Football has conquered the world. Some of the brightest stars in Portugal this summer will have been born in Africa and Latin America, and top European clubs increasingly sign players from every continent. Martin Jacques talks to players, fans, businessmen and the head of Fifa to discover how globalisation is changing football – for better and worse – and why international competitions may yet save the game from rampant greed
The European Championship was once a lily-white occasion. No longer. The teams of the former great imperial powers, such as England, France and Holland, are today kaleidoscopes of colour, mirrors image of the people who populate their great urban centres. Their sides are ethnically diverse – breathtakingly so in the case of France – a tribute to Africa and the Caribbean as much as Europe itself. When England play France on 13 June, up to half the players on the pitch will be black or brown. The tournament may be called the European Championship, but it is also, at the same time, a global occasion, invigorated and inspired by the rhythms and athleticism of other continents.
European club football has trodden a similar path, but even more so. It is easy to take the diversity of the top European clubs for granted, so familiar has it become. In truth, it is a product of less than a decade. When Alex Ferguson produced his first Premiership winning side in 1993, and the young side that was soon to supplant it, most of the players were white and from these islands, with foreign meaning not much more than Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel. Compare that with the new United side that Ferguson is attempting to build. Even Ferguson, a latecomer to a multi-ethnic, multicontinental side in comparison with, say, Arsène Wenger, is now travelling a similar global route, if rather less spectacularly. Wenger’s genius has been to meld together and feel thoroughly comfortable with players from hugely different ethnic backgrounds.
The bare figures illustrate the metamorphosis. By 2002, England-born players accounted for only 40 per cent of the Premiership. During the 2002-03 season, nine of Real Madrid’s squad of 23 were from outside the country for whose championship they compete; for Milan it was 15 out of 26; for Juventus nine out of 27; for Internazionale 13 out of 25; for Ajax 17 out of 27; for Manchester United nine out of 31; for Arsenal 16 out of 22 and for Bayern Munich nine out of 16. It is estimated that there are now around a thousand African players with European clubs. And the Brazilian Football Confederation claims that a staggering 5,000 Brazilians play professionally outside their homeland.
The result has been a profound change in the culture of European club football. Until the early Nineties, perhaps later, a clear distinction could be drawn between the way football was played in Brazil, in Africa and in Europe. At a national level these differences are still very palpable – as the match between England and Brazil at the 2002 World Cup demonstrated – but at a club level they are becoming much less pronounced because of the increasingly cosmopolitan character of the top teams.
So meet Francisco Filho, the Brazilian under-17 coach for Manchester United: ‘Jo’ to friends and colleagues alike. A Brazilian in charge of United’s precious youth squad: his very presence at the club is testimony to the change. Filho has spent most of his coaching life in France, including many years with the French academy at Clairefontaine, working with players such as Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka. Before that he played football in his native country. His manner is unmistakably Brazilian, possessed with the warmest of smiles and the sunniest of manners. With dark brown skin, he proudly introduced himself to me as a product of globalisation. ‘My father was from the north of Portugal and my mother was a descendant of slaves,’ he told me when I visited the Manchester United training ground. ‘I join two continents. In Brazil I am a mulatto.
‘As players play in different continents,’ Filho argued, ‘there is a decline in national styles. Clubs are now benefiting from a greater variety of national styles in their teams. Manchester United are a Latin club with English characteristics. We pass, we play with the ball on the floor, but we also have the English mentality to fight. With globalisation, European clubs now possess a combination of characteristics, Brazilian, English, African and so on.’
Jorge Valdano, the sporting director of Real Madrid, makes a similar point: ‘Twenty years ago it was easy to say that Latin American football was about technique and talent, and European football was about organisation, speed and fighting spirit. But with television and player transfers, all these trends are coming together.’
The driving force behind European clubs’ growing cosmopolitanism is the rampant commercialisation that has swept football over the past two decades. The annual turnover of Premiership clubs has grown by 500 per cent over 10 years. There have been four key factors: the huge increase in television revenue; the Bosman ruling; the growth of sponsorship and merchandising; and the increasingly professionalised nature of football management. The big clubs have become major businesses in their own right and some, such as Manchester United, as public limited companies, now beat to the rhythm of the Stock Exchange. A new breed of career chief executives, such as United’s David Gill and Peter Kenyon now of Chelsea, has moved into football: they speak the language of the balance sheet and the share price, they see clubs as brands, players as assets, fans as customers and faraway places as markets. José Angel Sanchez is head of marketing for Real Madrid. ‘Eventually,’ he says, ‘you may get just six global brand leaders. People will support a local side and one of the world’s big six. We have to position ourselves for that.’
