Greed has brought football to the brink of implosion – now the entire structure could collapse

In the early Nineties, a group of European football figures travelled to the US to garner some advice on how to grow the game, only to be given a warning by one of the American sports officials.

“If you think you’ve got problems now, wait until you start making money.”

It was counsel that has come to describe football in 2023.

The game’s giddy embrace of late-stage capitalism has made it an immense financial and cultural force. To the point, the major American sports are now said to be “petrified” of its growing US influence ahead of the 2026 World Cup. The build-up to that, and the sport’s final and full global takeover, might nevertheless bring a breaking point in football history. That is because – as with so much in late-stage capitalism – the opulent top end is better off than ever before but the rest has never been worse. The game has grown to a size where it is this gleaming cultural monolith but one filled with several structural faultlines.

Some of these have been revealed and widened by major stories of the last few weeks, only signalling how close we may be to something very significant.

It has led influential figures in the sport to wonder whether this build-up to 2026 will bring a “Big Short” moment, where the centre can no longer hold.

The primary problem, as predicted, is the financial size of football. Or, rather, where all that money goes.

A series of key decisions over decades – from the expansion of the Champions League to the evasion of Rule 34 in England – have seen the game rise to a height where it is an almost unscalable ladder. A number of tiers are now built in, which fatally stretch resources if you want to rise up, and have also killed competitiveness in so many competitions and leagues. A series of studies show that football has never been so predictable at club level. You only have to look at how Bayern Munich dominate Germany or Paris Saint-Germain dominate France.

The other side to this is that it increases global interest in this narrow band of clubs, at the expense of everything else, in a self-perpetuating cycle.

These problems have been significantly widened by the most extreme effect of this, and what arguably represents the greatest existential threat to the game. That is the interest of autocratic states, who have seen the immense social and political power of football that stems from its global financial size. So much is articulated in Qatar’s attempt to buy Manchester United, which is a moment of enormous consequence for the game.

While the main concern with this should be how the identities of these great institutions are politically used for issues as grave as sportswashing human rights abuses, the most visible effect is that on the sport itself. It stretches this ladder to even higher levels. This was one of the main calculations by PSG in buying Neymar, since they knew the inflation of prices and wages would mean only a few clubs could compete, and many others would bankrupt themselves trying. It is exactly what has happened.

The human rights group Fair Square last week forensically articulated a core flaw in the government’s white paper that is attempting to regulate football governance, pointing out in a letter how the document’s failure to even mention addressing state-owned or influenced clubs means the outlined goal of “systemic stability” “simply isn’t possible”.

Many in football and politics point out how such omissions are an intention of the Conservative government, given how open they were to Saudi Arabia buying Newcastle United and now Qatar owning Manchester United. That political value has forced just one more crack in the monolith.

The wreckage left behind by all of this has meanwhile led to other concerning interests seeking to exploit the game, principally in the form of private equity funds.

Aside from the fact the source of such funds can be so opaque, and lead to greater questions, many figures caution how “the interests of such funds are totally at odds with what sport is supposed to be about”.

Uefa cannot be fit for purpose if it is both a regulator and competitor in football’s financial arms race

They have started to gain controlling portions of competitions and major clubs. That is a direct consequence of the financial stress on so many football institutions, especially under the weight of the true globally popular events like the Premier League. Empty husks dominate football’s landscape. Many have been forced into desperate measures to survive.

Most troublingly – and in a development that led directly to the white paper – a number of core community clubs are now under threat, but that poison ivy has started to crawl up the game. You only have to look at Barcelona’s current financial structure and how they are propped up. They are one of a series of major clubs that look like they are almost primed to topple over, all because they are forever striving for the finance at the top of the game.

An almost tragic irony is that much of this comes from the self-defeating greed of such clubs, as well as the total failure of governing bodies to handle them. Consider two twists of history. In 1992, Rangers were one of the main influences driving the new Champions League, which only came about because of the threat of a super league. The Ibrox club have now become one of its main victims, their TV market just too small to compete in a world inflated by such money.

On a grander scale, so much of the current football landscape was driven by Barcelona and Real Madrid. They then found they didn’t like what that landscape looked like, so sought to set up the first ill-fated European Super League.

Cracks are starting to appear in football’s very structure

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