Our global sport has entered an accelerated transition from international sport to international political/economic surrogate. Over the past two years, as resurgent waves of Covid-19 continue to ravage societies on a planetary scale, the virus is disrupting the politics and economics of many nations, and, as an off-shoot, upending our sport. What is emerging is a clear picture of who is who in international soccer, not via long-standing stylistic, strategic, geographic, or club-identity differentiators, but via raw, national, political, and economic divides.
It took the pandemic to lay bare just how distressed finances were at Barcelona, Juventus, and Real Madrid, and how comparatively stronger they were at PSG and the Manchesters. But these differences had as much to do with internal club finances being affected by the closure of stadiums, with their attendant revenue loss, as it did with how certain international economic and political machinations played out.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are major contributors to Spain’s national economy and identity and thus the two teams have been deemed too big to fail by Spain, the nation. So, it was no surprise that the Spanish Football Federation and La Liga were not on top of their super-teams’ shenanigans until their inevitable implosion. For Barcelona, the pain was losing Lionel Messi while admitting to a $1Billion+ indebtedness. For Real Madrid, it meant hanging onto the misguided hope of a Super League while losing Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane and not being able to purchase Kylian Mbappe.
For La Liga and Spain, allowing their two marquee clubs to run as they chose was a means to an end—maintaining Spanish Football as a top generator of national funds and prestige. Now, as the dust settles, Spanish League, Cup, and Champions League performances might end up being commensurate with their relative status within their national and continental milieus but it is very doubtful and perhaps even healthy if both Spanish Giant teams were to stumble year-long.
PSG, bankrolled by Qatari riyals, was less affected by the pandemic, or for that matter anything else, and they bought up the globally coveted diminutive Argentine prize. They could also simultaneously wait out the Mbappe situation and their owners could continue their somewhat successful whitewashing of the bribe-bought World Cup 2022, scheduled to take place in…wait for it…winter of 2022. Will the Qataris continue to bankroll PSG once their cup hosting stint ends? What benefit will the Qatari people derive from the cup once the tourney is over?
Juventus, the leading team in Italy (their biggest club, most dominant side, greatest contributor to the national team, and possessor of one of the most powerful FIFA executives in team owner Andrea Agnelli) was hurting so much financially they had wanted to make the Super League happen while trying to get rid of their relatively recent super acquisition, Cristiano Ronaldo. But few other clubs could afford him. Then, it turned out, Manchester City, PSG, and Manchester United, all had the funds to bid on him. But no team in Italy, or Germany, or Spain, could touch him. Eventually, the team with the purse and heartstrings won out and Ronaldo is now at Manchester United…with its USA-based owners continuing to use the Now York Stock exchange-listed club as their private money machine.
It will be interesting to see if there are any future Premier League, UEFA, or FIFA financial fair play investigations of ManU, you know, the way the Neymar to Barcelona scandal was investigated, or the Neymar to PSG with a side of Mbappe and Messi on top seems to have been financially possible in a fair play type of way, no?! To some, it may seem UEFA’s and FIFA’s largesse is actually an attempt to hoard a lot of chits from the European Club Association (ECA)—why?
The Italian triple experiment to reinvigorate Serie A, rejuvenate their national team and attempt to co-spearhead the Super League fell short one goal. The national team are European Champions, and Serie A’s profile has definitely risen but the new league is nonexistent. What is interesting is that FIFA declined to pursue either Juventus’ Agnelli or Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez for any type of sanctions over their Super League fiasco. Could the geopolitics be that FIFA needs UEFA’s national and ECA membership backing for the coming political stretch toward the 2022 World Cup, the new FIFA Club World Cup, and the continuation of the Nations League?
Meanwhile, the European Cup did not “Come home,” as the English kept telling us it would, it ended up in Rome, as it were. But that England’s national team got to play almost exclusively at home all tournament long and made it to the final is a testament to the financial and political nature of our sport. With England and Italy having so many Covid-19 resurgence issues at the time of the Euros why were they nonetheless maintained as co-hosts? Finally, certainly, Denmark was the true Euro 2022 finalist, but boy would that have overturned the gravy train! And then, they might have won, oh, no!
