First They Came For Our Sponsors: Football Goes East

Gazprom, BeIn Sports, PPTV, InFront Sports, Al-Jazeera… all these names have worked their way into European football over the last decade and all look set to have even more influence as time progresses.

UEFA have, since their foundation, been at the head of the most lucrative area of world football. Europe is a power base in terms of clubs, and the UEFA Champions League is a gargantuan competition, generating nearly €2 billion in TV global rights deals alone – a figure that is almost certain to rise as the availability of streaming systems increases and improves.

Off the field, the Middle and Far East are taking over

Yet all of those companies, Gazprom aside, are based beyond UEFA and outside Europe. On the pitch, the power may remain within its traditional borders, but off the field, the Middle and Far East are taking over.

Maybe the signs were always there. Even before the opening of Hitachi Europe in 1982, Liverpool and Hamburg were wearing the Japanese company’s name on their shirts. Electronics companies from Japan were commonplace in English football shirts back in 1980s; Arsenal’s JVC, Manchester United’s Sharp, Aston Villa’s Mita (they’re Kyocera now, if you wondered) have all become iconic – all companies promoting their products in new markets.

Times have changed in that field. The new shirt sponsors are less likely Japanese than Chinese, and far less likely to be electronic than gambling based. I remember Huddersfield announcing their OPE Sports sponsorship – although now available in the UK, at the time OPE were entirely unknown and for those whose Chinese was poor, almost unknowable. Still, the money came, £1.5m per season, and therein lay the appeal.

Football will sell itself for money

I use these lower level illustrations as exemplars of how willingly football will sell itself for money and forsake any local imperative to do so. Way back in 1979, when Liverpool signed their £50,000 deal with Hitachi, they did so with their financial bods insisting they needed to do so to survive. The club, it was insisted had made £2,000 profit the previous season, outside money was needed to push on. After a few years wrangling, that battle was won.

Liverpool are one of ‘those’ clubs, perhaps because of the success they had at that time. Along with the teams that have been their European rivals, Real Madrid, Milan, and the likes, they are mentioned in the various despatches that detail a possible breakaway European Super League – as though the Champions League doesn’t already fulfil that brief.

The key element of any potential breakaway league would be not its exclusivity in terms of eliteness, but the same thing in terms of the way it pulled the ladder up and became a closed shop.

I have to confess that the more I watch football, the more I feel that something of this nature is inevitable, though I don’t think that the pull will necessarily come from within Europe, but outside it. I’ve been to Morocco over a new year when Inter and Paris Saint Germain were playing a friendly, and that was huge news there at the time – two of the world’s biggest clubs playing a match in Marrakesh? Imagine that.

With a 45,000 capacity and tickets ranging from £30 down to £3.50 it would not have brought huge amounts of money through the turnstiles, so television would have been the main appeal – and the main source of revenue. A microcosm of modern football in one match.

Sprawling friendly tours and tournaments

We also see that dynamic played out between seasons now, with the sprawling friendly tours and tournaments that Europe’s biggest sides play, with trips to America, to Australia and to Asia commonplace. Manchester Utd will meet Leeds Utd in Perth at the end of this season (I have a friend I’m trying to convince not to attend) and there will be countless other seemingly unlikely match-ups. Seemingly unlikely until a few years ago, anyway.

To me, their existence indicates there is a demand for such matches in such territories, and allied with those other factors that we know exist, it seems to point just one way. The Premier League will not soon adopt its Game 39 in a foreign country, but there are pseudo-competitive games played on different continents to those involved. The World Club Cup, formerly Toyota Cup (Japan being the first on the uptake of football in these far-flung parts of the world) is a flag-bearer for that but for a more domestic example, you could look at the history of the Supercoppa Italiana.

Since 2000, it has been held in grounds as far afield as Tripoli, Beijing, Doha, Riyadh and New Jersey. The French equivalent – the Trophée des Champions has marched to a slightly more Francophonic beat; Tanger, Libreville, Montreal, Tunis and, peculiarly, Klagenfurt.

There is, in short, appetite for European club sides to play games around the world. The European Super League exists as a concept, but as a concept, it is limited. Surely, the next advance of football should be a global competition, whether it takes the biggest teams that exist and places them in stadia worldwide and broadcasts the matches globally or whether it takes the approach of start-up leagues in other sports and simply seeks investment for a clutch of sides in a franchise system.

Locality of clubs is almost unimportant.

Locality of clubs, when they reach that elite level, is almost unimportant. Rivalries are generated from competition rather than proximity (the way Real Madrid and Barcelona or Juventus and Inter have always been one another’s biggest rivals, rather than the way Barcelona and Espanyol or Juventus and Torino have) and would grow up soon enough between franchises.

Yet by the same token, if a franchise were to be formed in Japan, or China, to compete amongst an already extant elite, they could be sure of support from well beyond their own city boundaries; it seems almost seems too obvious a step to take. Add in more teams from South America, from Africa, from North America – a global Super League might seem a pie in the sky idea, but there are enough games played by top teams around the world to make it at least viable.

There are things in the way. The existing ‘big clubs’ will not sit down and allow their power within the game to diminish for sure, and it would be a difficult sell to allow more, smaller sides from different continents, into an elite that they (initially, at least) didn’t belong to.

Ultimately, appetite for football is worldwide now, and football’s financiers have form for following the money wherever it may be. At the moment, it is in the East, so do not be surprised to see the influence of the East rising more and more over the years to come.

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