The words ‘football’ and ‘big business’ go together like toothpaste and orange juice.
I first really became aware of this fact when I visited Poland in 2012 to watch the European Championship. In the two cities I passed through, Poznan and Warsaw, the UEFA and FIFA sanctioned fan zones were essentially mini-corporate fiefdoms, with certain multinationals calling the shots.
I even witnessed two security guards refuse to admit a young woman to the main area because she had a PepsiCo logo emblazoned on the front of her T-shirt. After some toing and froing, which left her on the brink of tears, some important looking men holding walkie-talkies decided that the venue would kindly lend her a more suitable item of clothing. On the way out, I noticed that the original shirt had been dumped unceremoniously in a Coca-Cola themed bin.
Obviously, this was an isolated incident, but it’s indicative of the way top-level football is going (or has gone).
Frankly, Premier League games have come to resemble some sort of bizarre exposition, where Asian betting companies, German car manufacturers, and American insurers compete for the hard-earned pounds, dollars, and yen of hundreds of millions of global consumers.
And the rise of the Red Bull clubs has left me, and many others, genuinely perplexed as to whether we’re watching a football team or an advert for a fizzy-drink masquerading as a football team.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should return to some mythical version of the past when football involved twenty-two selfless amateurs kicking a ball around a patch of mud just for the fun of it.
The world has changed and so has football, in many ways for the better. Stadia are safer and more inclusive, while players are fitter, faster, and more technically adept thanks to the introduction of sports science, cutting-edge nutrition, and so on.
All this means that the modern game is underpinned by a very complex commercial ecosystem — one that’s here to stay.
But that’s no excuse to run roughshod over football’s diverse, peculiar, and quaint traditions. The challenge, as ever, is to balance the old with the new, the extraordinary with the necessary, and the interests of clubs and supporters with the interests of sponsors and businesses.
Are clubs and governing bodies up to the task? I wouldn’t hold your breath…