So another World Cup has come and almost gone. Now Planet Football must face up to a none-too-certain future as the wild promises which have marked the last ten years are shown to be somewhat short of the mark. The passionate support of the fans in Korea and Japan during June has to be set against an ongoing saga of greed, self-serving avarice and incompetence from football’s governing authorities and the multinational corporations behind them.
World Cup 2002 was always intended to have a purpose over and very much above a sporting one. The choice of Japan and South Korea as joint venues itself had a long-term commercial dimension to it. Such are the real priorities of those who run and own world football.
As far back as the late 1980s a plan was hatched by football’s power brokers to "open up" the potentially extremely lucrative and until-then largely untouched Asian market. European clubs were starting to notice the interest from Asia in their teams and therefore the potential purchasing power for team strips, etc. During the 1990s Manchester United made a particular effort to cut into this new territory with tours, Asian-based commercial wings and so on. Arsenal following this up by purchasing a Japanese player, Junichi Inamoto, a cult player in his home country. Mr Inamoto never actually made more than a small handful of appearances for Arsenal (and those were all in meaningless games), yet featured prominently in commercial handouts, shop catalogues and so on. It was hard not to suspect a non-footballing motive for this player’s signing.
In Japan itself the moneymen had set about creating a whole football league structure out of thin air in order to prepare the ground for the transformation of the country into a football-loving and hopefully spending market. Hence the J-League. The next step was to bring the World Cup to the Far East. Fortunately for them FIFA was, as usual, obliging. Having the finals split across two countries was an unexpected bonus.
Sadly for the men in suits at FIFA HQ, the build up to World Cup 2002 was marked by a most unseemly, for them anyway, washing of dirty linen as accusations of corruption and incompetence flew back and forth. Up until now none of this would have ever worried these gentlemen were it not for the almighty mess they had got themselves into following the mysterious collapse of FIFA’s commercial wing, ISL. So the knives were out for supremo Sepp Blatter but the old rogue had worked hard buttering up the various FIFA delegates and the old Don survived a vote of confidence by a considerable margin. However this is a problem that will not go away and reflects the worldwide "downturn" in the football industry. Lucrative television deals have been botched – including some of those for the World Cup itself – and the crisis which has hit the media giants over the last year or so has had its knock on-effect so far as football is concerned.
At home, despite all the flag-waving support for the England team over the last couple of weeks, things are not much brighter – quite the reverse in fact. Share prices of football clubs have fallen as doubts about the profitability of the national game grow. The crisis surrounding the ITV Digital deal with the Nationwide League serves to remind us once again of the inbuilt inability of capitalism to face reality when it is staring them in the face. In an orgy of spending ITV Digital had decided to boost the fledgling terrestrial digital service by forking out millions of pounds not only on the Premiership but also on the Nationwide League, this to a degree far beyond anything ever considered before. Clubs rubbed their hands at the promise of huge payouts which were supposed to now come their way without even thinking about the possibility that ITV Digital could not actually afford all this. When it became apparent that technical problems with the system used by ITV Digital, linked to the slow take-up of the various sports services provided by the company, meant that the whole deal was in jeopardy, panic set in. Incredibly ITV Digital had managed to mess up what should have been a sure thing – using football to underwrite the expansion of long-overdue new technology. Now with ITV Digital going bust, all the Nationwide Clubs are facing a huge shortfall in projected income for the coming year. The response has a been a rash of layoffs, staff cuts and in some cases clubs going into administration themselves. The gravy train has well and truly gone off the rails. The Premiership – with its existing deals with ITV and BSkyB – has largely escaped the fallout from this collapse but all the industry experts now predict that the next set of television rights deals to be negotiated will be for far less cash on the table then was the case last time.
Whatever commercial spin-offs arise from the World Cup – and this was largely dependent on the continued success or otherwise of the England team who survived to the quarter finals – will be more than offset by the sharp decline in television money. For the Nationwide League that day has already dawned. Fans already disgusted by the rampant exploitation by football’s moneymen of their loyal support will only feel anger as their clubs raise ticket prices, cut squads or even go bust. The struggle to reclaim the game for those who really care about it as a sport not a source of financial gain must be revived and intensified as the issue of who owns football becomes more and more central.