Populous Magazine 07: New World Order

From the archive: Issue 07, 2012

In China, UAE, Qatar, USA and Australia, the nascent soccer leagues are making a huge impression. But will they ever be as significant as the Old World soccer leagues in England, Germany, Italy and Spain which have taken decades to grow? Joe Boyle finds out.

First, it was one or two experienced South Americans. The Africans started to follow, then even some weighty European names. The drum-call of soccer outside its traditional powerbases began to beat a more insistent rhythm as countries in the Middle and Far East started flexing their economic muscle. As the global financial order started to shift, why wouldn’t soccer follow in its wake?

When Europe’s economies started to take a battering from the banking crisis in 2008, soccer at least suggested that certain elements of the world order remained intact.

The Champions League and the Premier League affirmed a sense of European superiority. However, the awarding of the 2022 FIFA World Cup to Qatar gave a jolt to any such sense of complacency. The conservative forces in European soccer were left perplexed by the sophistication of the bid and the imagination of the Qatari offer. By contrast, many soccer supporters had long accepted that they were consumers of a global sport.

“For Bahrain and the UAE soccer is about leverage, positioning, political and commercial opportunity. For Qatar it’s about building national identity.”

James M. Dorsey / Soccer blogger from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

The restrictions of geography and the old hierarchies of soccer politics were irrelevant.

Of course, there was an understandable anxiety as clubs were bought up by individuals from distant lands that appeared to have no heritage in the sport. But once investments started to pay dividends, fans quickly dropped any reservations they might originally have held. Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, for example, was so impressive that most people soon overcame their disappointment at leaving the beautiful but outdated Highbury. Meanwhile, no set of supporters was happier than those of Manchester City who celebrated the success generated by the Abu Dhabi United Group’s largesse by donning the blue and white keffiyeh Arab headdress.

Whilst money from the Gulf was pouring into Europe (including Real Madrid, Olympiacos, Paris St Germain and others), what was coming back in the other direction was expertise. Qatar’s successful World Cup bid was overseen by Englishman Mike Lee, who has a track record with the Premier League and UEFA, and who worked on the successful London and Rio Olympic bids and campaigned successfully for rugby sevens to be included as an Olympic sport. Corporates, too, started to exert their substantial influence, with IMG, the vast sports marketing and consultancy group, amongst the most visible.

Jeff Slack, senior vice president for soccer with IMG, has little doubt the game’s current expansion in these regions will continue apace as long as they get the right help.

  • Fans at Shanghai Shenhua FC.

“Soccer is becoming increasingly popular in parts of the world that are growing economically,” says Slack. “These are places that don’t necessarily have a history of the latest sports marketing techniques. There’s great enthusiasm and great metrics in terms of sponsorship and media, but a lack of expertise.”

This explains why places such as China and the Gulf states have turned to people with proven backgrounds in managing and marketing leagues, selling tickets and media rights and exploiting advances in media production.

Getting things right off the pitch may be easier than getting them right on the pitch.

“The people love soccer,” says Slack. “Everyone can watch the Premier League, everyone can watch Barcelona play Madrid. But then you go to watch your local match and the level’s nowhere near that. That’s the challenge; this flight to quality. To address that they invest in people.”

So, money is being thrown at players and, bit by bit, top names are finding themselves playing in the most unexpected places. Okay, David Beckham in LA is a nice fit, but seeing Nicolas Anelka in Shanghai and Raul at Al Sadd provokes something of a double-take. Together with Samuel Eto’o at Anzhi Makhachkala and Brazilian Dario Conca at Guangzhou Evergrande, these players are amongst the top 20 highest-paid in the world. Great players they may be, but these clubs do not mark the pinnacle of their playing career. They’re here for the money, not the career progression.

  • Outside of Europe, new leagues are making their mark on world soccer. These are arguably the most important.

Then again, throwing cash around doesn’t guarantee success, as the situation in India shows. Despite the availability of huge amounts of money, growing popularity in parts of the country and the glitz provided by some extraordinary advertising campaigns, it is proving difficult to establish a league. A disastrous Indian attempt to buy into the Premier League added to the sense that India and soccer are still trying to get to know one other. Food and pharmaceutical giant Venky’s, perhaps inspired by what was happening at Manchester City, bought English club Blackburn Rovers in November 2010 with much loud talk. Eighteen unhappy months later, the team was relegated from the Premier League. Soccer and India, people like to say, just don’t fit. Talk of trying to create a league that replicates cricket’s IPL structure merely emphasises the fact that the sporting imprint left in India by the British Empire was not soccer but cricket.

However, if soccer in India is a comparatively new arrival, the same cannot be said of the Middle East where British colonialists helped to embed the sport well over a century ago. It’s impossible to ignore the political space that the sport has operated in ever since. “There is no soccer club in the Middle East and North Africa that has not been founded on political grounds,” says James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and author of influential blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. “They all have a political history.”

  • Fans at Guangzhou Evergrande FC.

That political heritage has been most evident in Egypt, where soccer fans have been some of the most militant opponents of the armed forces. The lessons seem to have been observed elsewhere in the region. Exerting control over the soccer scene becomes a way of exerting control over potential political dissent. It’s also a way of sending messages to the rest of the world.

“If you look at the three nations in the Gulf that have invested heavily in the sport,” says Dorsey, “there’s a difference in the way they’re doing it. For Bahrain and the UAE it’s about leverage, positioning, political and commercial opportunity. For Qatar it’s about building national identity.”

The flourishing of the sport is therefore about more than just the personal vanity of wealthy individuals. Soccer has always been about more than that. It’s about history, politics, cultural identity. “In Qatar,” says Dorsey, “soccer fits into a strategy that includes Al Jazeera and Qatar Airlines. You’re building an identity, you’re building a brand.

Whatever you think of those specific elements, they fit together. There is a logic to what is happening. To dismiss that as the vanity of one man is too simplistic.”

Populous has designed many soccer stadia worldwide including Wembley Stadium (UK), Arsenal FC’s Emirates Stadium (UK), Houston Dynamo’s BBVA Compass Stadium (USA) and Soccer City (South Africa).

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