August 9 2019 / Spear's Magazine
I watched the UEFA Europa League final between Arsenal and Chelsea, which was played in the Baku Olympic Stadium, in the bar of a resort hotel on the southern coast of Sicily in the company of Irish, Belgian, Italian, French and American tourists.
We communicated in globlish, the lingua franca of our hyper-connected world. We had little in common beyond an interest in the football and being a little fed up at the unseasonably damp and chilly Sicilian weather. We were all familiar with the players on the pitch in what was billed as an ‘all English’ final, yet of the 22 who started the match only one was English. Neither club had an English head coach. And both were foreignowned – Chelsea by Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who has been absent from Britain in recent months after the government refused to renew his visa, and Arsenal by the American Kroenke family.
There weren’t even that many Arsenal and Chelsea fans in the stadium – each club was allotted only 6,000 tickets and they could not sell all of them because of the cost and difficulty for fans of getting to oil-rich Baku. Why was the final in Azerbaijan, hardly an established European footballing location? The answer lies in that phrase ‘oil-rich’. That a major final was being staged in such a remote outpost tells you all you need to know about the priorities of UEFA. Football is one of the supreme engines of globalisation and of a deracinated cosmopolitanism.
The world’s oligarchs, authoritarians and oil-rich autocrats understand the game’s global appeal and its potential use as an instrument of soft power. They want to own football clubs as symbols of status and influence – and because they can. The English game at the highest level has been especially vulnerable to capture by the oligarchy. Manchester City, the Premier League champions, are owned by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour, whose personal net worth is estimated to be at least £17 billion (the family fortune is at least $1 trillion). The club has bought its way to the top table of the European game, and has a £50 million-plus player in nearly every position.
The French champions, Paris Saint-Germain, are owned by Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) – in effect, the nation state of Qatar, improbable hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. QSI is also expressing a serious interest in buying a stake in or taking full control of Leeds United, one of the great English clubs, who last season narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League. Leeds are owned by an Italian businessman and coached by an Argentine, Marcelo Bielsa, a celebrated maverick who watches games sitting on an upturned bucket. He may or may not be in place next season.
If I were a multibillionaire interested in owning a football club, I’d buy Leeds. The club has a fanatical and resilient fan base, an international reputation and, in the right circumstances, is capable of winning the Premier League. Meanwhile, Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed, chairman of the Bin Zayed Group of Dubai, is negotiating to buy Newcastle United, owned by Mike Ashley. If these deals for Leeds and Newcastle happen, the Premier League will become even more competitive as more clubs, already wealthy from the sale of domestic and international television rights, benefit from the acquisitive ambitions of their owners.
Four days after the Baku match, the Champions League final was played in Madrid. It was another ‘all-English’ final, with Liverpool beating Spurs 2-0. Both clubs are rising again: Liverpool, coached by the charismatic German Jürgen Klopp, are owned by the Fenway Sports Group, an American company which also owns the Boston Red Sox. Spurs are coached by the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino and the majority shareholder is Joe Lewis, a billionaire who lives in the Bahamas.
The point I’m making here is that these clubs are English only in the sense that they happen to be based in England. The coaches, the owners and most of the players are citizens of the world, global souls whose loyalty is certainly not to England or the England national team. English football in the era of the takeover of the Premier League by the international plutocracy has so far been immune to recession. Players’ wages, agents’ fees and transfer costs keep on rising and so, for now, do the earnings from the sale of television rights.
But if football keeps exploiting the fans it becomes essentially meaningless – the authorities in Baku had to open the gates to let locals in free of charge to fill the empty seats at the Europa League final. This didn’t look good to those watching around the world. Even in the Garden of Eden there was a serpent.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman