This Year’s World Cup Has Epitomized the Corporate Takeover of Football

A morally tarnished World Cup in Qatar was the latest phase in the degeneration of modern football. Europe’s top clubs have become playthings of the superwealthy, taking the game ever further from its popular roots.

Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, with Qatari prime minister Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani at Khalifa International Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Marc Atkins / Getty Images)

This year’s World Cup has been a bizarre and unsettling spectacle for lovers of what romantics still call “the beautiful game.” An extraordinary number of the people who voted for Qatar to be host back in 2010 later ended up in handcuffs as part of a massive corruption scandal in 2015.

Many had accepted payments from Qatari football official Mohammed bin Hammam, a member of FIFA’s powerful Executive Committee. The Qatar 2022 bid chairman Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani once described bin Hammam as the bid’s “biggest asset.” However, when he was eventually banned from the sport for life, the bid committee suddenly claimed that he had played “no official or unofficial role” in their success.

Human rights groups have documented the inhumane treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, who did most of the work constructing new stadiums for the tournament. The kafala system of work permits means that they can be treated in the most brazenly exploitative manner. The authorities routinely presented the deaths of workers as resulting from “natural causes” without proper postmortems.

Qatari officials claim that there were just three worker fatalities linked to this World Cup, while independent estimates run as high as several thousand. FIFA has been promising for over a decade to finalize a compensation package for all those who died in construction projects linked to the World Cup. It has yet to materialize.

Shankly’s Vision

As this corporatized and morally compromised World Cup splutters to a halt, then, it is easy to forget how far away from the game’s humble roots we have traveled. People have been kicking balls about since antiquity, of course, but the English Football Association (FA) only codified the rules properly in 1882. Football clubs became a source of local pride and a simple means of escape on a Saturday afternoon. For its mostly working-class practitioners, it was a modest means of moving up in the world, given the salary cap that was only abolished in the UK in 1961.

The legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly was one of the defining managers of twentieth-century British football. There is a statue of him outside Anfield, Liverpool’s famous stadium, engraved with the words “He made the people happy.” It’s a simple and fitting tribute. Shankly took the Liverpool job at the end of the 1950s, when the team was in the Second Division of English football. By the time he left fifteen years later, it had won three league titles, two FA Cups, and a Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Cup on the continent.

Born into a small Scottish mining town in 1913, Shankly left school at age fourteen and went to work in a local coal mine. Playing and watching football was a release from the heat, the grime, and the dark of the pit. He was passionately, maniacally obsessed with the game, and his pithy ruminations on it are an inevitable part of any autobiographical sketch of the man. Once asked a question about the pressure involved in top-level sport, he scornfully replied:

Pressure is working down the pit. Pressure is having no work at all. Pressure is trying to escape relegation on 50 shillings a week. Pressure is not the European Cup or the Championship or the Cup Final. That’s the reward.

The man was so quotable he has been extensively misquoted, his words tidied up so they can fit on mugs, scarves, T-shirts, and anything else you might think of as you exit through the gift shop at Anfield. “Football is a simple game made complicated by idiots,” was a personal favorite of mine, until I realized that he had really said it was “made complicated by people who should know better,” which doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so devilishly. Shankly also coined one of the game’s most well-worn clichés, that of a fervent home support “sucking the ball into the net,” still habitually invoked on big European nights at Anfield.

He was also an avowed socialist:

The socialism I believe in is not really politics, it is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life.

“This Means More”

What would Shankly think about Liverpool FC these days? On the pitch, he would surely admire the high-energy brand of “heavy metal football” it practices under the guidance of its visionary manager Jürgen Klopp. Off it, the club is a behemoth of world football. Billion-dollar TV deals allied to Klopp’s genius mean that Liverpool continues to eat at the top table and its shareholders are kept nice and plump, too.

However, it is easy to imagine Shankly being less than happy with the club’s treatment of local residents around Anfield since the beginning of the 1990s. To keep pace with Manchester United as its rivals dominated the lucrative new Premier League competition, Liverpool began secretly buying up houses around its stadium, purposefully leaving them unoccupied.

In doing so, it was banking on social problems arising. Crime and antisocial behavior exploded in the vacant buildings. In turn, house values plummeted. This allowed the club to buy up further properties to clear a path toward the demolitions that were needed to expand Anfield’s capacity.

The human cost of this plan was incalculable. When a local newspaper uncovered what had been happening in 1999, the club’s CEO at the time, Rick Parry, promised to be a “better neighbor” in the future. Fourteen years later, a local resident declared the club to be the “world’s worst neighbors.” By then, Parry was long gone, having pocketed £90 million from the sale of the club in 2007. The bitter taste in the mouths of residents — not to mention the holes in their bank balances — linger on.

In 2017, Liverpool’s new CEO Peter Moore sat down with the board to discuss ways to promote the club:

As a marketing expert, I wanted to unravel exactly what (the club) meant . . . How do we distil this? Even today, when we talk about business, we ask ourselves: “What would Shankly do? What would Bill say in this situation?” He was a true socialist who believed that football consisted of working together. We said: “Let’s put this into words.” The conclusion was that Liverpool’s essential idea is that this means more. More than winning or losing. More than going to football, more than a get-together in the pub and then going home.

The deflating end-up of this little vignette is that the board had come up with a slogan — “This Means More” — that would become the club’s new motto. How the marketing phrase related in any tangible way to Shankly’s conception of socialism was unimportant. Over the right music, with those slow-motion action shots with the crowd noise turned up so beloved of modern sports ads, it sure sounds like it means something.