Last summer, with David Beckham on board, Real toured China, Japan and south- east Asia. Manchester United took the same route a year earlier and last summer repeated the act in the US – spreading the brand to previously untapped markets. ‘We’re content providers,’ Sanchez says, ‘like a film studio – and having a team with Zidane in it is like having a movie with Tom Cruise.’
European clubs, with an eye to the east Asian market, are buying Chinese and Japanese players, though their numbers are still sparse compared with those from Africa and Latin America. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s possible link with Thailand and its Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra – an extraordinary affair – emphatically illustrates the growing importance of the Asian market.
But will these European dreams of world conquest succeed, especially when, as Rogan Taylor, the director of the Football Industry Group at Liverpool University, points out, ‘the traditional driving forces of football have been blood and soil’?
In the early Eighties, I recall asking a middle-aged white guy, a dedicated Arsenal supporter, who worked at a Malaysian restaurant near Highbury, how his team were doing: ‘They are not my team, not with all those wogs.’ For blood read race. In the early Nineties, it was widely felt that the increasing use of foreign players might undermine the support of fans. So far there has been little sign of this. Most club fans are willing to embrace whoever wears the team strip, whatever their colour or nationality, even if the same generosity is not extended to the opposing players.
An extreme example of this phenomenon is the transformation of the Belgian team KSK Beveren: 14 of their squad’s 22 players are from the Ivory Coast and sometimes the whole team consists of Ivorians. The club, who reached this year’s Belgian Cup final, are based in an Antwerp suburb where anti-immigrant feeling and racist attitudes are strong. A local supporter puts it like this: ‘People don’t like the Moroccans in Antwerp but everybody loves our new football team.’
The idea of fostering club loyalty in another country on a faraway continent stretches this notion of identification even further. To state the obvious: recruiting fans in China cannot be based on either blood or soil. Any support or loyalty that can be engendered is inevitably vulnerable to whim and fashion. For the English male, support for a local club is a birthright, a lifetime allegiance. The same is hardly likely to be true for United or Real fans in Shanghai or Kuala Lumpur. Without either blood or soil to appeal to, support is based for the most part on something more fickle: identification with a particular player, such as Beckham, whence Real marketing chief Sanchez’s analogy of the galácticos and Tom Cruise.
It will be impossible, without blood or soil, for the top European clubs to develop anything like the same kind of allegiance and fan base in China and Japan as they enjoy at home. ‘One can exaggerate the likely success of this strategy,’ argues Rogan Taylor. ‘There will be a number of world club brands but they will co-exist with one or several local brands. I don’t think that the efforts of United and others will undermine the possibilities for building clubs like Shanghai Shen Hua.’
If markets are one arm of football’s globalisation, the other is labour. The case of Brazil dramatically illustrates the speed of the transformation in the movement of players. The spiritual home of football ever since they first won the World Cup in 1958, the winners of five World Cups, the only nation to have qualified for every World Cup finals, the very word Brazil is somehow synonymous with football. But the top Brazilians no longer play their club football at home. Every single member of the 1970 World Cup-winning side played for a Brazilian club (though Pelé was subsequently to play in the United States). In the Eighties, players including Socrates, Zico and Falcão signed for European clubs. In the 1990s this trickle became a torrent. More than half the Brazil side that won the 2002 World Cup played for European clubs; Ronaldo, the best of them, has not played in Brazil since he was 17.
It is similar in Africa. The best footballers at the recent African Cup of Nations played for European clubs. The attraction of Europe, for the top Brazilian and African players alike, is obvious: this is where standards are highest and the rewards greatest. Manchester United’s Quinton Fortune made the journey from South Africa to Europe – initially to Tottenham Hotspur – at the age of 14 in 1990. ‘I got £20 a week,’ he told me. ‘Digs with food on the table meant a lot to me in those days.’ After spells at Chelsea, Bruges, Atlético Madrid and Mallorca, he signed for Manchester United in 1999. An extremely pleasant, quietly spoken guy, who under South Africa’s race laws was bizarrely classified as ‘coloured’ because he spoke Afrikaans, Fortune argued: ‘To improve yourself you have to go to Europe. You play against very good players. And financially it is better. You can help the family back home.’
Lucas Radebe used to play for Kaizer Chiefs, a Soweto-based semi-professional side, until he signed for Leeds United in 1994, where he has been ever since, including four seasons as club captain. He was a regular for South Africa and captained the national side in the past two World Cups. ‘You can’t make a big career back home because there is not enough financial support,’ he says. ‘Football is not really professional. You have to go to Europe and play on the big stage. It shows we can compete and this inspires the kids back home. It is the dream of every African player to play in Europe.’
The migration has denuded Africa and Latin America of many of their best players. Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, in an exclusive interview for OSM , described well the effect of this exodus on African football. ‘Without the best players in the leagues, how can we expect strong spectator support? How can we expect sponsors to invest their money into the game at the domestic level? I tell you, it absolutely cripples the domestic leagues. Twenty years ago this was not the case and there was not only great football, but great spectator interest in the African domestic leagues.’
Last December Blatter wrote: ‘Europe’s leading clubs conduct themselves increasingly as neo-colonialists who don’t give a damn about heritage and culture, but engage in social and economic rape by robbing the developing world of its best players.’
This seems like an all too familiar story: globalisation on the terms of the rich world. But it is by no means the whole picture. Football’s distinctive quality, its special brand of magic, is that it both reaffirms the global pecking order and at the same time subverts it. Consider the global football hierarchy. It is immediately obvious that there is one glaring omission. The United States, normally at or near the summit of any global league table, occupies nothing like the same position in football. The reason is well known. Sport is a classic instance of American exceptionalism: its home-bred sports – basketball, American football and baseball – are far more popular than football which, unlike virtually everywhere else, is essentially a middle-class sport, which is bound to limit its popularity.
If the relative absence of the US is one striking feature of football, there is another, even more dramatic and important divergence from the traditional global economic pecking order. At the top of the global football ranking stands Brazil. According to the World Bank figures for 2003, it occupies ninety-fourth position in terms of per capita gross domestic product (measured by purchasing power parity). Argentina lie fifth in Fifa’s most recent world rankings, but 70th in the World Bank hierarchy. Latin American teams such as Uruguay (93rd in the World Bank table) and Paraguay (132nd) also enjoy strong football reputations, while African sides such as Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon – among the poorest countries in the world, lying 195th, 176th and 167th respectively in the World Bank ranking – have performed well in recent World Cups. It is worth recalling that at the last World Cup, Brazil, Turkey and South Korea reached the semi-finals, and Senegal made the quarter-finals.
If money talks – dictates and dominates – at the club level, the World Cup, the apogee of the sport in terms of national competition, acts as a democratic counter-balance, reminding us that the heart and soul of the game belongs not to the bean counters, or the clubs that can afford the biggest transfer fees and the highest wages, but to the most gifted players and the cultures from whence they come. With a wry smile, Manchester United’s Brazilian émigré Jo – Francisco Filho – says: ‘England use power. The mentality is to fight. But as a Latino, my instinct is not to fight but to put the ball behind you. The Africans do nice things with the ball. They take great pleasure in the artistry of football. The German team makes a virtue of efficiency, the Italians of defence – catenaccio – the English of the fighting spirit, but the Brazilians, and sometimes the Africans, have made football into an art form.’
The story of Brazilian football provides an insight not only into Brazil but also into the global spread of the game. In 1959, Gilberto Freyre wrote: ‘The Brazilians play [football] as if it were a dance. This is probably the result of the influence of those Brazilians who have African blood or are predominantly African in their culture, for such Brazilians tend to reduce everything to dance, work and play alike.’
Until the Thirties, blacks and mulattos – mixed race – Brazilians were not allowed to play professional football. It was white only. By the Fifties, growing numbers of black players were at the top clubs: in the 1958 World Cup-winning side there were three blacks and two mulattos. It was the first multiracial side to win the World Cup. Before that the competition was, de facto, an exclusively white domain. And it was the 1958 side that introduced to the world what came to be known as the Brazilian style.
The latter was, essentially, a black tradition. It drew on physical activities with Afro-Brazilian origins such as dance and capoeira, a martial art invented by Angolan slaves (slavery was only abolished in Brazil in 1888), in which there was no bodily contact and the movements were similar to dribbling and the samba. The 1958 side was the moment of black hegemony in Brazilian football, its defining figure was Pelé and every great Brazilian player from then on, white included, instinctively learnt the black idiom of play. As Socrates, a great white Brazilian player from the Eighties, told Alex Bellos in his book Futebol, ‘in reality, there is some black in me’. By this he meant he played football the black way.
