Football in the Age of Late Capitalism: Field Notes From the 2016 Euro
Behind a veneer of youthful glamour, the Euro all but groaned under the weight of excess global capital, merciless media scrutiny, hyperprofessionalization, domestic French anxieties, and geopolitics.
If football’s age of innocence can be said to have ended when 39 people lost their lives to hooligan violence in Brussels’ Heysel Stadium during the final of the 1985 European Cup club championship, the European Nations Cup in France this past summer confirmed that the sport is now well into old age. Behind the veneer of youthful Ibiza glamour spun by French Touch guru David Guetta at the opening ceremony concert, the Euro, as it is commonly known, all but groaned under the weight of excess global capital, merciless media scrutiny, hyperprofessionalization, domestic French anxieties, and geopolitics.
Vulnerable as sports writing is to autobiographical projection, skeptical readers will rightfully protest that such jeremiads are typically more symptoms of their aging authors’ longing for youth than diagnoses of true states of affairs. After all, money has been fueling football since its birth as a professional sport in the industrial heartlands of 19th century Britain. Politics and cultural conflict, too, have been insinuating themselves into the beautiful game since the first Rangers-Celtic match projected Scotland’s sectarian divisions onto a crosstown club rivalry and Benito Mussolini seized on the 1934 World Cup to showcase fascism. These same skeptics could also point to the renaissance of possession-based attacking football preached by the coaching likes of Pep Guardiola, enshrined as team philosophy by clubs like FC Barcelona, and embodied by players like Lionel Messi.
I thus owe readers full disclosure: like many 40-somethings whose football coming of age took place in the '70s and '80s, my heart tilts toward slower-paced play, brilliant iconoclasts like Johan Cruyff, the unruly hairstyles they favored, and the cheap ticket prices we paid to see them. As a football-crazed French-American growing up in New York before cable television had begun beaming a constant stream of global football into American homes, I hung on whatever South American and Serie A matches Univision or Rai Italia’s tri-state affiliates deigned to broadcast, studying the occasional back copies of L’Équipe mailed from Paris by a cousin sympathetic to my football-starved plight. The last time France hosted the Euro looms large in this happy football childhood when, in 1984, a splendid squad lifted France’s first silverware and convinced my wide-eyed generation that world-class aesthetic football was somehow a French birthright. My saddest football moment came just a year later, when I skipped out of high school early to watch Liverpool play Juventus in the violence-tainted Heysel match. Never trust a pundit who calques his own life-arc onto the history of the thing he loves.
And yet, on the Euro’s eve, even the most dispassionate observer had to concede that, one year into the worst governance crisis in its history, something was rotten in the world of football. American authorities were already several years into their investigation of corruption inside the sport’s global governing body, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), turning up hard proof of what anyone with eyes to see had sensed for years. While employees of tony Zurich hotels exercised themselves holding up high-thread-count sheets to shield FIFA officials being whisked into police custody from prying telephotos, US prosecutors charged over a dozen with accepting bribes in exchange for marketing and broadcast rights, sponsorship contracts, and awarding World Cups to host nations. Strange irony that the government of a superpower whose citizens had, until quite recently, treated football with splendid indifference, was now taking it upon itself to clean out the sport’s Augean stables. The probe has already brought the jovial Swiss machiavel (and former FIFA head) Sepp Blatter and a number of his attendants down. It's impossible to predict how deeply down the various rabbit holes that are burrowed into football’s corporate sponsors, Persian Gulf paymasters, and national federations the resulting investigations will lead.
One of the most spectacular casualties of the FIFA scandal was also the most conspicuous absence from the Euro 2016’s opening ceremony: Michel Platini, the luminous playmaker whose nine goals in five matches made him the hero of France’s 1984 Euro-winning team and still stand as the greatest individual performance in the tournament’s history; the captain, too, of the Juventus squad witness to the 1985 Heysel disaster. Platini devoted his post-playing career to football governance, co-chairing the organization of the 1998 World Cup in France, before holding various technical positions within FIFA, the European governing body known as UEFA (Union Européenne de Football Association), and the French Football Federation. Platini won election as UEFA president in 2007 on promises to check the mounting influence of wealthier leagues and clubs within European football. Virtually assured of replacing the discredited Blatter as FIFA chief, Platini found himself accused of malfeasance for having accepted a dodgy consulting fee from Blatter over 15 years before. Drawing from memories (and archives) of a lifetime of sharing spoils, Blatter’s last act on the world football stage was thus to topple his rival in an expertly executed piece of scorched-earth political jujitsu. Après moi, le déluge. Banned from football for four years, Platini couldn’t attend any of the matches of a Euro 2016 that he had done more than anyone else to bring to France. (Full disclosure again: Platini’s poster adorned my bedroom wall as a teenager).