Daring to Dream

This fuzzily nonspecific sloganeering is the lingua franca of modern football, which masks the morally questionable individuals who run it and profit from it. Consider one of the main English-language ads that has been running during this World Cup, for the Korean auto manufacturer Hyundai.

The ad blends dramatically swelling music with images of broad mountain vistas and ersatz symbols of racial harmony and universal brotherhood. To complete the package, former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard sounds laughably indifferent as he tells us that sustainability is humanity’s “goal of the century.” How this is supposed to square with a World Cup held in a feudally exploitative petrostate is up to the viewer to discern.

More laughable again was Gerrard’s erstwhile England teammate David Beckham directly equating the dreams of young working-class footballers with those of the extremely well-off, grown-up members of the organizing committee for Qatar’s bid:

Every one of the great players I was lucky enough to play with started exactly the same way. In a back garden, park, or a street outside their home with just a ball and an imagination that they dared to let run wild.

Letting his imagination run very wild indeed, Beckham went on as follows:

Qatar dreamed of bringing the World Cup to a place that it had never been before, but that it wouldn’t be enough just to achieve things on the pitch. The pitch would be a platform for progress.

Beckham’s high profile has meant that he has come in for strong, sustained criticism. His weasel words about social progress simply do not tally with what the world has seen in the run-up to this World Cup, although Beckham’s willingness to utter them is easily explained by the $150 million he is reported to have earned for his ambassadorial role.

Less Than a Club

Beckham is simply the publicly recognizable tip of a very large iceberg. Consider Barcelona, a member-owned symbol of Catalan independence and resistance from the Franco era on, whose enduring slogan “Més Que Un Club” (“More Than a Club”) has been called into question in recent years.

In 2006, the Catalan club reversed a long-standing policy of not striking sponsorship deals for advertisers to appear on the front of their iconic blue and red striped jerseys. Yet it reversed the normal financial dynamics of shirt sponsorship by paying UNICEF €1 million a year for the honor of having the UN agency’s logo emblazoned on the Barcelona jersey. This seemed to be in keeping with the ethos of a club still nominally proud of the principles behind its slogan — the importance of things beyond the winning and losing of football games.

However, the club administration’s next move was a wild handbrake turn. It announced a deal with the Qatari Foundation, an organization set up by a member of the country’s autocratic ruling dynasty. The Foundation claims to be free from any state influence, despite being formed and run by members of the royal family.

The initial announcement said that the club would find room on the front of the shirt for the Foundation’s logo alongside that of UNICEF. In the end, the UNICEF logo was reduced to near invisibility on the back of each player’s shirt. The excuse was that the previous club administration had made such a mess of its fiduciary duties that the incoming board had little option but to sell the club out in the most egregious manner.

Barcelona has spiraled sharply downward since then as a series of poor financial decisions led the club to the precipice after COVID-19 hit the world of football (along with everything else). It is now in the unenviable position of trading in its own future, selling off chunks of projected income over the next quarter century, threatening to sue its own players, and perhaps most undignified of all, selling the naming rights to the iconic Camp Nou stadium to Spotify.

Hard Power

The club has stumbled spectacularly in a mad dash to keep up with the oil-rich nation-states of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf monarchies bought up three of the European game’s sleeping giants, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Manchester City, and Newcastle United. These clubs now have more money at their disposal than they could ever spend.

Manchester City and PSG have dominated their domestic leagues in recent years, while Newcastle came under Saudi control just over a year ago and is therefore in the early stages of a bid for world domination. There seems to be little doubt that all three state-clubs are in this for the long haul.

Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup in 2010, around the time that Barcelona’s sponsorship deal was announced. A deal to buy PSG was struck six months later. The World Cup bid had been planned for many years before that. Billions have been invested, with countless billions more to come.

When discussing the influence these clubs are having on the fabric of the game, journalists often invoke euphemistic phrases like “soft power” and “sports washing.” These terms mask a level of financial chicanery that, in the case of PSG and Manchester City, is on a level unparalleled in the modern game. But the European governing body UEFA has responded only with the lightest forms of light-touch regulation

Both PSG and Manchester City have proven particularly adept at creative accounting to escape the limits placed on a club’s spending. The large fees paid to Manchester City’s former manager Roberto Mancini for “consultancy” work are just one example. Their strategies also include garnering praise for regenerating run-down local areas (or investing in property, as others would call it), striking inflated sponsorship deals with state institutions, and engaging teams of frighteningly high-priced lawyers if the football authorities attempt to bring any kind of sanctions to bear against them.

This means they can diversify their financial interests in anticipation of a post-oil world. The huge resources at Saudi Arabia’s disposal mean that its leader Mohammed bin Salman, who was responsible for the horrific death of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, can quite literally get away with murder while still having the opportunity to fist bump Joe Biden. The bodies that run football are a pushover in comparison to the US government.

Despite the limp protestations of FIFA and David Beckham that World Cups can lead to more open societies, you need only look at Russia’s absurd recent anti-LGBQT+ legislation for evidence to the contrary. Given that Qatar’s official World Cup ambassador recently proclaimed homosexuality to be “damage in the mind,” it seems human rights groups and sports journalists should continue to keep a very sharp eye on the country after the final ball is kicked on Sunday night.

Bill Shankly’s most famous quip suggested playfully that football was not a matter of life and death, but instead a matter “far more important than that.” It’s unlikely that he envisaged a scenario where thousands would die building stadiums for a World Cup, or one that would allow the string of broken promises and cynical politicking that has surrounded Qatar 2022.

The great boxing commentator Larry Merchant once remarked that “nothing will kill boxing, and nothing can save it.” With worldwide viewing figures for this tainted World Cup breaking all previous records, it’s easy to conclude that nothing will kill football. It’s just as likely that nothing can save it at this stage, either.