Today we are now thoroughly familiar with the idea of black footballers and the aptitude, skills and styles that they have brought to the game. The French national side is predominantly non-white. The racial make-up of the England team is not so dissimilar, even though an England manager in the early Nineties was warned by senior Football Association officials not to pick too many black players. If the 1958 World Cup was exclusively white – with the exception of the Brazilians – the last World Cup, with its many African, Latin American and Asian sides, as well as mixed-race European teams, was mainly non-white.
The preponderant influence of black and brown players speaks to something else about the nature of football, a characteristic that lends the game a persistently subversive, rebellious quality. Football is the game of the poor, the game of the masses, which is why it is increasingly a game of colour: whites, after all, make up less than a fifth of the world’s population. It is played on the streets of Soweto with tin cans for goalposts. It was played in the favelas of Brazil using stuffed socks for a ball. The point about football is that you don’t need any money, just a bit of space and plenty of time to practise. In poor countries, young boys don’t have any money and, in the absence of any other opportunities, have lots of time.
Football shows what the poor are capable of – everywhere – given the chance. At the end of the 19th century, English football was a middle-class game until the working class adopted it and showed the sons of privilege a clean pair of heels. Football offers a level playing field for the poor – and so, while Africa is denied in virtually every other field of human endeavour, in football it promises to be the nursery of some of the greatest players in the world. It is difficult to think of any other walk of life where those not only of African descent but also largely from poor countries are so admired and acclaimed.
It is sometimes suggested that football is a simple game. In reality, it is both simple and complicated. ‘Football,’ argues Francisco Filho, in his disarmingly broken English, ‘is a difficult art. We play with one foot, balance the body, all the time running, your opponent elbowing you, your team-mate running, and you must pass to his next step. It looks easy but you must understand the immense work that lies behind this.’
Some commentators at the time of England’s victory in the rugby World Cup suggested that rugby is a more sophisticated game than football. Its rules – like those of American football – may be more complicated but the skills required of individual rugby players are, on average, rather less. One has 0nly to see the physique of the typical rugby forward to see the premium placed on a certain kind of pugilism. In comparison, the skills of such as Maradona or Pelé, Garrincha or Zidane are those of a truly great artist, honed by the intense competition of the world’s most popular sport, unlike rugby, which remains an elite and minority sport and, consequently, overwhelmingly white.
Football, then, presents us with a paradox. Many of the greatest players – Pelé, Eusebio, Maradona, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Okocha – have been and are from developing countries. In future, this is likely to become more, rather than less, true as the top European clubs intensify their recruitment of Latin American and African players. As the World Cup finals become progressively more representative of these continents in terms of both teams and choice of venue, then Latin American, African and Asian sides are likely to become increasingly successful. What price an African winner at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa? This is the story of football’s democratic potential. It is the positive side of football’s globalisation.
The other stands in contradistinction. The accretion of wealth by the top European clubs has reduced even the great Latin American clubs such as Vasco da Gama, Santos, Boca Juniors and River Plate to financial minnows. There is not one non-European club in the world’s top 30 clubs measured by revenue. Increasingly these clubs are being reduced to a satellite role in relation to the top European clubs. Many of the leading Latin American clubs use the revenue from transferring their players to European clubs simply to stay in business. Boca Juniors raised $12million (£6.7m) on the Argentinian stock exchange by floating a fund that promised investors a cut from the future sale of certain named players.
As the best players move to Europe, support is dwindling, with attendance at Brazilian club games falling by 40 per cent over the past 15 years. The lure of the euro and the pound is encouraging corruption. Unscrupulous agents and club bosses queue up to take a cut from selling the latest promising player to one of Europe’s major clubs. One of the best ways to ‘sell’ a player is to have him picked for the Brazilian national team. It is widely believed that the reason so many players are chosen for the many friendlies that Brazil stage is to make them more attractive to European clubs.
If Europe is putting the big squeeze on Latin America, a continent with a long football history and well established clubs and leagues, then Africa is even more vulnerable. Although football has been played on the continent since the colonial period, professional football is a recent phenomenon and the clubs are financially fragile, with very small revenue flows. If the club situation is serious in Latin America, it is dire in Africa. Every member of the Senegal team at the last World Cup played club football outside Senegal, all except two in France, with just one of the reserve goalkeepers still with a home-based club.