South American Futbol
In Copa America, we saw that the anticipated Messi coronation in Argentina was upended by Covid-19 as the joint Colombia-Argentina hosting set-up had to be scratched given the pandemic’s effect on those two nations. This is South America, not Europe, remember. We also saw that guests Qatar and Australia “had to withdraw” from the competition due to scheduling conflicts with their World Cup 2022 qualifiers.
Chile seemed the obvious and willing host alternative, but the Chileans were unwilling to have FIFA dictate the tourney’s outcome in exchange for hosting. Brazilians, the people, would have been similarly disinclined, but their government had no issues with the sham so long as they got to play at home to give their purposely overexposed populace something else to focus on. Ironically, President Jair Bolsonaro was willing to let the Copa go, as it is the World Cup that the Brazilians most covet. “Don’t mess with our qualifiers, and we’ll concede on the Copa,” it would seem to have been. And given the officiating largesse, all comers have enjoyed while playing Brazil over the past several World Cups, this could be seen as an investment in the future. “You dispose of the Copa as you see fit, FIFA, but allow us to fairly compete at the 2022 World Cup,” it could have been.
Brazil, the squad, seemed the team to beat and was so far ahead of every other squad, Argentina included, that the Selecao was one win away from an undefeated trophy title. But, playing at home, and with every indication they were about to become back-to-back Copa winners, the Canarinha went Qatari-cold in the finals while FIFA President Gianni Infantino sat in the stands?! A team that had scored 12 goals and allowed two in their previous six home matches was unable to turn their 59% possession and over two to one advantage on shots at goal into a single score when it most mattered?! Oh, well!
Interestingly the game stats would show that for the first time in recent memory Argentina was called for more fouls than Brazil in a Super Clasico and was awarded more yellow cards, what it will not show was the number of non-calls on Neymar, or the timing of several fouls on Brazil while in possession which were play-stopping whistles, or the calls that allowed Argentina to continue possessing when they should have lost ownership of the ball, or the lack of time-wasting calls overall given the Argentine’s early lead. A very interestingly officiated match.
Subsequently, when the Brazil vs Argentina World Cup 2022 qualifier was to be played (also in Brazil) it was the local health authority that put a stop to the match when it was found, at the federal level, that several Argentines had lied in their visa applications and were ineligible to do anything other than self-quarantine for two weeks. The Argentines not only knew of the illegal presence of their players, but they also chose two of them to play the match. Why did the Brazilian government not handle the issue immediately at the federal level? Why didn’t CONMEBOL or FIFA step up to help handle things?
The more jaded among us might be forgiven for thinking that the national authorities were simply allowing the local authorities some leeway as they pursued some popular payback for the Argentines’ Copa win on Brazilian soil. What will truly tell the tale will be how, when, and if the game is rescheduled. How much do you want to bet that Brazil (the team and federation) wants it rescheduled despite going (so far) undefeated in qualifiers (i.e. they want a rematch without being chained to a predetermined outcome), while points-needing Argentina, does not seem to want to ride the advantageous momentum of their recent “win.” How come?!
It is also remarkable that the Qatari absence in Copa America and their presence in the Gold Cup, a few days later, seemed a non-issue for anyone, particularly for FIFA via CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. Those pesky World Cup qualifier schedules, was it? Rriiiiight?!
North American Soccer
It would not be a stretch to say that despite being the only historical cream in the crop at CONCACAF, Mexico is no longer the sole possessor of decent soccer in the Confederation. Actually, Canada, Costa Rica, and mostly the USA are real geographic competitors, and the teams which eventually represent the region in Qatar will not be pushovers.
In the preceding Nations League final, the USA, playing with all of its European-club stars, deservedly defeated Mexico in a tough and well-played match. In distinct contrast, the B team USA coach, Gregg Berhalter, went within the Gold Cup was no better than perhaps the six best team in the competition and they did not deserve to be in the final. But they played Qatar in the semis.
There, despite being the arguably best team in the competition Qatar fell short of the finals in a surprisingly poor performance against the USA which included Qatar missing point-blank shots the likes of which they routinely scored throughout the tourney. Then, their specialty penalty kicker, who had converted previously throughout the team’s Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers, and even in the Gold Cup, just happened to sky the biggest penalty kick of his career. Perhaps most telling of all, with the game on the line, the score at 0-0, the Qataris substituted their best player 23 minutes before the final whistle! Oh, well!
