Melissa Harris-Perry: On Tuesday in World Cup action, the US took down Iran with a 1:0 victory that advances the US team to the knockout stage. While fans around the world are focused on the pitch, the most fascinating matchups in soccer might have very little to do with athletic competition.
In his latest feature for Mother Jones, senior reporter Tim Murphy explains how much of the sport is influenced by elites, oligarchs, private equity firms, and even nation states entangled in corruption, soft power politics, and profiteering. Yes, according to Tim Murphy, the story of soccer is now the story of everything. Tim, welcome to The Takeaway.
Tim Murphy: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. How did we get here? That's a big one, but maybe, where are we first and then we'll figure out how we got here.
Tim Murphy: We're basically at a stage where if you turn on the game every weekend, you're not just watching a battle between sitting back and defending and pressing, you're watching this great power politics and these different financial institutions and nation states' interest converging on the soccer field and they are really playing for more than just a game. It's become this massive, massive enterprise in which the players behind the scenes are the same people that you'd see behind the scenes at Davos.
The modern era of the sport, it's always been political, it's always been big money in a lot of ways, but it really dates back to around 2003 when Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch acquired the London club, Chelsea. Prior to him, the English game in particular had been provincial. The owners were these local rich guys. Chelsea's owner had made his money in concrete.
Abramovich made his money, an enormous fortune after the fall of the Soviet Union. He had close ties to Vladimir Putin. He changed what a soccer club could be spending hundreds of millions of dollars in one summer, hundreds of millions of dollars in the next. I think he spent $2 billion on this club. It wasn't just about what was happening on the field, for him it was also a security for everything off of it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I feel like you broke my heart a bit with this piece, because I had become obsessed with the Ryan Reynolds' Welcome to Wrexham, and feeling like I was cheering on a really good spirited gamesmanship here. Am I missing it altogether? Is this much more about power than I understood watching fun Welcome to Wrexham?
Tim Murphy: I think when you look at some of the people who have been acquiring big soccer clubs over the last 20 years, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney don't quite look so bad. There is still many many tiers of every nation's soccer leagues, and Wrexham is famously at the very, very bottom of the pyramid. What we've seen over the last couple of decades is that what's happening at the tippy top of these national league pyramids, that the biggest of the big have just moved further and further away from everybody else.
What's happened is sovereign wealth funds for nation states, for instance, from countries like Qatar or Saudi Arabia or funds very, very closely linked to nation states in the case of Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates have acquired these clubs and pumped enormous sums of money into them to the point where no one else can really compete and grow increasingly desperate trying to compete. Clubs like FC Barcelona have now sold off their entire future to private equity in the hopes of staying competitive in the present.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Zoom in on Qatar, is this about making the game unbalanced or is there something more in the politics of this that should be of concern?
Tim Murphy: It's both. Qatar is oil rich, natural gas rich, Gulf state that bought into European club soccer in 2010, which is the same time it was awarded the 2022 World Cup in dubious circumstances. Qatar overnight became one of the biggest players in the game. The club had bought Paris Saint-Germain, known as PSG, very quickly became the biggest club in France and one of the biggest clubs in Europe and no one can compete with that kind of money. It assembled the kind of club that you could previously only build in a video game.
It's funded largely by sponsorships from Qatar-owned companies, so it has these bottomless pockets. It's not just really upending the game and changing who can buy which players and how much they cost, Qatar is deeply invested in the governance of the sport and in broadcasting rights, so the Qatar-financed broadcasting network BeIN Sports is one of the biggest names in soccer media. They have a seat on the European governing body. Qatar is really in the bones of soccer at this point.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is this primarily about the European leagues or is this truly global?
Tim Murphy: What happens in Europe really dictates to a large part what's happening everywhere else. Europe is the biggest spending power by far in global soccer. Its money depletes the Brazilian leagues and things like that. When we talk about these huge nation states investments, we're talking about the European leagues, but there are major ripple effects [unintelligible 00:05:45]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you see a way out of this or is this simply the direction that global soccer is going to pursue?
Tim Murphy: It doesn't look good. Most recently, last year, we had another domino to fall which was the acquisition of the English club Newcastle United by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, both of which are controlled by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi head of state. That's a huge deal. That's another shock on the level of Abramovich acquiring Chelsea. When that happened, fans of Newcastle United took to the streets to celebrate, some of them even dressed as Mohammed bin Salman.
I think that's an [unintelligible 00:06:28] sign because it shows the desperation of regular fans who haven't won who want to experience that at any cost. At the same time, this is a live political issue, particularly in the UK, whether you're going to impose, for instance, a human's rights test on future owners, whether you're going to impose more revenue sharing or other kinds of cost controls. These are real things that are being debated. It's not as if they're necessarily doomed and nobody is talking about this, but the trends that we've seen in recent years look like they're bound to continue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tim Murphy is senior reporter at Mother Jones. Tim, thanks for joining us.
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