“The argument that sport and politics shouldn’t mix is the perfect recipe for corruption”

Alan Tomlinson, football expert as historian, sociologist and writer, reviews the virtues and defects, successes and failures of the football business, an industry that seems to have no limits

Football is, fortunately for those who are passionate, but sometimes also unfortunately for those who live in the business, a topic on which everyone dares to give their opinion. It is the chat at the bar, at the street, at the gatherings among friends and, in contrast, the stone in the shoe for those who have had to account for poor management. Alan Tomlinson is a humanist, historian, sociologist, former football player in his college years, referee and coach. He is one of those authorized voices when it comes to debunking the good and the bad of a business that continues to expand, and has stood out for being, during 30 years of investigation, the scourge of FIFA and its leaders in their most turbulent years.

Taking advantage of his visit to Johan Cruyff Institute as a speaker at the Master in Football Business in collaboration with FC Barcelona, we spoke with him about his vision of the management of FIFA throughout history; about those hectic years, of how it can evolve in the hands of Gianni Infantino; about the power of clubs and the need to practice transparency, on how our way of consuming football has changed and what new generations who want to occupy the offices need to have.

Could you please tell us briefly about your research work on football?

Most of my research has focused upon a mixture of the cultural history of football; sometimes in a particular national context, such as the English league, but also about international football politics really, and especially the history of FIFA. I began writing about the history of FIFA in the middle of the 1980s, and there were some French scholars who’d written a little bit but it was a really wide open field, to be honest. And therefore, I’ve enjoyed doing a lot of original research on how FIFA evolved, where it came from, how the power structures changed, how it affected the growth of the global industry of football. And that’s consistently what I’ve done, along with a colleague John Sugden, who has done some of the books with me. I’ve written five books on the FIFA question and on World Cups and a lot of articles to do with specialist aspects of the history of people concerned with FIFA.

What are your views of the current state of the football business worldwide?

Well, it’s at a remarkable moment, to be honest, because it’s become so global that its expansion seems at times to be rather limitless. What it’s really done is it’s changed the economic base of the game and, in association with the media and the growth of different types of media, it’s brought the game to new corners of the world you would not have dreamed of before. It’s got a dilemma, actually, which I’m sure we could talk about a little bit later. But the dilemma is really: What is the focus of people’s interest in the game? Is it the club? Is the history of a region? Is it the nation? Is it really the Champions League or the World Cup? And depending on that, of course, is it men’s football or women’s football?

“Football has become so global that its expansion seems at times to be rather limitless”

You have researched and published about FIFA for many years. What is your view about what happened in Switzerland?

In Switzerland, in May 2015, it was a moment when what you might call a ‘ticking time bomb’, to use a metaphor, went off. Because for many years a number of us had been writing about corruption at the highest level of FIFA in the administration, possibly collusion at times and careless administration you might call it, but also clear corruption by people very near the top. And for a while the authorities did nothing. But what happened in Switzerland in 2015 is that the Swiss authorities, in many respects emboldened, or certainly provoked almost by the FBI and the United States Department of Justice, really took action against what I’ve tended to call the FIFA Fourteen, and to swoop like it did and seek to arrest people concerned with FIFA at the highest levels—but people who were concerned with FIFA at the higher levels from the confederations, actually, it’s very important to remember that—and other people such as agents who were working at the heart of the new flows of money in the game. Really that’s really when the time bomb went off because what had happened is that the FBI had a new informer, the American Chuck Blazer, who had been general secretary of the Central America and Caribbean Confederation and had turned whistleblower because of his own tax misdemeanors. And so the FBI for some years had been gaining more and more information and Blazer really blew the whistle very loudly indeed. It was a very theatrical moment actually when the authorities raided the luxury hotel on the edge of Lake Zurich, and FIFA then rattled and Blatter won his election a day or two later, at the end of that week. But a couple of days later he announced at a special press conference that he was standing down. So it was a moment when really what some of us had been researching and writing about was suddenly shared by the world and it became possibly the biggest football-related story outside, say, a World Cup final, or some huge political event to do with a big game, that we’ve known. And it gave FIFA a chance to really think again and put its house in order, if you like.

“Whats happened in Switzerland in May 2015 gave FIFA a chance to really think again and put its house in order”

FIFA tried to ban one of your books [Football, Corruption and Lies: Revisiting “Badfellas”]. Has the situation changed with Infantino? Do you think he is a good president?

It’s a very good question because Infantino has a very experienced background in football administration as secretary general of the European body, UEFA. What he did was very, very clever, actually, at the Congress in February 2016 to find Blatter’s successor. He said to all of the associations there who had the vote, the 209 or so associations at the time I think, he said “I will work with you. All of FIFA’s money, whose is it?” He said: “It is yours. We will work together.” And people in the congress all stood up and applauded, and he made a plea—I think it was a genuine plea—to say “there are a lot of resources available through FIFA that we can redistribute.” The key question now is how you redistribute across the world in the realistic best interests of those who need economic help most. So what Infantino has got to do really is to show that FIFA can be rather more transparent in how that redistribution takes place.