It was interesting to note that Qatar, who had previously been so ardent in their pursuit of La Liga broadcasting rights to have massively overbid all competitors years back, this year allowed ESPN to outbid them for that top-level coverage while choosing to retain the rights to their Ligue 1 broadcasts. And subsequently, they bought Messi and brought him from La Liga to PSG, which happens to play in Ligue 1. Oh, well!
One may once have thought it curious that the US Justice Department stopped short of investigating the other major FIFA transgressors in their otherwise thorough and well-documented investigation of the international organization’s misdeeds. It seems tracking down just how the bribes worked in the case of US uber-rival Russia was deemed too politically daunting. Similarly, pursuing Qatar, it now seems, would not have been in our country’s geopolitical interests. Maybe things are becoming a bit less curious on the sporting scene as they become clearer on the political arena, no?! You see, as the imploding US Afghanistan evacuation reached its apogee it was Qatar that was taking in the bulk of refugees the US was able to take out. Quid pro quo X2?
FIFA Finance and Global Corruption, and vice versa
Finally, we are back to FIFA as an entity onto itself and likewise the Global Financial System (propped up by sovereign governments, particularly our own) as a player. Just to make sure you are reading correctly, please clean your glasses before continuing…
FIFA was recently awarded $200,000,000 by our Justice Department, as their victim’s share of the corruption scandal they engendered. Somewhat like when the US banking system was able to create the 2008 financial crisis and also receive a multi-trillion-dollar bailout which they promptly turned into a financial windfall for the executives who created the crisis while neglecting to use the funds to alleviate the hurt and damage they wreaked. How much of that sum was originally in riyals?
QATAR, who decided not to participate in the South American tourney they agreed to play in but participated in the North American tourney they hardly needed to be invited to, was allowed to do as they wished by all of FIFA’s Confederations. Similarly, the Qataris whose only interest in broadcasting La Liga via BeIn Sport was to capture the Messi-vs-Cristiano Ronaldo audience juggernaut, tried to buy Ronaldo, bought Messi, and retained the rights to broadcast him weekly, while FIFA allows PSG to somehow comply with Financial Fair Play rules (let alone Fair Play in general) maintaining a roster that includes Neymar, Mbappe, Messi, and several other world-class players. FIFA rule book, anyone?
CONMEBOL, one of the most corrupt FIFA confederations, seemed to allow that Lionel Messi was “owed a World Cup,” but, in their wisdom, opted to have him settle for a gift-wrapped Copa America 2021—so as not to offend non-South Americans. Was Messi on his way to Paris via those riyals by this time?
CONCACAF, another of the most corrupt FIFA confederations, seemed to feel it was ok to deprive fans of a fair Gold Cup and instead allowed Qatar to show how good they were before needing them to bow out to the USA’s B team so that the hosts could hoist their unearned cup. Quid pro quo, what?
Meanwhile back at home in the USA, it was our FINANCIAL SECTOR who was the guarantor of the funds the Super League would have required to operate. Similarly, it was our JUSTICE DEPARTMENT who prosecuted the FIFA scandal. But did we mention current FIFA leaders were intrinsically intertwined with those found to be corrupt during the investigations of those FIFA scandals and are now both in charge of FIFA—AND—the recipients of those Justice Department payoffs? Wonder how much of that money is being invested in our financial sector as opposed to the European’s while they figure out how to disburse it.
Just to close the circle on global finances and FIFA, a Swiss court, a counterpart to the Swiss financial sector, where FIFA keeps many of its other billions, has ruled that their Justice Department folks who were prosecuting the sitting FIFA president are no longer “technically” allowed to do so. A new team must take up the task. It seems the A team was too good. Imagine if those funds left neutral Switzerland and ended up, oh, say, in the coffers of a needy soccer federation!
Now, Papa knows that he has connected dots here that others might not fancy as connectable, but when puzzle pieces seem to fit, well, aren’t puzzles designed so that pieces only fit one way? If so, one hardly begins to look for other spots where they may also fit, right? So, admitting his limitations and biases, Papa saw it the way he wrote it above.