup too.
Over half of the non-Europeans in South Africa play for European clubs. There is even a North Korean, who plays in Russia. European clubs are the biggest employers of the talent in South Africa. Of the 736 players in the 32 final squads, 545 are with European teams; 385 ply their trade in the five richest leagues (though not always in the top division).
The conflict between club and country is one of the oldest in football. But as more money has flowed into the game, players have become much more valuable. Football’s labour market, like many others, has become globalised. Internazionale, the Milanese team that last month won the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s premier club competition, took the field without a single Italian. And the number of important international matches has risen. South American countries have had to play 18 games in qualifying for recent World Cups; for 1990 they played only four.
National calls can be ducked occasionally. It is remarkable how often players sustain a slight injury on the eve of a friendly. A few years ago Europe’s leading clubs seemed to be prepared to contemplate a breach with FIFA. But the success of the Champions League, created by UEFA, the European confederation, has changed this: it provides leading clubs with more games and hence more money. Another factor is that most players gladly pull on the national shirt, especially for a World Cup. Keeping your staff happy is good management.
These days the European Club Association (ECA), founded in 2008, prefers a different approach. In the ECA’s first year it agreed with FIFA and UEFA on a system of payments for players in the World Cup and UEFA’s quadrennial tournament. For the World Cup, all clubs–not just in Europe–will receive about $2,000 per player per day, amounting to $40m in all. This is styled not as compensation but as “a reward for the contribution to the success of the tournament”. This may be tiny for behemoths like Barcelona or Chelsea, but helps poorer clubs.
There is no similar deal for other regional tournaments, such as the Copa America, in South America, and the African cup. These take place every two years; worse, the African event is in the middle of the European season (though it is now a little more conveniently timed).
Coaches still grumble, but clubs do not want to fight over the African confederation’s main source of revenue. Non-European players are not asked to travel outside the continent for friendlies more than once a season–which explains why teams such as Argentina and Brazil sometimes play in Europe. And clubs gain if their players do well on the international stage and go up in value. But bones of contention remain, notably insurance. It is bad enough having your business’s assets broken by strangers who pay little for the privilege; even worse when you must cover the risk.
The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz pursuing Economics (1st Yr.) from Ramjas College, University of Delhi. Football is his religion. Â Writing has always been one of his areas of interest.