​How Football Explains Capitalism

As football becomes increasingly corporatised, certain phenomena in the game begin to reflect some of the fundamental functions and theories of our planet's dominant economic system

by Aleks Eror
Oct 8 2015, 12:26pm

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

It's a strange coincidence that the advent of the Premier League and the rebranding of the European Cup into the Champions League both occurred within a few months of the fall of the Soviet Union. This year zero moment when the West finally won the Cold War and neoliberalism was freed to run amok also marks the beginning of the corporatisation of professional football. In the years since, we've seen the world record transfer fee rise by 850% and corporate sponsors turn the game into the advertising equivalent of a bukkake contest, splattering their logo onto every surface within their line of fire. These days, football is arguably more of a business than a sport – and I realise that this is the most obvious statement in the entire world. But it's not simply a case of the sport being awash with cash; over time it has transformed into a perfect metaphor for capitalism itself. As football becomes increasingly corporatised, certain phenomena in the game begin to reflect some of the fundamental functions and theories of our planet's dominant economic system. I'll explain.

Champions League qualification & the infinite growth paradigm

One of the defining features of capitalism is the infinite growth paradigm. Economic growth is the only acceptable state in capitalism – anything else, be it stagnation or recession is an intolerable malaise that has to be reversed immediately. In football, the equivalent of perpetual growth is Champions League qualification: in England, six clubs set qualification for Europe's premier club competition as their threshold for success each year. Should they fail, like Manchester United did in their miserable season under David Moyes, or Liverpool last season, or Tottenham every season, they usually take a very Keynesian approach by spending their way into positive growth, or, in their case, qualification. But like the premise of infinite growth, this approach has a fatal flaw.

After one season in the Champions League, Liverpool are back in the Europa League this term | Photo: EPA/JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BOTT

England are only allotted four qualification slots each season, therefore two of these six self-entitled clubs are doomed to miss out. In capitalism, infinite growth demands infinite production, innovation and consumption on a planet with finite resources, and its pursuit accelerates climate change and edges us towards ecological catastrophe. Mentally, it's as though top clubs live in a permanent state of recession, spending extravagant sums of money each season to keep pace with or put distance between themselves and their rivals. Champions league qualification is a self-perpetuating cycle: it makes the rich richer and locks other clubs out, thereby sapping competitive sport of its fundamental premise: competition. Similarly, the pursuit of infinite growth destroys the environment that sustains us and will turn us into well-to-do corpses on an uninhabitable planet.

Champions League vs. Europa League & Thomas Piketty's Capital

Unless your name is Orlando and you go fox hunting on the deck of your parents' yacht, you'll have noticed that the world is fucked and our futures lie in tatters. Last year, a bright, young(ish) French economist by the name of Thomas Piketty presented his theory of how we got into this mess in his economic best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In short, Piketty argues that the problem is that the ownership of wealth currently provides greater returns than the labour needed to acquire it, which in turn breeds inequality and quashes social mobility. A similar parallel can be seen in the discrepant financial rewards of the Champions and Europa Leagues.

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Last year's Europa League winner could collect a maximum of €9.5 million in UEFA prize money compared to a potential €37.4 million on offer to Champions League... erm... champions. And that's before adding in TV revenue – because who honestly tunes in to watch Wolfsburg play Krasnodar?

The Europa League is also two games longer, requiring 15 matches to win, not to mention that they're played on Thursdays, thereby reducing rest time for domestic matches. This increases physical exertion before even taking into account that ties are more likely to be played in obscure eastern European stadiums several time zones away; all added labour for diminishing returns.

Last year's Europa League winners, Sevilla | Photo by PA Images

Historically, participation has a detrimental effect on domestic form, which is okay for perennial no-hopers like Everton, but for aspirational clubs like Spurs it makes Champions League qualification increasingly unlikely. Without the extra cash and prestige to attract top talent, they end up stuck in fifth-placed limbo, hence why they usually fuck it off by sending the reserves out to Tajikistan instead. This is a reflection of Piketty's theories: those with inherited wealth progress further in life than those who labour to earn it, because in our current economic climate wealth itself is more profitable than the work that goes into earning it. This makes it ever more unlikely that you'll catch up to Orlando because you're treading water while he's sailing away into the sunset on his fox-carcass-strewn yacht.

