‘Football holds a mirror to ourselves,’ Michael Calvin asserts in State of Play. Modern football is angrier, more brutal, more unequal and simply more relentless than ever before.
The sense of a football club being rooted to its locality has been shattered. Globalisation, and hyper-commercialisation, means that local owners have been replaced by ‘speculators and savants’ from abroad. Locally reared players, victims of football’s global free market in talent, have become rare. To receive the TV bounty that teams in the Premier League enjoy, ‘You have to create the most competitive team, which doesn’t necessarily include young Johnny from the academy,’ explains Scott Duxbury, the chairman and chief executive of Watford — a club once renowned for developing academy graduates.
Yet Calvin’s rounded portrayal of the modern game — raw vignettes garnered from the rarefied elite of the sport to non-league matches which, like the game itself, are by turns surprising, uplifting and dispiriting — shows that yesterday was not always better. The standard of play at the top of English club football has never been better. Women’s football, though it has never completely recovered from the Football Association’s 50-year ban from 1921 to 1971, is buoyant. Though huge obstacles remain, progress is being made to combat homophobia and racism. And England’s World Cup campaign offered a glimpse of football as something more. ‘Sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive,’ said England’s defender Kyle Walker.
Look closely enough and, Calvin asserts, the game still retains a beating heart which separates it from the corporate entertainment that many administrators seem to mistake it for. There are tales of Common Goal, the campaign for footballers to donate 1 per cent of their salary to charity; how Sunderland’s players bonded with Bradley Lowery, who died of cancer aged six last year; and Fans Against Foodbanks, groups of fans who help feed vulnerable people. ‘Football brings you together. That’s why it really is the beautiful game,’ says one of the co-founders.
But the contrast between the apex of the sport, which has never been so wealthy, and the state of grass roots football is damning. The current broadcasting deal for the Premier League is worth £2.8 billion a year worldwide; agents earned £211 million from Premier League clubs in the year to 31 January. Yet, as Calvin notes, football participation in England has fallen by 19 per cent in the past decade, and 150,000 grass roots matches last season were called off due to poor facilities, a damning indictment of the Football Association. Ultimately, is it is precisely the same deep emotional bonds between supporters and their clubs which leave football so ripe for exploitation. ‘Most fans are liars,’ observes Bob Beech, a Portsmouth fan who, through the club’s supporters’ trust, helped prevent the club’s liquidation. ‘What they really want is to win on a Saturday. If that happens they don’t really care whether a Colombian drug cartel is running the place.’
Red Card, an account of the downfall of Fifa, reads like an FBI thriller — because that is exactly what it is. The levels of greed Ken Bensinger details are absurd.
Chuck Blazer was a villain who seemed too ridiculous for fiction: grotesquely obese, weighing more than 450 pounds, and equally greedy for cash. Blazer worked for CONCACAF, football’s governing body in the Caribbean and North America, for 21 years, and for Fifa’s executive committee for 14. When the FBI investigated Blazer’s tax affairs, it ‘was like pulling someone over for a bum taillight only to discover a trunk stuffed with dead bodies,’ Bensinger writes.
Blazer, known as ‘Mr 10 per cent’, had an usual contract with CONCACAF, entitling him to 10 per cent of sponsorship and TV rights. He extended the spirit of this to trouser 10 per cent of tournament ticket sales, luxury suite income, parking fees, and even the hot dogs sold in stadiums. He viewed money spent by Fifa explicitly to develop the sport in the same way, paying himself $300,000 of a $3 million grant to build a television production studio within CONCACAF’s Trump Tower offices. Blazer’s internal account where he received the cash was called ‘commissions payable’. With a series of foreign bank accounts he never disclosed, Blazer bought several luxury apartments in the Bahamas, and didn’t pay tax.
When officials from the FBI and Internal Revenue Service met Blazer, at the end of 2011, and told him what they knew, Blazer declared, with brazen temerity, that corruption in football ‘has gone on for far too long and it needs to stop’. He then became a snitch, and his recorded conversations with corrupt officials from around the world were crucial in the arrests of seven staff in the FBI’s morning raid at Fifa HQ in Switzerland in 2015.
Yet there was one aspect of Fifa’s murky past that even the FBI could not resolve. In 2010, Russia unexpectedly won the hosting rights to this year’s World Cup. The tournament itself, partly a beneficiary of low expectations on and off the pitch, was widely hailed as the best for decades; for Vladimir Putin it was considered a triumph.
Whether Russian skulduggery was needed to win the hosting rights for this year’s World Cup we will never know: the Russia bid team’s computers were destroyed. Last year, Fifa cleared the bid team of any wrongdoing.