This is often taken for granted, but is sometimes worth mentioning. As a sport, football is practically perfect – at least within the white lines. It was a game that was fortunate enough to come across the optimal laws and layout almost very early on. There is a sufficient balance between freedom and order, between creativity and destruction.
The preciosity of a goal allowed it to have the right amount of goals to strike the perfect balance between a satisfying reward for performance and an exhilarating risk of surprises.
All of this, based on the joyful release of just kicking a soccer ball, has made the sport the most popular in the world.
It was that same popularity, however, that created a host of off-court issues that now impinge on his perfection. Too much of the game’s immense wealth goes to too few places, dramatically eroding the competitive balance and threatening the future of many clubs and even competitions. This is what led to the existential threat of the Super League.
Rather than dwelling on such negatives, the start of a new year should provide an opportunity to turn to something more optimistic; of something . . . Utopian. What would have to be done to make the structure of football as perfect as its practice? If we could start the sport all over again, what would we do? What would a footballing utopia look like?
To answer this question, we interviewed a number of characters in and around the game. Among them were people willing to comment publicly, such as historian David Goldblatt, director of Fair Game and Dons Trust, board member. directors Niall Couper, football finance academic Dr Rob Wilson, as well as a range of unofficial sources including agents, club staff and football administrators.
Discussions kept coming back to the same central question. Who and what is football really for?
It’s actually quite easy to answer.
It is first of all the simple game of the game, in a meaningful competition, as the representation of a community. That’s it. This is arguably what the most popular cultural quest in human history is based on.
Once you make sure that this principle is preserved and protected, so many other issues – from the competitiveness of leagues to the structure of competitions and problematic owners – resolve themselves.
The problem is, it didn’t. A largely unregulated game has generally left clubs to fend for themselves in a wider embrace of capitalism, the driving forces of which are directly contrary to sporting ideals and the conception of clubs as social institutions.
This paradox is the central tension in football, which has led to huge financial gaps emerge and a lot of uncompetitive clubs, games and trophies.
As former FA General Manager Mark Palios argued, the purpose of business is to kill competition indefinitely; the goal of sport is to relaunch competition every year. The two can never meet.
So, as a first step in transformation, clubs must be protected as products of their local community.
They should only be owned and managed by those whose sole motivation is the health of the football club. There shouldn’t be any parallel patterns. It means fan trusts or fan groups. It also excludes venture capitalists, billionaires, wealth funds, nation states, or anyone looking for “financial growth” or political capital. All of a sudden, that would eliminate all the problematic discussions that accompany these owner profiles..
Thus, any football utopia would imply a German recognition that clubs have cultural value beyond mere victory and wealth accumulation – if not necessarily a 50 + 1 direct German system, despite many of its strengths. obvious.
This, along with the right regulations such as transparent accounting and incentive standards on issues such as fan engagement, would secure clubs in their community. No one could spend more than they earn. Essential elements of identity such as name, badge and location would be protected. A club can never be as big as its fan base.
One obvious problem with this is what really happened in Germany, and how Bayern Munich eclipsed everyone else.
One obvious answer is that a cure is what allows you to start from scratch. Examples could be drawn from American sport, which does not necessarily need to go to the rough. Instead, the immense wealth that football earns could keep coming back into the game and being redistributed fairly.
The lowest ranked clubs could receive the largest share of the broadcast deals. Sponsorships could be shared, so that no club ever wins too much. Ethically dubious sponsors could be banned. More money could also be invested in women’s teams, academies, infrastructure as well as community programs..
All of this is possible when owners are singularly concerned with the health of the clubs, rather than just making more money. You wouldn’t have external forces looking to push the Super Leagues because they weren’t involved.
It also eliminates the need for more complicated structural regulations like salary caps, as there is just greater financial parity. The larger game would perpetually see the replenishment of reinvestments. It would also encourage the development of academy actors, further fostering local connections. Ticket prices could be lower.
Couper, who knows it all so well thanks to his experiences in relaunching AFC Wimbledon, explains the benefits.
“All of these different elements come together to make football more sustainable in the long run, while using the wealth at the top to ensure that every corner has the possibility of a well-run community football club.”
Clubs could always be looking to grow as teams, which it should be, rather than constantly looking to grow as companies. Empire-building officials like Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola or Alex Ferguson could still try to do this, but wouldn’t have to be so concerned with outside forces.
Football is not more popular because of these modern teams. Football has always been immensely popular anyway. The history of sport proves it forcefully. The popularity of the sport has instead led to these super teams, but only because there are no regulations on where the immense wealth of this mass popularity is to be found. It accumulates in certain areas, creating a virtuous circle for a decreasing pool of clubs. They buy better players, so they are more successful, therefore become more commercially attractive, so they buy better players. . . And so on. It’s actually something that erodes the ‘product’ of football, rather than improving it.
Preserving clubs as community institutions crushes that. He spreads wealth and the stars. The talent would simply be distributed more evenly, making more clubs more interesting. And it is ultimately much better for sport.
Consider most of football history, right up to the last decade. Dinamo Tbilisi or Dynamo Kyiv may not be teams most fans bother to watch anymore, but that was not the case in 1981 or 1999, respectively. As the two clubs were able to keep talented groups together for a bit longer, they sent a spark across Europe. Kiev, in particular, was unmissable when they had Andriy Shevchenko and Sergiy Rebrov together. It has added color and vitality to the Champions League, far beyond the same cast of current clubs.
This can be the case across the continent – maybe even the world. If the clubs are purely fan-owned businesses and federations like UEFA also introduced centralized redistribution models as well as regulations on local players, this would significantly increase the competitive balance in sport. This was a point strongly emphasized by almost everyone consulted.
“Competitive balance is essential,” says Dr. Wilson. “Getting it right benefits everyone in the pyramid. “
There would just be more mobility in the game. Big clubs could stay strong, but everyone from Preston North End to Northampton Town could have realistic ambitions to progress through the divisions and find success, not to mention the drifting middle class of the sport like Everton and Aston Villa.
This is what is meant by “serious competition”. Everyone would have the opportunity to hope, as football really should be.
From there, other structural issues would begin to evaporate. The group stages of the Champions League would cease to be so predictable.
“Compensating for economic modesty is a more diverse football culture,” Goldblatt argues. There is already an example of this in Swedish football. Thanks to its own adaptation of the German-style property rules, it is one of the few national leagues with proper balance and internal mobility.
This would of course require another utopian ideal: that the federations themselves are only interested in safeguarding sport and working together to serve the game at large, rather than being in competition with each other. Again, sport being treated as a sport, rather than an endless quest to create more money, conditions this.
The answer to this utopia will undoubtedly be that it is impossible to implement, of course. This is not the point. It’s about having a vision to achieve. The reality of football today is something that should certainly not be taken for granted. The beauty of the game deserves a better sport around it.