The stadium of struggle: when capital masquerades as football

International football has been drastically reworked by global capital over the last three decades into a site of immense inequity. The hypocrisies of the recent World Cup urge us to see how the space of football, led by the forces of capital, is now ripe for insurrection.

Akash Bhattacharya
15 July 2014

Black Bloc protests against FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Demotix/Juliana Spinola. All rights reserved.

Brazil has made history at the 2014 World Cup – not on the pitch, but off it. Over a million protested against the human costs of staging the World Cup, even as the game went on inside the stadium, more spectacular than ever. Global football, drastically restructured by capital over the last thirty years, is a site of immense violence. While the machinations of capital have led to a concentration of talent in the elite clubs of western Europe, allowing them to produce football of the “highest quality”, it has maimed other traditions. The top end of the football industry floats in money even as the lower levels remain rife with myriad exploitative practices.

Building the empire

Football’s links with capital have developed hand in hand with the larger shifts in the global political economy. The era of the welfare state and regulated domestic markets maintained a maximum wage ceiling of £20 in the first division of the English football league, which was the average wage for a British worker at that time. The ceiling remained in place till 1961.The 1960s witnessed a new assertiveness from third world countries – in the United Nations as well as in the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA): the governing body of global football. With their emergence as a voting bloc, Joao Havalange of Brazil launched a successful bid for the post of FIFA President in 1974, with the express agenda of accommodating third world interests and taking the game to new frontiers.

Havalange needed money to fulfil his election promises: an expanded World Cup to accommodate 24 teams instead of 16 (as was the case until 1970), and new tournaments like the FIFA Youth World Cup. Coca Cola and Adidas emerged as willing sponsors. FIFA’s expansion plans were tied to that of multinational corporations right from the beginning. With the alliance in place and the reach of television expanding rapidly, the industry was fundamentally transformed. By the 1986 Mexico World Cup, advertisement and television rights had replaced the returns from ticket sales as the mainstay of FIFA’s revenues.

The incredible growth of the industry in the 1990s was not the doing of FIFA alone. Around the same time the richest and most successful European clubs forged an alliance to emerge as the centres towards which the best players and coaches from across the globe gravitated. It was the early 1990s when a truly expansive market for football came within sight, as the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and the richest European clubs like Real Madrid CF of Spain and AC Milan of Italy, began to work together to maximize their profits by restructuring the European Cup. Up until 1992, the European Cup was a competition between the champions of the European domestic leagues. But in 1992, UEFA rebranded the European Cup as the UEFA Champions League, with major changes. The participating clubs ceded the broadcasting rights of their matches (of the tournament) to UEFA which arranged for centralized broadcasting through its new media partner Team Marketing AG. In return they received fixed payments for participation which increased with qualification for each successive stage of the competition. The new media partner, through aggressive and innovative marketing, maximized the revenues from the competition, vastly improving the prize money, which made participation in the Champions League a profitable affair.

UEFA allowed the leading clubs to corner the profits by granting a larger share of the Champions League seats to the leading national leagues: England, Spain, Italy, Holland, France and Portugal. Earlier, each club had to win their domestic league in the previous season in order to gain entry into the European Cup for the next season. By permitting multiple entries from the big leagues (now up to four teams from Italy, England and Spain), UEFA guaranteed the participation of the big clubs. Their almost-guaranteed participation made marketing easier: those “star” clubs (Manchester United FC and Chelsea FC of England, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF of Spain, AC Milan and Juventus FC of Italy) could emerge as the faces of the competition. With huge prize money, they could buy the best playing and coaching talents of the world, regularly finish in the top end of their domestic leagues and repeatedly compete in the Champions League. Their continued presence as “star” teams would in turn help to expand the profits for their sponsors, UEFA and themselves. The domination of the big clubs continues, while a few fortunate to have been bought by millionaires, often from the Middle-East, have entered the elite group. The result: monopoly of the big clubs over the production and distribution of “quality football”, showcased in the Champions League.  

Lost arts, myriad exploitation

The inequality produced by the concentration of 'quality' in a few European centres has had a detrimental effect on other football traditions, reconfiguring them as the periphery of global football. Whatever the circumstances of initiation in different parts of the world, football has historically allowed different styles – art forms, indeed – to grow and prosper. The styles often shared a deep organic link with the societies that produced them. For example, the compulsion of barefoot football (no money to buy boots!) inspired a specific style. Capital has weakened that organic link and integrated them into new 'global' networks – with western Europe as the centre. Brazil provides an obvious example. The Brazilian tradition appears to have emerged towards the middle of the twentieth century. Most footballers, coming from half-famished families in slums, barely had the strength to play hard-tackle football like the Europeans. Each one of them became the “malandro” of Brazilian folklore – the trickster who breaks the rules without being caught. Through shrewd body movements, clever dribbling, back-heel passes and bicycle kicks, they dazzled their way to victory in the World Cups of 1958, 1962 and 1970. 

Brazil won the World Cup again in 1994 by playing what some of their countrymen called “bureaucratic football” – more muscular than artistic. There have been sparks and flashes since then, but the “Brazil of old” is a nostalgic term in mainstream football discourse. When Brazil truly displayed the art of “malandragem” on the world stage for the last time in the 1982 World Cup, only one of the 22 member squad played his club football in Europe. In comparison, the star players in the next generation – Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, and now Neymar – have all departed for Europe in their early twenties. Integrating themselves into their club cultures, most players either don’t complete their schooling in the indigenous art form, or play little part in enriching them as practitioners. Latin America, as Tim Vickery puts it, is now a player-exporting country and its people are deprived of watching quality football in their backyards. The organic link between the star footballers and their society is weakened.

The former World Bank economist Branco Milanovic argues that when players from different continents play together for the European clubs, poor countries can capture some of their “leg drain” and harness the forces of efficiency and inequality unleashed by globalization for their benefit. This hardly holds true for Latin American players; vibrant football cultures in their own countries have historically enabled them to beat Europeans with ease. But since 1990, African teams, with many of their players based in European clubs, have managed to trouble European and Latin American teams in international tournaments. Memorably, Senegal, with 20 out of 22 in the squad based at French clubs, beat France 1-0 in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup – a defeat that eventually sent France, the defending champions, home after the first round.

Has Africa really joined the party? If truth be spoken, since the breakthrough of African football on the global stage with Cameroon in 1990, it has stagnated. African teams reached the quarter final on two other occasions – Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 – but no African team has reached the semi-final in six attempts since 1990 despite several Africans playing in the top tier of European football. Migrant Africans learning their football in European youth systems often choose to represent the European countries over their native ones, draining Africa of its resources. “Equalization” remains an unfulfilled promise; it happens only on Europe’s terms.

In the bottom rungs of the football industry, there exist myriad forms of exploitation – low wages, poor working conditions and cheating contractors. From 2012 to 2013, Zahir Belounis, a French footballer, remained stranded at Doha in Qatar as his club Al-Jaish had refused to grant him an exit permit over a pay dispute. He was a victim of the “kafala system” prevalent in Qatar and Saudi Arabia in which the employers can easily detain their employees by denying them exit permits. Belounis reported after his release that the system engenders severe exploitation and domestic workers are the most abused. Recruitment agencies often dupe migrant workers, including footballers, who are then trapped for years. At the bottom levels, there is great insecurity and low economic and social benefits obtained from contracts with clubs, in terms of wages and social status. The industry today remains largely immune to radical activism through the players’ unions or otherwise.

The stadium of struggle

The universal popularity of football and its enabling role in identity-formation is appropriated to foster an image of football as something that exceeds the game. Yet the excess is tolerated only so far as it serves, or at least does not harm the interests of capital.

Over the last ten years, FIFA and the regional football associations have promoted the use of football for “social development”. In 2007, FIFA and the football governing bodies of North, Central and Latin America signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to jointly invest in projects for “the development of life skills among youth, violence prevention and the improvement of education and employment opportunities.” Such efforts, though valuable in themselves, do help to draw attention away from the culpability of FIFA and the big clubs for unjust labour practices that often create the exact problems that the football powers hope to partially solve through football. While FIFA and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have vowed to wave a “red card to child labour”, Nike and Adidas, widely reported to indulge in such practices, continue to sponsor the industry.

Brazil 2014 has exposed the hypocrisy more clearly than ever. We have been told that football must be played even when it stands in the way of wider efforts for “social development”. When the protestors in Brazil argued that the World Cup was taking away the money required for improving health and education facilities, the FIFA President asked them not to use football to voice their protests.

While the power brokers promote football as an agent of hope, peace and unification, it remains the site where social divisions are manifested in the most violent fashion. The solution is simple: eliminate the “lower class” fans likely to foment trouble. The “clean up” act shifts the tensions out of the high profile stadium, so that “quality football” in pristine settings can be broadcast worldwide, ensuring safety for the profiteers and credit for the administrators. At the iconic Maracana stadium of Rio de Janerio reconstructed for the World Cup (in line with FIFA directives), the “geral” — the cheap standing area occupied by Rio’s most ardent football fans – has been removed. The reshaping of stadia and the high pricing of tickets has effectively excluded the poor part of the population from attending games.

Away from the manicured world of mainstream football, there have been scattered efforts to constitute alternative football cultures in the recent past. Republica Internationale F.C., based in Leeds, UK, calls itself a “socialist football team” and uses only fair trade sports goods, including footballs. In 2005, they vowed never to buy from corporate giants like Nestle, McDonald’s, Nike, or Coca Cola. In 1998, the club participated in an Alternative World Cup that featured ideologically like-minded teams from across Europe, including Germany, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania and Britain. Initiatives like this call for support and imaginative replication.

Capital murders the past by inducing passive nostalgia. Those of us in opposition recall the past not to glorify what was but to wonder what might be. We recall the episodes of radical activism around issues both internal and external to football, not least in the top tier of the profession. In 1984, when Brazil was ruled by a military dictator, Sport Club Corinthians Paulista of Sao Paolo witnessed a movement for democracy – both within and outside the game. Some if its members initiated the Corinthians Democracy to undo the authoritarian structures within the club: the democratic practice of employing polls to decide everything concerning the group.

Corinthians won the state championship in 1982 with “Democracia” printed on their shirts and before the 1983 state championship final the whole team paraded around the pitch with a banner that asserted: winning or losing, but always with democracy. The movement, calling for democracy both in the football world and in wider society, became a part of the struggle to end dictatorial rule in Brazil. Socrates, one of its leaders, became an icon of democracy. He declared: ““My political victories are more important than my victories as a professional player. A match finishes in 90 minutes, but life goes on.” To cede the space of football to the forces of capital is to let go of an arena of struggle that has a global resonance today. 

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