There are more than 150 football training centres in Senegal run by a body called the Association of Football School Managers whose sole purpose is to find and export football talent. The best known, Aldo Gentina, is funded by Monaco. Ajax now own a feeder club – Ajax Capetown – in South Africa and the top European clubs are going down a similar path, scouring the continent to find the best young players, who have the added advantage that they come cheap compared with home-grown ones. The worst abuses have been constrained by a Fifa ruling in 2001 that prevents European clubs from recruiting players below the age of 18: what happened to Quinton Fortune when he was 14 would no longer be allowed. But, as in Latin America, big money is fostering corruption among both clubs and agents.
‘Clearly the domestic leagues have suffered,’ says Blatter. ‘Do young Africans grow up dreaming of playing for the top clubs in Cameroon, South Africa or Nigeria? Some, perhaps, but most see those leagues, if anything, as a stepping stone to Europe.’
That the best African players work in Europe not only harms the domestic leagues, it also creates serious problems for Africa’s national teams. When Nigeria organised a training camp last December in Portugal in preparation for the African Nations Cup, 41 players were invited but only eight attended. Managers such as Sam Allardyce (Jay-Jay Okocha), Arsène Wenger (Kanu) and David Pleat (Freddie Kanouté) publicly expressed their frustration about the recent African Cup of Nations and sought to delay the departure of their players until the last possible moment. Imagine them behaving in the same way towards Euro 2004.
Yet African national sides can play an important role in the future of their countries. This is a continent where the nation state enjoys a fragile existence – not least because of the way in which European powers originally drew their borders. Many of these countries are extremely multi-ethnic in composition and burdened with the tensions that such diversity often entails. The national football team can be a source of pride, identity and cohesion. It is a precious asset in a continent where there are few to call upon. ‘The best way to unite the country,’ says Radebe, ‘is through the football team.’ Mark Fish, the South Africa defender who plays for Charlton, recalls Nelson Mandela telling him and Radebe: ‘Sports personalities – especially football players – are more important than politicians because people look up to them.’
At the heart of the globalisation of football lies not simply a paradox but a conflict about the future of the game. On the one side are the European clubs whose commercial power has been transformed and which – whether they are a plc, like Manchester United, or the creature of the super-rich such as Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan or Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea – seek to shape the sport in their own image and in their own interests. At the domestic level, Manchester United treat the FA, which presides over the national game, with barely concealed contempt. At a European level, the G-14 – now comprising the richest 18 European clubs – tried to tear up the present arrangements for European club competition and create a European super-league, composed solely of themselves, from which none of them would ever be relegated. At a global level, the G-14 have asked to be compensated for allowing their players to compete for their national teams. Such a proposal would undermine the national bodies of the European game and wreck the African teams. It is utterly self-serving and would do huge damage to the game at a national level. This, one assumes, is part of the intention.
The other side of football is composed of the national teams, continental competitions such as the European Championship and the African Nations Cup, and the World Cup. The globalisation of the game has been driven not only by the clubs but also by the extraordinary success of the World Cup (its final is the world’s most watched sporting event, the last one commanding an audience of 1.7 billion). The best players in the world compete for their national sides on the greatest sporting stage of all, with a remuneration that is a fraction of what most receive from their clubs. While club football is increasingly dominated by Europe, the World Cup is moving in the opposite direction. Until 1990, it was exclusively held in Europe and Latin America. Fifa recently agreed, however, that from 2010 it would be staged on different continents on a rotational basis. The competing nations, meanwhile, become ever more numerous and diverse, with the successful sides drawn, in contrast to club competition, from an ever-wider range of continents and countries.
If club football is a largely negative expression of globalisation, then the World Cup speaks to its progressive potential. It remains to be seen how the growing conflict between these trends will evolve. If the rich European clubs triumph, the democratic potential of football will be distorted and stunted. If national sides and the World Cup can resist the forces of avarice, however, then football can come to occupy a new and even more elevated position in the global imagination.
Euro 2004 will serve to remind us all that, whatever the appeal of club football, the attention and support that national sides command is of a quite different order. Much as we may admire Arsenal or Manchester United, their support is very limited compared with that which will be shown towards England, or, for that matter, the other national sides. These are the reasons to be hopeful about the future of football.