BY ZACHARY LERMAN
This past year has seen wholesale changes in the world of soccer administration. FIFA has made a reasonable effort to clean up its reputation under new president Gianni Infantino, while CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central, and Caribbean nations) and CAF (Confederation of African nations) have all elected new presidents, “draining the swamp” of the corrupt former regimes as each confederation tries to forge a newer, cleaner future.
However, FIFA continues to fund player development the way it did in the past with every federation getting the same fixed sum of $1.3million regardless of size, passion for soccer, or economic status. This method of allocating funds was the same system that was abused by Sepp Blatter to get him elected multiple times in the past 30 years and is the same system that continues to create resource imbalances between those who need the money (Caribbean, Africa, Asia) and those who don’t for player development (Europe).
This system of funding through federations and bureaucrats hasn’t really produced the fruits that FIFA was hoping for. This is because the money is often disproportionately taken by the administrators in power and not given to the players or organisations that really need it to help grow the game. The money that FIFA allocates to individual federations needs to be done in a different way.
Club football is king!
Club football is vitally important to every country that plays the game. It provides domestic players year-round playing time and can provide a living for people who reside in the country. Club football is also where academies are formed as each club has an incentive to produce talent to compete at the highest level or to sell to larger clubs later on. Club football is the place where fan groups of each city can express their soccer passion in their own home and forge an identity for the city they play in and the league they represent. Club football is an enterprise of community, business and player development.
Over the past twenty years, club football has been booming. Last year alone, Aston Villa (the last placed team in the 2015-16 English Premier League season) took home £97million (approximately $121million) from domestic and international TV rights alone. At the same time, we have super clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona participating in pre-season tournaments around the world where tickets can sell on the secondary market for upwards of $15,000. The business of club football is booming in Europe as it continues to produce the best players and the highest entertainment value; but that is not necessarily the case everywhere else.
This is simply because the player quality of the European leagues is so much higher compared to Asian, African, South American, or North American leagues. So often the average fan doesn’t really want to watch that game (especially in the USA). This is also due to the fact that the best leagues are now so accessible, people from all over the world have become fans of the select few mega clubs of Europe, often at the expense of their own domestic leagues. However, hope is not lost for developing soccer nations and the clubs that currently reside in this space.
What the developing world can do?
In the past twenty years, Japan, the United States, Thailand, South Korea, and now China have begun to understand the importance of viable club football and their domestic leagues as a source for future player development. These countries have created viable professional leagues and functioning clubs that match Europe (in terms of business practices, marketing, infrastructure and community involvement). The dividends of this policy of “club centric” development have been realised as each nation has progressed in their own ways. Domestic player quality is still fairly low but is slowly improving as club soccer continues to become ingrained in each country’s culture.
As always there are some nations who continue to prosper despite poor domestic clubs (like Trinidad and Tobago or Cameroon) but their status on the world stage is now being challenged as new developing soccer nations like Uganda, Zambia, India, Iraq, Malaysia, and others begin to implement smarter business practices for their domestic clubs in order to compete with more established soccer powers year in, year out.
And this is where FIFA comes in. As football’s supreme governing power, FIFA can change its basic funding structure for player development. Instead of giving money to bureaucrats who often pocket the cash and then spend it on a few fields and token facilities, FIFA can instead give money to the leagues and clubs in that specific country, which can be targeted toward improving stadia, building up academies, marketing and branding of soccer clubs, and new training complexes for youngsters, hopefully making the soccer culture in that country stronger as the clubs and leagues are given the chance to become more professional from an extra boost in funding. The funding structure itself should allocate more funds to those countries that need it the most. However, if FIFA and its confederations cannot implement this change in the near future (which is very likely), individual federations can foster change from within.
Developing soccer nations are moving in the right direction in terms of domestic player quality. Though those that understand the importance of a strong club football culture will develop faster than others.
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