How has the way we consume football changed over the years?

When I was a boy, I watched the champion of England win what is now called the Premier League in front of quite big crowds. There weren’t many women watching in 1959-1960, which is the year that Burnley won the English championship. There were lots of people crammed in, most of the people stood up in these grounds, there were no pleasant toilets, there were no burgers … There was not anything really, except a big old stadium and an extraordinarily raw atmosphere. You also often stood next to the opposition fans. The fans were not segregated. It was a very different experience. The game hasn’t changed so much, but the environment of the game has changed. And I have to say it’s changed in lots of ways; sometimes through tragedy because tragedy happens, a ground is shown to be awful and not fit for modern purpose, and so then a real new program takes over to develop safety for stadiums and so on, through tragic reasons really. So sometimes through that, but what has happened is that the audience has become more diverse and I think it’s a lot safer and more comfortable to watch top-class football, and that can only be for the good. But the problem is that sometimes in all-seated stadia some of the old traditional forms of festive enjoyment of the collective thrill of being in a football crowd can be lost. There are debates in different countries, in Germany, across Europe and certainly England, about reintroducing standing zones. The other thing that has changed, of course, is that you can be with a friend sitting in a pub or in your home and suddenly the Bundesliga or LaLiga or the Premier League is staring you in the face on your laptop. And so we are not visitors to the game now as much as it used to be in a special occasion, the game is almost an imposed presence on us. We cannot get away from it, which is both a beauty but also a potential oppression. It can take away the sense of special event, that sports events, along with other sorts of events, are so magical about.


Who has the real power to change things: clubs, federations, the media, fans?

In an ideal world, they would all work together. In an ideal world, there would be fora, there would be gatherings, there would be ways of these interests representing each other. The clubs have particular power, the richer the game has got the more money that has gone to the top clubs through things like Champions League rights and so on, which has led to players being extraordinarily valuable commodities in themselves. It means that the clubs in some ways have the biggest say but they do not have the widest power. So the associations and then the international confederation still have, and I think this is very appropriate, they still have the organizational power. So, in my view, and UEFA has done this a little bit, the clubs and the confederations, and the international federation FIFA, they must learn to work together more openly and, I’m sorry to use the word perhaps again, but more transparently. UEFA started doing this by giving the clubs more space, if you like, in the structures of UEFA, but it must not only be the richest four or five clubs from each of the richest countries in the football world that represent the clubs because then it would be much more a kind of continuing monopoly of the rich. And the people’s game must not be allowed to develop solely along that line.

“In women’s football, I’d love to see a bigger market, not just in special events of the women’s game, but a bigger market that combines live audiences, live crowds with the featured stuff on the media”

Where is the biggest margin of growth in football business?

That’s interesting. We’ve often thought there are areas of the world like, you know, China seems to… it can offer them money, but can it really offer the basis of a football culture just in a few months or years investment? And my answer is ‘no’. This is sometimes about the growth of something across generations, a culture that grows within the society through generational involvements. So I’m more interested in areas where football has already got roots and there are ways in which some of those roots can be further nurtured. Women’s football is now at a level in playing that 20, 30 years ago a lot of people could not have imagined. It is at a very strong level but it does not have very many faces at all, very buoyant audiences for the live events. But if that could be developed in certain ways more fully, and possibly some of the established and wealthy existing clubs in the men’s game could do more (some do quite a lot of this already) to help cultivate the women’s game as a spectator phenomenon, rather than just an occasional interest for people at the level of, say, European Championships or the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Because there are more women watching the men’s game, there are more women playing in various societies through their teens and their youthful years. I’d love to see a bigger market, not just in special events of the women’s game, but a bigger market that combines live audiences, live crowds with the featured stuff on the media.

Should sport be involved in politics?

It’s one of the oldest questions in the whole of this area. Sometimes the argument that sport and politics shouldn’t mix is the perfect recipe for corruption, which goes to say that this is not political this is just sport, and then people in a way are not accountable to governments, they’re not accountable to structures. Everything is political in my view in this way, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s cultural politics, it’s cultural history that feeds into debates about how best we can develop our cultures and our rituals in society and protect our national heritage, which includes sport.

What would be your advice to the students of the Master in Football Business, people willing to bring new ideas to football organizations?

I think young people coming into this business now need to combine an understanding of the historical legacies, with the passion that, without which, football would not the business that it is—an understanding, a sensitive understanding of those passions, but not to be too traditional about how and where the developments are. Because all developments, say, across the new media platforms, as long as the product itself, as long as the ritual itself and the identifiable product of football itself is not threatened, all of them can be welcome. I wish the new entrants into this business the best of luck in there. I do think there are some areas as well that the business has developed which are a problem. I think, for instance, some of the wealthiest people in the football industry—agents—have no accountability to anybody and are silencing in the voices of players at times. And I do think we could encourage some developments and people coming into the industry could ask why it is that certain sorts of actors have such a huge degree of control over some of the most important figures, i.e. the players, because I think the players could become—the top players—such inaccessible celebrities that we lose a really important human dimension of the game.


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