sport

Gareth Bale: it's neoliberalism gone mad!

Spending £86million on one footballer may be bonkers, but it only testifies to the global popularity of football.

The media has developed a set of non-standard units of measurement over the years. Things like ‘this pool of sewage waste is the size of 15 football pitches’ or ‘the Amazon rainforest is shrinking by the equivalent of the size of Wales every year’. To this pantheon of not-very-helpful units of measurement, we should surely add the Gareth Bale.

Thanks to the Welsh wizard becoming the world’s most expensive footballer, for whom Real Madrid have paid Spurs £86million, we now have a suitable embodiment of a large amount of money. So, for example, when Nokia’s mobile phones division was bought by Microsoft this week, the price was £4.6 billion, or 53 GBs. Welfare secretary Iain Duncan Smith has had to explain to parliament why almost 0.5 GBs has been wasted in implementing his Universal Credit scheme. I’m waiting for the Euromillions man to declare that the next lottery jackpot is a WHOLE GARETH BALE. ‘Make your dreams come true! You can afford a talented footballer with exquisitely bad dress sense!’

Indeed, there has been much handwringing about the scale of money changing hands for footballers during the summer transfer window. This year’s sum total spent on transfers was a whopping 7.33 GBs (or £630million in old money). Even Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger shooed the moths away from the club’s rarely opened wallet to blow £42.4million on Mesut Ozil. When money is flying around like that, how can the little clubs compete? It’s neoliberalism gone mad, etc.

Well, some people tend to find neoliberalism wherever they look for it. In reality, football’s finances are an odd mix of new money, old politics and globalised business - and it’s probably a lot better for having a few quid thrown at it.

The new money is coming from billionaires looking for somewhere to spend all the money they have made from digging stuff up. Over the past few years, football has moved into the same realm as skyscrapers and fine art as a way for stupendously rich people to bury some cash - people like Roman Abramovich (Chelsea),  Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s Abu Dhabi group (Manchester City), Qatar Investment Authority (Paris Saint-Germain) and Dmitry Rybolovlev (AS Monaco) have bought big. Our beautiful game has just been turned into a plaything for the rich and powerful, right?

Then there’s old politics. Bale’s transfer was to a club already £505million in debt and being propped up by Spanish banking conglomerate, Bankia. This has led to a Belgian politician making a complaint about the transfer to the EU authorities, who only a couple of years ago forked out €19billion Euros to bailout Bankia. But Real Madrid, General Franco’s club, have always had a favoured status in Spain. While other Spanish clubs have been offloading talent, Madrid can still buy big.

And then there’s globalised business. It’s certainly true that the English Premier League doesn’t have many British owners left, and those clubs that are owned by Brits are mostly shoving their hands down the back of the sofa searching for loose change. But the English Premier League is only ‘English’ in the sense that the games are played in England (with the exception of Cardiff and Swansea). Otherwise, in commercial terms, it has become the world league, just as the NBA is the world league of basketball. English clubs have spent the past few years selling both themselves and their product around the world, particularly in fast-growing Asian economies without strong leagues of their own.

No wonder then that Manchester United (the Glazers), Liverpool (John Henry) and Arsenal (Stan Kroenke) are all owned by US sports magnates. Football is big business, fuelled by flogging satellite-TV subscriptions, broadband, replica shirts and lots more paraphernalia. True, the ability of billionaires to buy a club and spend without much thought to profitability skews the picture, but what is really driving football finances is a more professional approach to marketing the game and a business model that allows clubs to make far more money through TV rights than was possible 20 years ago. A lot of people around the world watch football now, so it is no surprise that it is coining in the same kind of money as movies or music.

Does this mean, as some suggest, that the game is now boring, with the same few clubs always at the top of the pile? Maybe. On the other hand, an injection of cash can turn moderate teams into giants. Those billionaires have taken underachieving teams and pushed them into a position to win silverware. It wasn’t so long ago that Manchester City were playing in England’s third tier.

But money isn’t everything. Liverpool, once the dominant club in Europe, are now playing catch up after years of mismanagement and underinvestment despite regularly appearing in the list of the richest clubs in the world. Chelsea may have won the Champions League a couple of years ago, but also managed to finish fifth in England the same season, thanks to a chop-and-change approach to managers. Arsenal, ‘untouchable’ in 2004, haven’t touched silverware for eight years. There is no guarantee of success, particularly when it comes to European competition when clubs are slugging it out against other giants.

And since when did the little guys ever challenge consistently for honours? Only Blackburn in 1995 managed to break the grip of the really big clubs in the Premier League, and that success was built on the largess of a rich man who couldn’t keep blowing money forever. The list of English league champions shows just a handful of clubs having won the title since the early Sixties, a situation reflected in Europe’s other big leagues. A bit of variety would be nice, but the fact is that without a sheikh or an oligarch with deep pockets, the globalisation of football means new challengers to the established brands will remain rarer than England World Cup wins (especially with the FA’s grand plan announced this week to win the big one in, er, 2022). Indeed, it’s the billionaires who have shaken up football’s pecking order more than anything in living memory.

If you think football has been corrupted by money, stop watching it, or at least stop paying for it. Cancel the satellite subscription, tell your kids they’re not getting those extortionately priced replica shirts. Find something else to do. But leave it out with the cod politics.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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