Can football ever become a game again instead of a marketplace?

13 August 2017

Can football ever become a game again instead of a marketplace?

Unprecedented millions have been paid out on transfers of footballers during the last few weeks. One Dutch daily, AD, discovered that the twenty English Premier League clubs have so far spent more than a billion euros on new players. The commercialisation of the game (or at least the man’s game) has thus got completely out of hand. Unfortunately it’s seen principally as a market in the European Parliament, too, while the Dutch women’s team have demonstrated that you can have exciting matches without such exorbitant sums. It would be a fine thing if EU rules could make football once again a real game.

In the European Parliament there are a number of officially recognised cross-party networks, known as Intergroups, which bring together MEPs from different political groups who share a common interest. One of these focuses on sport. On 27th June the Sport Intergroup organised a conference on the transfer system. A lot of sound points were made, for example about the protection of players under 18 and the exploitation of players by their agents. These things are important, but the core of the issue was not discussed: why have we allowed football to become a matter of big money? Is it a good thing that the big clubs have become businesses whose wealth determines who has the greatest chance of success.

Things don’t have to be this way, as is proved by the practise in the US, where the National Basketball Association (NBA) has operated a maximum payment system for transfers of players since 1946. This has created a relatively level playing field. The amount spent on players still varies from club to club, but at least this is limited by the fact that a global maximum is specified which no club can exceed in its buying of players. This makes for more exciting competition, with small clubs having more chance of success than they would have had the maximum not been imposed.

Something similar could be introduced in the EU for men’s football, but that would require Brussels to take a look at aspects of the sector other than the purely economic, replacing competition policy with a feeling for the sport, and that we develop competitions where money doesn’t take the lead role. The recess in Brussels will soon be over and I shall be putting questions on this matter to the European Commission. On the basis of their answers it would seem to me to be a good idea to repeat the conference held by the Sports Intergroup, but this time centred around the core question: is football only an economic market, or can the pleasure of simply playing once again come to take a central position?

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