Fortunately for the good people at UEFA, the financial arrangements that ensured the Euro would be a handsomely profitable enterprise were all perfectly legal. As with FIFA under Blatter’s fabulously lucrative leadership, UEFA has aggressively extended its control over its tournaments so as to capture and maximize their revenue streams. UEFA held a 54 percent ownership stake in the corporate entity charged with putting on Portugal 2004, the first of the Euros to be organized as a full-fledged business venture (the Portuguese football federation owned the rest); 12 years later, UEFA owns 95 percent of Euro 2016 SAS. The European federation has used this control to transform what had been relatively bare-boned events, organized by loose partnerships of state and local authorities, national federations, and grassroots clubs, into tightly managed, capital-intensive, and carefully-choreographed profit-making spectacles.
To this end, UEFA uses its bargaining clout to lean on host nations for tax breaks and commitments to shoulder operating costs, all the while cultivating direct relationships with sponsors. Consider the remarkably favorable terms UEFA negotiated in exchange for awarding the tournament to France. The European federation agreed to pay for the organization of the tournament narrowly construed -- the cost of stadium rental, ticketing management, and salaries, which amounted to €650 million -- in exchange for all eventual profits. All other costs associated with putting on the Euro -- renovation and construction of stadiums and other infrastructure, the organization of dedicated fan-zones, and security -- fell to national and local governments. So powerful is UEFA that it extracted a full tax exemption on all revenues generated by the Euro from the French government, amounting to a taxpayer-funded subsidy of somewhere between €150 and €200 million. “The 1998 World Cup was without a doubt the last of the previous era,” recalls the former director of marketing for France 98, lamenting that today “All of the rights fall to the international federation, and all the obligations and duties fall to the state and the host cities.”
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This socializing of costs and privatizing of profits helped make Euro 2016 big business. UEFA’s sweetheart deal gave its organizing entity sole ownership of all licensing rights, which it entrusted to IMG, the biggest sports marketing company in the world. Happy to oblige, IMG conjured up a cornucopia of football tchotchkes, flooding a market estimated at €250 million (of which UEFA stood to pocket ten percent in profits) with no less than 6,000 licensed products. Meanwhile, France sank nearly €1.6 billion into building or renovating stadiums for the Euro, financed via public-private partnerships which guaranteed French construction giants like Vinci lucrative long-term revenue streams and saddled municipalities with oversized white elephants and full liability for cost overruns. The bottom line: France 2016 generated an impressive €2 billion in revenue and an even more impressive €900 million in profits. o be sure, UEFA won’t keep it all for itself: over the next five years, the European federation will redistribute most of the money to national federations across Europe (who, it should be noted, elect the UEFA presidents charged with negotiating terms with nations hosting the tournament. Administrators attentive to their own federations’ bottom lines thus have a vested interest in electing UEFA chiefs who will maximize tournament profits).
The Euro’s rebirth as rent-seeking capitalist enterprise has had a tangible impact not just on federations’ cash flow and shareholder value, but also on the tournament as sport and spectacle. In the same way that federations, sponsors, broadcasters, and club owners across Europe have worked since the '90s to take football upmarket, UEFA’s management has transformed a popular festival into an increasingly sanitized commodity, raising ticket prices and directing host nations to build luxury skyboxes and VIP spaces into stadiums to accommodate what former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane dubbed the “prawn sandwich brigade”. This is how the great paradox of European football has come into being. It is supporters’ very fervor -- the intensity of their attachments, and the spectacular theater that their singing, their scarves and banners, and their pyrotechnics conjure up inside stadiums -- that corporate sponsors are so eager to harness to their own brands. But the more sponsors have funneled money into the game, and the more insistently they have appropriated the loud and colorful pageantry of football terraces for their own advertizing, the staider and more socially exclusive real-life stadium audiences have become. Orange flogged its cell phone plans on French television during the Euro with a slogan whose claim to authenticity rested on a simple yet self-defeating equivalency between fan and consumer: “the real supporters are you”.
Football’s neoliberal turn also helps account for France 2016’s puzzling organizational problems. The hexagon has a long history of putting on first-rate international sporting competitions. After all, France invented the Olympics as well as the World and European Cups; the 1998 World Cup was probably the best-organized in the modern era; and the elephant-eared silverplate trophy that the winners of the Euro hoist bears the name of Henri Delaunay, a Frenchman who helped launch both football tournaments. How then to explain the lamentable state of France 2016’s pitches, whose worn, divot-pocked playing surfaces were more befitting a low-division midwinter derby in rain-swept Normandy than a major international showcase? Rather than rely on the perfectly competent grounds crews who ordinarily tend France’s publicly-owned stadiums, UEFA -- which had insisted on retaining full control over every detail of the tournament inside stadium walls -- entrusted the Euro’s grass to an Austrian company, who in turn trucked in ill-adapted sod from Slovakia.