By Luke Jensen-Jones
As fans tuned in to watch the opening game of the 2018 football World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia, they were greeted with a startling sight. Russian president Vladimir Putin smiled as he shook the hand of his Saudi counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, while FIFA President Gianni Infantino grinned awkwardly between them. This moment, which came as Yuri Gazinskiy opened the match’s scoring, marked the start of an extremely successful tournament for them. Having soundly beaten Saudi Arabia 5-0, Russia went on to make a surprise run to the quarterfinals of the competition, achieving an infamous victory against Spain along the way. Logistically, the tournament went off without a hitch. Football took centre stage and any prior concerns about politics getting in the way of ‘the sport’ were swept aside. At the conclusion of the final, which saw France win their second World Cup, Putin and Infantino presented the iconic trophy, both smiling just as effusively as they had done a month earlier.
While the relationship between sport and authoritarianism has always been uneasy, this particular World Cup – sandwiched between Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and February’s invasion of Ukraine – spelt out the inherent problems in that relationship more clearly than anything in recent memory. In the aftermath of the invasion, Russia was banned from competing at this year’s tournament, with Russian teams disqualified from all European club football competitions. But the interdependence between European football and Russian capital runs so deep that these sporting sanctions were only the beginning.
Though Russian money has long been the lifeblood of football’s funding model, fans and organisations alike found it increasingly hard to stomach. After a decade of sponsorship, UEFA has removed Russia’s state gas company Gazprom as the title sponsor of the Champions League and German club Schalke replaced them as their shirt sponsor. If there were ever any doubt as to why Russian money has poured into football, Gazprom’s Chairman Sergey Fursenko was kind enough to spell it out when announcing the deal with Schalke in 2007: ‘Schalke has a lot of connections with the German energy sector’, he explained. ‘That is why we decided to be the sponsor.’ As Russia sought to shore up unpopular plans for natural gas pipelines underneath the Baltic Sea, football provided the perfect means through which to salvage its reputation.
Meanwhile, Russian billionaires with direct financial interests in football clubs, including Monaco and Everton, have entered into a web of legal and political uncertainty. Roman Abramovich was forced to place Chelsea, the Premier League team he has owned since 2003, up for sale after both the UK and the EU added him to their sanctions lists. Since buying Chelsea, Abramovich has been responsible for over a billion pounds of investment in the club, winning 21 major trophies in the process. In light of the fallout from football’s decades-long association with Russian money, one might be forgiven for hoping that a wider examination of the game’s increasingly unsustainable funding model might come to pass.
Unsurprisingly, that has not yet happened. In April, at a lavish ceremony broadcast around the world, FIFA held the official draw for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. Spectators enjoyed glossy promotional videos extolling the hospitability of a country famed for exploitative labour laws and open discrimination against minority groups. Since December 2010, when Qatar won the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, an average of 12 migrant workers have died in the country every week – the vast majority from building stadiums and other infrastructure for the tournament. To listen to the litany of famous footballers – including former Tottenham player Jermaine Jenas and Australia’s all-time leading scorer Tim Cahill – who praised Qatar enthusiastically on stage in April, one would never imagine the horrifying working conditions behind the event. Even David Beckham, who recently signed a £150-million deal with Qatar to become an official ambassador of the World Cup, promised BBC viewers that fans ‘will enjoy what Qatar has to offer’. No sooner had the distorting influence of Russian capital been vanquished than another arrived to take its place.
This confluence of sport, politics and global finance deserves far greater consideration. It is a dynamic by no means limited to European football. In the United States, too, institutions like the NFL and MLB have grown increasingly beholden to a small group of extremely wealthy owners fundamentally detached from the needs of their teams and the fans who love them. Indeed, American sport’s hypocrisy and vice can seem like stereotype blown up to excess, with its gauche commercialism and cadre of owners who care for little but the bottom line. As the CEO of the Atlanta Braves, John Malone, told shareholders following their dismal start to the 2016 baseball season, ‘the Braves are now a fairly major real estate business, as opposed to just a baseball club.’ Increasingly, the interests of those who own and run the teams appear fundamentally to diverge from the interests of those of us who support them.
