Interview with Alan Tomlinson, humanist, historian, sociologist and professor of Master in Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona
The academic background of Alan Tomlinson includes a grounding in the Humanities, with studies in English literature, history and philosophy, which he then combined with sociology at postgraduate and doctoral level. At university, he also played football and was captain of the football teams at the University of Kent and at the University of Sussex. He qualified, too, as a football referee and obtained a coaching qualification from The Football Association. His commitment to football has been lifelong, as a supporter of Burnley Football Club, who were the English league champions in the 1959-60 season. We could say that he was born into the game, and perhaps this lured him, as an adult academic, towards the study of sport as his main research focus.
Could you please tell us about your research work on football?
My research on football has focused upon the power dimensions of the sport, as understood from a social scientific perspective. I have had a general interest in the social and cultural history of football, and in one of my books (The Game’s Up, Ashgate/Arena, 1999) the section “Studies in Football Culture” includes research on the micro-politics of football culture as well as the origins of FIFA, and on the historical making of modern football institutions in England as well as the more recent boom in the global mediatization and commodification of the game. Most of all, though, I have made a long-term study of FIFA, over a 30-year period, and published extensively on the history, politics and sociology of the organization. This has included investigative work on the power machinations within FIFA, and analysis of the emergence of the culture of corruption that led to the FIFA scandals of recent years, and of course to the introduction of reforms that are intended to make such scandals a thing of the past. I have commented extensively across global media on these issues.
What are your views of the current state of the football business worldwide? What are the main trends and what changes are needed, if any?
The state of the football business worldwide is uneven, and the richest clubs and leagues, whilst providing captivating spectacle, also monopolize the market. Take the state of football in the continent of Africa; whilst some outstanding national sides have emerged over the last 30-40 years, the flow of talent to Europe has meant that national football leagues on the continent have lacked stability and, starved of resources and expertise, failed to sustain or further develop the base of the football business in the country.
You had researched and published about FIFA for many years before the turmoil of 2015. What is your view about what happened in Switzerland?
The FIFA scandal, or turmoil as the question puts it, was a long time in the making, and in many respects the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, should not have gone 13 years before he was called to account by FIFA’s own ethics committee. Just four years into his first term – and remember Blatter was a FIFA employee from 1975 up to 1998 when he defeated UEFA’s Lennart Johansson for the presidency – his own executive committee garnered extensive evidence on his corrupt financial administration and his abuses of presidential power. But the Swiss authorities sat back. It took the intervention of the law enforcement heavyweights of the US – the Department of Justice and the FBI – to put effective measures in place to expose the criminality of many who had got onto the FIFA bandwagon. And after that May morning in Switzerland, the dawn raid at the Baur du Lac hotel by Swiss authorities in support of the FBI and the US indictments, FIFA was exposed for what in some of its operations and networks it had become – a crooked enterprise used by officials and administrators whose main interest was not ‘the good of the game’, as a FIFA slogan puts it, but the lining of their own pockets. The culture conducive to such exploitation, though, had become well established in the time of Blatter’s predecessor Havelange, and was also deeply embedded in some of the six continental confederations that FIFA recognizes. Much of this story was told in my book Badfellas: FIFA Family at War (Mainstream, 2003, with John Sugden), and also reprinted in Football, Corruption and Lies: Revisiting “Badfellas”, the book FIFA Tried to Ban (Routledge, 2017).
How do you analyze the Chinese government’s new relationship with football?
Football has become such a huge global business, guaranteeing a massive worldwide profile, that it is hardly surprising that a mix of political and commercial interests in China has emerged as a potential challenge to the established power bases of world football (and in particular the giants of the European game). Politicians also know that sport has great potential as a means of cultivating national passions and pride. The Chinese government would without doubt like a strong league, to show the world that it can produce a global commodity on a par with the top European leagues, and to generate interest and potential excellence among its own population. These will not be easy goals to achieve though, and the nurturing of sporting talent, and a fan base for a sport, can be a long and unpredictable, cross-generational process. Governments can also be fragile and fickle, and long-term plans can be undermined by new priorities and political shifts. Football is not just a business; it is a culture. And a living, vibrant culture cannot be simply manufactured overnight, or imposed from above.
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Visit the web page of the Master in Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona to find out more about the study program, which we deliver in English in Barcelona.
Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam uses a rich learning environment that fosters educational tools based on a student interaction model. We aim for a mix of students from sports and business sectors, which also enables students to share their unique experiences and learn from each other. Through ‘Cruyffian’ teaching methods the students will engage actively in creative challenges that require effort, commitment and intuitive thinking. Visit the web pages to find out more about these programs of our institute in Amsterdam, which we deliver in English: