Let’s hear it for the French

SOMETIMES football’s administrators seem to adopt the sort of approach that eccentric writer William Burroughs used to concoct sentences when he was penning his novels. He would cut up various words and come up with very creative passages of prose, often out of nowhere. When it comes to future tournament structures, such as the bloated 48-team World Cup and now an idea to introduce an additional European club competition concept, you have to wonder if the backroom staff sit around a table and try to make the football calendar even more crowded in a very similar, random fashion.

But the people governing football really cannot win – they preside over a pastime that millions and millions believe is their personal property. It’s a ludicrous idea that a sport that is now a fully-fledged business sector is some sort of sporting socialism, because it is as much a child of capitalism as the most aggressive form of commerce. The governing bodies are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The French are getting some criticism at the moment, largely due to their handling of the UEFA Champions League, but it is fair to give credit to a nation that really created the framework that modern football adheres to. The World Cup, European Championship and European Cup (Champions League) are all ideas that were germinated in France. Men like Jules Rimet (pictured in 1951), Henry Delaunay and Gabriel Hanot helped to shape modern football. And all this despite the fact that French football, on the international stage, has been an inconsistent player – only recently enhanced by the winning of the European Championship in 1984 and 2000 and the World Cups in 1998 and 2018.

Let’s not deny France has had some great players down the years: Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Raymond Kopa, Just Fontaine and Thierry Henry to name but a few. France was among the forerunners of intelligent writers on the game. L’Equipe and France Football were among the first “serious” publications to examine football and both were instrumental in the development of the European game. France Football was the sponsor of the Ballon D’Or, while L’Equipe, a sports paper, was a big advocate of the European Cup.

Rimet was a liberal character full of ideals. He founded the Paris club, Red Star, in 1897 and was one of the people behind the formation of FIFA. At an early stage, he nurtured the idea of a global professional football competition, but had to make do with an amateur competition at the 1908 Olympic Games. It wasn’t until 1928 that the idea of the World Cup started to take shape. The choice of venue, Uruguay, was controversial, but it was largely due to the fact that the Uruguayans had agreed to pay all related costs. Rimet, along with the competing teams, all travelled to South America on the Italian ship, SS Conte Verde and for the entire voyage, Rimet carried his trophy in a bag alongside him.

Delaunay was Rimet’s friend and colleague. He was also involved in the foundation of the World Cup, but in 1927, proposed the inauguration of a European competition. It wasn’t until 1960 that the first European Nations Cup took place. The trophy bears his name. Gabriel Hanot has never had his name on a trophy as far as I know, but he was the instigator of discussions around European integration. Hanot, a journalist and former footballer, was inspired by the pre-war Mitropa Cup and Copa Latina (Latin Cup). But it was also the claim made by Wolverhampton Wanderers that they were “champions of the World”, after beating Hungary’s Honved at a floodlit Molineux, that spurred him on. One senses that the French did not like this self-appointed title and wanted to prove the Brits wrong. Interestingly, England spurned the idea of the competition, much as they had the World Cup. Elsewhere, it was warmly received.

So why were the French so influential in the development of the pan-European game?  I suggest it echoed the desire to create an integrated continent in the aftermath of World War Two. The French were at the heart of the Common Market and likewise, England’s own reluctance in 1955 to allow Chelsea to enter the European Cup was as “isolationist” as Britain’s initial nervousness about an economic union. Actually, Manchester United’s Matt Busby saw the way things were heading and his club entered in 1956-57, having seen how successful the first European Cup had been.

Let’s remember, too, the French didn’t do all this to feather their own nests. Only one French club, Marseille, has won the competition and down the years, they have never been one of the dominant countries. Paris St. Germain may have something to say about that going forward.

Organised football had its roots in England and the FA Cup is arguably the world’s oldest competition of its kind. But the global expansion of the game is as much a product of French creativity and the vision of a handful of football administrators who today would be derided as “suits”.

FIFA and UEFA must learn from the Russia and Qatar experience

Football was warned about Russia and is being cautioned over Qatar. For a game that goes to great lengths to virtue signal whenever it can and attach itself to causes, from rainbow laces to food poverty, not to mention the black lives matter campaign, football can be pretty naïve sometimes. Or maybe it is simply seduced by money and bullied by professional politicians?

The latest threat to football’s sanity – and credibility – is crypto currency, snake-oil salesmen are pitching up with their beards, tattoos and baseball caps, calling everyone “guys” and promising to make fans beneficiaries of possibly the greatest example of smoke and mirrors since Danny Kaye sang about a Danish king being in the “altogether”.

But this is merely part of a trend of delusion that has engulfed football for some years. Football’s governing bodies have shown they are more than capable of being attracted to shiny things, such as buckets of money from sponsors or backers that will use the world’s most popular sport to launder their image (if not their money).