Champions League group seeding & anti-competitive practices

I know, I know; again with the Champions League. But as the most moneyed institution in moneyball it's impossible to avoid. Just consider the group stage format for a second: there's almost always one global superclub that's essentially nailed-on for progress to the knock-out rounds. In the case of Group B last year, this was trophy holders Real Madrid. There's always one whipping boy from a semi-professional eastern European league simply there to make up numbers; last year that was Bulgaria's Ludogorets. Then there's a non-title contender from a major league that's usually a safe bet to progress in second place; Liverpool played this role last year. The other club (Basel in 2014-15) will give their group rivals a good game and create a cosmetic sense of competition but are essentially just Europa League fodder. Every year, pretty much every group, follows this format.

Of course, there's always potential for a team to put in a gloriously inept string of performances like Liverpool did last year, allowing their Europa-destined rival to slip through to the last 16, but this was an isolated incident – the status quo prevailed in every other group. In capitalism, this essentially amounts to an anti-competitive practice and has created a UEFA-sanctioned oligopoly, with Barcelona, Bayern and Real entrenching themselves as the competition's overwhelming favourites over the past few years, while clubs like Porto appear in the quarter-finals more or less every season.

Barcelona and Bayern Munich, part of a UEFA-sanctioned oligopoly | Photo: EPA/PETER KNEFFEL

Oligopolies are one of the most natural phenomena in capitalism, and just about every market is dominated by a select few conglomerates, be that music or supermarkets or banking. Now that clubs are increasingly owned by ruthless plutocrats like the Glazer family, Roman Abramovich or Qatar Sports Investments, it's only logical that the game increasingly resembles big business as well.

So while the game is carved up by the irrepressibly rich, UEFA and FIFA are entirely content to effectively rig competitions in their favour because it keeps money in the game. Business loathes unpredictability, and by eliminating the sort of fluctuations seen in the European Cup days, when the champions of Romania could actually win the bloody thing, football becomes a safer investment and the cash keeps flowing. Clubs don't complain because they profit too, while the bulk of global glory hunters, modern football's target audience, only ever support teams that win all the time anyway, so there's no mass opposition to this arrangement. Disagree? Mention "Nottingham Forest" in the US and most people will think you're talking about Robin Hood.

TV rights deals & the outsourcing of cheap labour

Whereas once clubs like Arsenal or Manchester United relied on the populations of Holloway or Salford to support them by buying match tickets, GDP-figure TV deals have rendered them as redundant as Kevin Keegan's managerial acumen. With Premier League clubs set to pocket £5.136 billion in TV revenue over the next three years, match tickets matter less to a club's coffers than shirt sales and merchandise sponsorships. These can be sold all around the world to an (in theory) unlimited number of consumers, whereas tickets are restricted by stadium capacity. This means that the people buying said tickets matter less to a club's revenue than their global audience, who might spend less per capita but are ultimately worth more because of their collective presence, which presents greater potential earnings and allows clubs to negotiate better deals with Japanese noodle manufacturers.

TV revenue has allowed Crystal Palace to attract (and pay significant wages to) players like Yohan Cabaye | Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

The outsourcing of cheap foreign labour functions under a similar principle: employees in faraway sweatshops cost less and often aren't protected by humane western labour laws, so you can straddle them like mules with 15 hour workdays and donkey wages. This in turn compromises Western workers, who are often forced into accepting poorer pay, harsher working conditions and diminished job security because corporations aren't as dependent on their labour.

Now, if you're a season ticket holder, this'll sound familiar – think about how many matches are rescheduled to Monday nights or Saturday mornings to accommodate for TV viewers. Practically every glamour fixture or top-of-the-table clash occurs outside of the traditional 3PM kickoff. Clubs are free to charge however much they want for tickets. Then there was Dick Scudamore's proposed "39th game", which would see one yearly fixture played abroad. Who knows, maybe one day they'll all be played abroad. Just accept it: your club gives less of a shit about you than they do about rich Emiratis.