WorldDavid BartramComment

FIFA, 2018 and the Premier League

WorldDavid BartramComment

By snubbing England and Spain until at least 2030, FIFA leaves the international game at the mercy of Europe’s top clubs. Welcome to IBWM, David Bartram.

Amid the shock and cries of foul play in the aftermath of FIFA’s dual World Cup announcement on Thursday, one reaction to England’s 2018 failure was somewhat more reserved. Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, who had actively participated in the bid, expressed his regret in a brief article on the Premier League website underneath news that West Brom defender Gabriel Tamas has signed a new three-and-a-half year deal. “Fair play to Russia, they are the winners but it is a huge disappointment,” he said.

Scudamore and his La Liga counterpart Francisco Roca Perez will need time to digest FIFA’s World Cup snub, but when they do it could have disastrous consequences for the future of international football. Until now, the Premier League has been fairly diplomatic in club versus country disputes. With no prospect of cashing in on international football for another 20 years, where is the incentive not to take a harder line?

FIFA awarding the 2018 World Cup to England or Spain and Portugal could have been seen as appeasement. A way of saying to the Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids, “We know you’re not happy with us jetting your players half-way around the world every four years, but here, have a month where you can show off Old Trafford to an even greater audience than a Premier League or Champions League match.” A World Cup in England would not only have increased the domestic football market, but also given clubs an opportunity to promote their brand worldwide.

FIFA, in their arrogance, seem not to have considered this. The almost maniacal egotism of the executive committee is understandable. Sepp Blatter’s politburo is so convinced of the unwavering strength of brand ‘FIFA World Cup’ that they can respond to damning evidence of institutional corruption with a shrug. A host of world leaders, royalty and sporting legends kowtowing before them barely helps. Blatter even had the gall to refer to Zurich as the ‘home of football’ on Thursday.

But in reality, the Premier League and La Liga, or perhaps more specifically the top clubs in these leagues, hold more cards than FIFA appears to give them credit for. Scudamore’s first target could well be FIFA’s ‘revenue surplus’ - the hundreds of millions of Swiss francs sat in Zurich bank accounts. In 2009 alone this surplus totalled $196 million, a figure so high that it prompted Blatter to announce one-off payments of $250,000 to all 200-odd member associations in the world. Although a deal was struck in 2008 that FIFA would pay clubs $110 million compensation for use of players in South Africa 2010, there is little to stop Scudamore and co demanding dramatically more from an organisation with revenues topping $1 billion.

By not seriously considering the club versus country issue, FIFA is gambling on two factors. Firstly, that by awarding 2018 and 2022 to emerging markets with the potential for massive growth, the organization will generate enough income to pay-off the top clubs. Secondly, they are gambling on the romance and glamour of the World Cup providing a great enough draw to top players; great enough that they will play even in the face of greater resistance from their clubs.

Both choices are far from safe bets. Despite what FIFA executives in Zurich may believe, the Premier League is a far stronger brand than the World Cup. It has several intrinsic advantages: It doesn’t have to refuse entry to a world class player based on his passport, it is essentially never-ending as opposed to an event that pops up for a month every four years and, perhaps most importantly, it tends to produce more entertaining matches. It seems to have more fans too. For all FIFA’s talk about taking the World Cup to new markets, they seem to have not noticed that the Premier League, La Liga and the Champions League are already there. Talk to a football fan in Beijing – already the most likely host of the 2026 World Cup final – and they’ll tell you they are bigger fans of Liverpool or Real Madrid than of the Chinese national team. What’s more, these dedicated followers are more appealing to advertisers than a casual viewer who may tune into the occasional World Cup match on the grounds that everyone else is watching. Unless these ‘new markets’ that FIFA talks of can start to produce world class players of their own, the major European clubs will continue to attract more interest than a World Cup they can only dream of qualifying for.

Of course FIFA can still rely on drumming up a large enough jamboree in Russia and Qatar to generate massive revenues via an ‘in-and-out’ strategy, before moving onto the next country. It seems there is no shortage of emerging nations keen to host a World Cup whatever the price. But it isn’t out of the question that this could change too. Although it may seem inconceivable to people that the World Cup would ever be anything other than the pinnacle of football, stranger things have happened in sport. It wasn’t so long ago that every kid grew up dreaming of scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final. Ask an 11-year-old their ultimate football fantasy today and they’d probably rather win the Champions League. If you want further evidence that money can change a sports priorities faster than expected, look at the decline of the test match since the emergence of 20Twenty cricket.

So the ‘three lions’ of Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron return home with their tails firmly between the legs while FIFA celebrate the prospect of two groundbreaking World Cups. But come 2018, it could be another Englishman in Richard Scudamore – not the FIFA executive committee – that dictates the future of international football.

David is a Brussels-based freelance journalist who writes about music, football, the media, China, and just about anything else that takes his interest. You can visit his blog at www.davidjbartram.com.

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