Football, the most popular sport on the planet, is undergoing a rough transition. Once the messiah of the underdogs, the game is now being overtaken by corrupt organizations that regularly bend their own rules to favor the rich clubs. The injection of an obscene amount of money into the sport, courtesy of billionaire Sheikhs and businessmen, has brought down ‘the beautiful game’ on its knees. The Saudi-led Newcastle United takeover that rocked the world on October 7 could very well be the final straw. All we can do now is sit and speculate: in which direction is football headed if any at all?
To say that the world of football has had an interesting year would be an understatement. At the helm of the overwhelming list of shocking developments is the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United, the historically refined Premier League club.
On October 7, 2021, Newcastle United finally heaved a sigh of relief that it had been holding for 14 difficult, strenuous years of glory-deprived failures as Mike Ashley finally bid his long-overdue farewell to the club fans. The billionaire-owner is replaced by a Saudi Public Investment Fund over a 300-million euros deal, leaving the fans celebrating jubilantly outside St. James Park, the club stadium.
Backed by an unparalleled financial might, Newcastle United are now the world’s richest football club by a mile as per the reports of several media outlets like Daily Mail UK, with their owners stroking a fortune that is estimated to be 10 times more than that of Sheikh Mansour, owner of the erstwhile richest club in Manchester City. To give you an idea of how scary the figure is, Newcastle United’s owners are 50 times richer than Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the president/owner of Paris Saint-Germain, which, arguably, has the most valuable lineup in world football.
Albeit an ecstatic day for the residents of St. James Park, October 7 could very well be the beginning of the sport’s demise. The trend of billionaires taking over football clubs to fulfill their dream projects of winning the highest accolades the footballing world can offer has not been favorable to the sport. The introduction of the infamous ‘Oil Clubs’ in Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain following their takeover is a tell-tale sign of the dangerous over-commercialization of the game. These two clubs alone have brought about massive tremors across the footballing continent, leaving the transfer market rattled with massive inflations. It is now common to see an average player being sold to a footballing giant for a transfer fee of more than 100-million euros; a trend that is crippling modest, mid-table clubs into incompetency.
The Beginning of the Downfall: Neymar’s Transfer to PSG
In 2011, the Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) announced their successful financial takeover of Paris Saint-Germain, placing Nasser Al-Khelaifi at the helm of the French club. From then on, Nasser vigorously worked on his project of converting PSG into a footballing powerhouse. The breakthrough finally arrived in 2017, when PSG stole the footballing star Neymar Jr. from FC Barcelona for a record fee of 222-million euros, a sum that no other club could match till date.
The deal shook the entire transfer market, recording ginormous inflations on the Richter scale. Before 2017, the transfer window was a fairly competitive affair, with clubs at each stratum of the football hierarchy participating actively to reinforce their respective squads. Earlier, the transfer budget of a club was determined by their overall income that they raked in through various footballing operations. With the arrival of oligarchs, sheiks, and external investors, these clubs suddenly had unreasonable amounts of money at their disposal. This created a ripple effect across the entire industry, leaving the transfer market a luxury that only the richest clubs could afford.
Financial Fair Play: The Law that was meant to Protect
The Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules are a set of regulations that were put in place to ensure that football clubs could only spend a limited amount of money based on their overall income. The FFP was supposed to be the savior of football, keeping the mid and low-tier clubs from dissolving into a sport dominated by the rich. It allowed the transfer market to remain competitive, and incentivized the supporters to help their clubs financially by buying their merchandise, tickets, and so on.
Unfortunately, the corrupt organizations that have established a monopoly over the sport gave a free pass to clubs like PSG several times. The club didn’t incur any penalties even after spending an unfathomable amount of money over player transfers and their wage bills. Recently, UEFA, the leading European football organization, is even planning to scrap the Financial Fair Play laws to “give the clubs more freedom over what they spend”. With FFP gone for good, football will officially become the sport for the rich, straying further away from its intrinsic roots of being the comfort zone for the marginalized.
The European Super League – A Necessary Evil?
The evils of state-sponsored clubs like Paris Saint-Germain have not eluded the attention of prominent footballing figures. Florentino Pérez, president of Real Madrid C.F., inaugurated the idea of the European Super League, announcing it to the world through a press release on 18 April 2021.
Pérez started discussing the creation of the European Super League with other footballing giants in Spain, England, and Italy. His determination to found the ESL was reinforced by his apprehension of the growing financial superiority of the so-called ‘Oil Clubs’ like Manchester City and PSG. To counter their economic prowess, Pérez wanted a breakaway competition that would not only provide adequate financial backing to the participating clubs but also dismantle the monopoly of UEFA and FIFA in world football.
A bitter clash ensued between the 13 participating ESL clubs and other footballing organizations that wanted the conservative structure to continue. Many lawsuits were filed, following which 10 of the 13 clubs backed out from participating leaving only Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Juventus in the fray. Pérez refused to budge and forced UEFA to retract all their court proceedings against the creation of the European Super League.
The introduction of ESL is still inevitable, with Pérez and other founders working on a more comprehensive format to win the trust of the fans who were originally indignant about the exclusive nature of the European Super League.
Nobody can tell whether the formation of the European Super League was inspired by a concern for football’s rapidly deteriorating nature. One thing is for sure, you can’t dehumanize the founders of the ESL while worshipping corrupt organizations like UEFA and FIFA.
At the very least, everyone at the top of the footballing hierarchy is trying to dethrone the beautiful game with their self-centered and money-hungry agendas. The tip of all the spears is pointed at the neck of the aghast football fans who are bathing in tears of nostalgia, calling for K’naan and Shakira to whisper their World Cup 2010 songs one last time before the memories fade out.
Anzal Khan is a student pursuing Bachelors in Commerce from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Reda Aamna