While British sport is not financially tied up with the state, an often-overzealous patriotism still persists. Above all, the purest expression of this sporting nationalism is the way that support for the England football team at major tournaments manifests. Whether it be the scenes of soldiers stationed abroad who celebrate English wins included in montage after montage from the BBC, or through the poppy now emblazoned on England kits in honour of fallen soldiers (even in spite of FIFA fines), a particular brand of patriotism has become a fixture of English fandom at major tournaments. ‘The next young player who says he does not want to play for England,’ said Ian Wright in 2014, ‘should be ordered to ring the parents of a soldier who has died serving his country in Afghanistan and tell them his reasons.’ Increasingly, it is not good enough for English footballers to just perform on the pitch during international tournaments; they must also be seen to publicly perform their patriotism.
Unsurprisingly, this outward projection of patriotic sentiment often contains an added racial component, with non-white players under additional pressure to demonstrate their commitment to the cause of English football. When Raheem Sterling scores for England, he is cherished by both fans and pundits as the player who grew up in London underneath the Wembley arch; when he has a bad game, he becomes external to English identity, the ‘Jamaican-born winger Raheem Sterling’.
The irony, of course, is that when footballers demonstrate genuine care and compassion for their communities, the same establishment figures and institutions desperate for players to demonstrate nationalist passion criticise them for straying beyond the touchline. The right heavily criticised Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United player who staunchly campaigns against child poverty, for becoming ‘distracted’ from his footballing career. Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke went as far to blame Rashford’s charity work for his missed penalty in the Euro 2020 final against Italy in a WhatsApp message to fellow MPs, which read, ‘They lost. Would it be ungenerous to suggest Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics.’ It is no accident that the question of what is and isn’t a ‘political’ issue is one that is inherently bound up with race and racial identity for the British right. Patriotism for conservatives appears as a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-political’ issue precisely because it allows for an exclusionary vision of society. Conversely, issues that have an overtly racial component, whether they be police brutality or wider social inequality, are deemed to be ‘political’ because they represent a challenge to the existing status quo.
The concept of ‘negative solidarity’, as outlined by Joe Kennedy in Games Without Frontiers, provides a useful framework to make sense of the problems with sport. The phrase describes the distortion and co-optation of working-class solidarity, steering it away from a shared experience of exploitation towards reactionary modes of resentment. For instance, many fans blame the increasing alienation they feel from the modern game on increased efforts to promote inclusion and anti-racism within the sport, rather than perhaps focussing on the links between capital and billionaire owners which undermines the game. Fan anger was rife when players across English football took the knee prior to kick-off in support of racial justice. It was not uncommon for the act to be greeted with boos, as was the case at games involving England, Millwall and West Ham. As fans feared their beloved game was changing beyond recognition, they blamed the players, rather than the people making the calls: the team owners, the broadcasting companies and the leagues themselves.
While often, as with the case above, teams and owners are merely the indirect beneficiaries of ‘negative solidarity’, they also have the capacity to directly foster it. Though the vast majority of European football grounds are financed directly by teams and their owners, American stadiums are largely funded by taxpayers. When seeking to expand or rebuild their stadiums, teams simply threaten to move elsewhere, playing cities off against one another in order to strike a favourable deal. It is an effective strategy: 32.5 billion tax dollars were spent on building stadiums in the United States between 1970 and 2019. Fans don’t want their beloved teams to move elsewhere and local politicians don’t want to take the blame when it happens. In most cases, local governments pay up to keep the team where they are. Fan loyalty is weaponised for the economic benefit of wealthy owners even when it is those very fans who will end up footing the bill through their local taxes. John Oliver described it best, in his segment on the corrupting influence of FIFA, using ‘the sausage principle’: ‘If you love something, never find out how it is made.’
But averting our eyes to the damaging aspects of fandom in the hope that they might disappear is no answer to the problems of modern sport. Something must be done – but what? One answer lies in taking inspiration from players like Colin Kaepernick and Rashford and engaging in activism on the field and off. In some cases, fan-led activism has succeeded. The proposed football Super League collapsed in April 2021 in the face of near-universal fan opposition, and fan mobilisation blocked MLS’s Columbus Crew from moving to Texas in 2018. Regrettably, though, activism has its limits. Manchester United fans have long protested the ownership of the Glazer family with little success. And while Newcastle supporters should be admired for their opposition to former owner Mike Ashley, the founder of Sports Direct, their reaction to the purchase of the club by the Saudi Arabian government has been minimal. If anything, the crass and racist attempts to demonstrate support for the new owners by wearing ‘Saudi-style’ headdresses points to a reversal of this phenomenon.
Fan-owned teams represent a more radical alternative to the malaise of modern sport. One future model might be that of the German Bundesliga, which requires football clubs to own a majority of their own shares, safeguarding fan interests in the process. As the league’s CEO Christian Seifert explained in 2010, the rules help ensure German teams don’t become ‘a fancy toy or part-time cash injection that [could] change from one day to another’. The consistently high attendance and low ticket prices throughout Germany clearly indicate the model’s potential for success. Yet cracks are starting to appear: Bayern Munich, the league’s historic economic powerhouse, have won the last 10 Bundesliga titles in a row as the teams below them struggle to compete financially, while the emergence of RB Leipzig (owned by Red Bull) and Hoffenheim (bankrolled by software billionaire Dietmar Hopp), points to a loosening of the so-called ‘50+1’ rule.
Still, it would be an improvement on current club structures in England, where fan ownership is rare. Perhaps the most famous example is ACF Wimbledon, relaunched as a new fan-owned entity at the bottom of the English football pyramid in 2002 after the previous iteration of their team moved to Milton Keynes. Similarly, disgruntled Manchester United fans formed FC United of Manchester after American billionaires purchased the club. Both teams have had success: Wimbledon now play in the same league as the team they were formed to replace. FC United of Manchester have won three league titles and reached the second round of the FA Cup over the course of their 17-year history.
Finding joy at the lower echelons of the game, away from the glaring lights of commercialism, can provide one alternative. But it is unlikely that such an alternative will ever pose a genuine threat to owners at the top end of the sport, whether they be American billionaires, Russian oligarchs, or Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds. Any talk of Chelsea pivoting to a fan-owned model after the club was put up for sale was quickly quashed by a reported purchasing price of £3 billion. In the US, the organisation of professional leagues precludes the establishment of new entities run by fans. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers are a lonely stalwart of fan ownership in any major American sport. The requirement that controlling owners in the NFL hold at least a 30% stake in teams is a clear effort to limit the spread of the Packers’ model, confining ownership to a clique of the exceedingly wealthy. At present, most fans remain beholden to their every whim.
The ultimate act of defiance would be simply to stop showing up. Fans could take their support elsewhere, turning to clubs that better embody their values – or they could disengage from sport entirely. This seems as unlikely, however, as it is unreasonable. Fandom, at its core, is not a rational endeavour. One’s choice of team is very rarely the product of logical decision-making. Indeed, it is typically not much of a decision at all. It comes as a product of history, geography, family, or community – none of which can be discarded at a moment’s notice or repositioned elsewhere. It is exactly the reason for such dissonance between fans, whose loyalty and commitment are unshakeable, and the owners, whose true loyalties are reserved for profit margins and their own reputations. That is the very power of the wider sporting industry: as a fan, once you’re in, you’re in for life.
You can more easily ignore or explain away the misdoings of your club than radically re-evaluate a core part of your identity. For this reason, any mooted boycott of the upcoming World Cup in Qatar is bound to fail. Fans will go on turning up to Newcastle United and Manchester City games in the thousands. Millions of Americans will continue to eagerly watch the opening game of the NFL season when it returns this September. We cannot expect that to change anytime soon. Perhaps we can only hope that fans do not lose the forest for the trees: that is, that they do not let their love for their teams obscure the wealthy and often immoral political actors who pull the strings. That they accept the inherent contradictions of loving a team and hating the people that run it. In short, that they embrace the sausage principle in inverted form: to love something and therefore to try and change how it’s made for the better.
LUKE JENSEN-JONES reads History at Merton. A former debater, he now considers himself reformed.
Art by Alex Knighton