FIFA were lambasted for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, UEFA were criticised for allowing Russia’s Gazprom for having such an influence on European football. The Gazprom logo became ubiquitous, their strange, partly-animated TV ads were somewhat ominous for as well as lighting up the Champions League, they also had the power to switch off Europe. The willingness to jump into bed with anyone willing to bring along their wheelbarrows full of cash, not only paints people as foolhardy, it also suggests procedures such as due diligence and reputational risk are severely lacking. Notwithstanding the stupidity of continually expanding competitions, increasing fixture lists and greasing-up to nations with dubious human rights records, most of the sensible world has told FIFA and UEFA, repeatedly, they are making very damaging misjudgements.

Football does have a track record of ridiculous errors. It also swims in a sea of hypocrisy and if footballers in England and other countries were really as savvy as they portray, they would walk away from a winter World Cup in Qatar. But equally, the governing bodies allow themselves to be manipulated and no matter how much they try to talk-up 2022, they have miscalculated the impact Qatar (and indeed, Russia), will have on the long-term reputation of FIFA and football.

Football has to think more about reputational and concentration risk. Two World Cups have damaged the governing bodies but also highlight the game’s habit of easily shelving its values.

Gianni Infantino’s message to Russia after 2018 now looks as pollyanna as Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” demonstration. “You welcomed the world as friends and those bonds of friendship will never be broken. This is not the end, it is only the beginning.” Poor old Gianni, he must be very red-faced when he reads that today. Four years later, Russia is at war with Ukraine and millions of people are suffering.

Sadly, there are precedents to consider, such as the 1936 Olympics where Adolf Hitler’s Germany greeted the world. Three years on, Germany invaded Poland and life was never the same. In 1934, Italy was host nation for the World Cup and a year later, invaded Abyssinia. In 1978, a Junta-led Argentina won their own World Cup and in 1982, took over the Falkland Islands and then went to war with Britain. In the case of Russia, everyone was a little nervous about the 2018 World Cup but equally, came away believing the country had embarked on a charm offensive.

The subsequent events in Ukraine have shown that Vladimir Putin was as genuine as Hitler in his outward displays of affection. As a result, Gazprom has been removed from the FIFA partnership group and Schalke 04 are no longer sponsored by the Russian energy company. The impact of the war has extended to British football, most notably with the sanctions on Chelsea’s former owner Roman Abramovich. While the story has moved on and Chelsea are now in US hands, there should be few complaints about the removal of an owner whose links with the Russian regime are well documented. He helped Gazprom’s growth by selling his stake in Sibneft to the Saint Petersburg-based company.

Gazprom are 51%-owned by the Russian state, so their involvement in football around Europe represents a back-door route into expanding their footprint. Putin’s government has exercised systematic control over many aspects of Russian business, namely banks, petrochemicals and infrastructure. Gazprom does not sell gas to consumers directly, it sells its offering to governments and as the world’s biggest natural gas company, it is accountable for 17% of global production and around 8% of Russian GDP. Conversely, Gazprom is one of the biggest producers of Carbon Dioxide emissions, a fact that has made them unpopular with many people, as evidenced at a football match between Basel and Schalke 04 when a huge banner was unfurled sending a message to the Russians – “Don’t foul the Arctic”.

But Gazprom’s strategy in football has actually been quite transparent. Schalke 04, who Gazprom began sponsoring in 2007, are based in the Ruhrgebeit, an area in Germany that produces vast quantities of coal. Gazprom were involved in negotiations with Germany over the constructions of a Russian-German pipeline. Having dealt with that project, Gazprom looked further south and bought a controlling stake in Naftna Industrija Srbije, Serbia’s state-owned and gas company.  From 2010, they also sponsored Red Star Belgrade, saving the club from bankruptcy while strengthening links in Serbia.

UEFA and FIFA have both embraced Gazprom with such eagerness they must be questioning their practices, such was the scope of their sponsorship that you have to wonder about concentration risk. If Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City (and Newcastle United will come under more pressure with regards to their Saudi Arabian ownership) are highlighted for being state-run or controlled, then surely the governing bodies must face similar criticism. Notwithstanding the World Cup bidding process and how Russia and Qatar won their rights, the involvement of Gazprom must border on a form of state-controlled involvement? If nothing else, it also smacks of concentration risk to have such a presence from one company.

Going forward, both UEFA and FIFA will need to implement far greater intensity around their compliance operations and the basic principles behind placing trust in suspect regimes. This is, after all, not just a case of holding a football tournament, FIFA’s reputation is at stake, and no amount of money can buy a good name once you have lost your credibility. Football needs a strong regulator, robust and value-driven leadership and a clear understanding of what right and wrong look like. In an era of mistrust and scrutiny of business, social and political practices, football should be no different.