Domestic football has found its home in Europe. Despite football being the global game, the most eyes and talent is found playing club football in Europe, and that has been the way for much of the modern era. The English Premier League draws the highest global television audience of any football league in the world. A record number of 28 international broadcast crews from across the globe were present at the Etihad Stadium for the Manchester derby – a testament to the popularity and the widespread eyes on English football. Yet the most successful club in European competitions is from Spain. The club which holds the two most expensive players in the world is in France. The club which has a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, with the most goals ever scored in Champions League history, and arguably the most famous current player in the world, plays in Italy. The only club in Europe who has completed a continental treble, a domestic treble and a European treble, they play in Germany. The debate over the best league will go on, yet the evidence is clear, that domestic football all across Europe, especially the top 5 leagues, is stacked full of the best talent, the most fans, and the most interest globally.
Will there be another football powerhouse able to test Europe’s monopoly? In part one, I aim to evaluate the claim made by the USA and Brazil.
United States of America
Do I believe that the United States of America is capable of creating a generation of supremely talented footballers, to make their national team and national leagues competitive across the globe? Yes, I do.
It is quite easy to defend that claim. The United States as a sporting country have, for generations, produced waves of incredibly talented and successful athletes. The USA more than doubles the next ranked country when it comes to gold and total medals won at the Olympic games. Of course, China, who has only featured in 10 Olympic games so far, compared to the USA’s 27, are storming up the leader board, yet the point remains… the USA has dominated the majority of disciplines at the Olympic games. Michael Phelps, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, four different sports, competed across the world, yet American athletes hold a place at the table of discussion of the greatest of all time in all four.
So what is holding them back when it comes to taking over football?
Football in its modern form was invented and evolved in Britain and spread across the globe by British imperialism. The places where football spread the most were countries where the impetus was with trade, not dominion. Therefore, in Argentina, you can still see signs of British imperialism reflected in football. Newell’s Old Boys were named after Isaac Newell, an English teacher who was a pioneer of Argentine football, and ex-students of his were the old boys that made up the original team. Yet in the United States of America, there was a determination to form an identity fiercely opposed to the British empire, following the US revolution. This made them reject football, and the term soccer is a sure sign that the US has always wanted to be left out of the discussion when it comes to the global game. Sport plays such a crucial role in the development of a society, that in the USA, insistence on differing themselves from their old British ‘colonisers’, the potential for football popularity was diminished.
Once this cultural change happened it then immediately became incredibly difficult for soccer to find a pathway to the top in America’s society. Ivan Waddington and Martin Roderick state in their studies into soccer in America, that there is a limited amount of ‘space’ for sports in any society. Once a particular country’s sports fans conscience is occupied by one sport, that is then seen as their national pastime and there is diminished capacity for additional sports. In the US, a triumvirate of sports has crowded out that space, which emphasises how difficult it is for soccer to find a path to the US cultural conscience. Furthermore, each one of basketball, American football, and baseball have been stamped with an American flavour which makes them so woven into the fabric of its culture. Each of the sports come with characteristics that represent the virtues of America. The NFL is a civic religion which binds together, American capitalism, the worship of great men, and the individual narratives of human sacrifice and superhuman feats. At the core of that, the image of Odell Beckham Jr soaring through the air to catch the ball is echoed in the superheroes we see in our movies, which is the American image, the American ideal.
The NFL is glossy, it’s a movie, its entertainment as much as its sport and it feeds into the exact core of American culture.
Therefore, the MLS and America have a cultural issue at its core if it wants to become a football powerhouse. The fabric of its society is built upon a system which averts young kids and fans away from football, not towards it, that is an incredibly difficult thing to reverse. From a young age in America, you’re more likely to throw and catch a baseball with your parents than you are to kick a football. You have a basketball hoop in your driveway and not a plastic football goal in your garden.
Due to this fact, a large amount of the world has had a head start on the US in terms of soccer. Therefore, another point would be that Americans are just a bit resilient to enter a sporting sphere where they are not the best. The pinnacle of the Major League Baseball is winning the World Series, despite none of the 30 teams that compete being from any other country outside of North America. Actually, there is only one team in the MLB which isn’t from the United States, the Toronto Blue Jays, from Canada. However, World Champion sounds better than the American Baseball League Champion, and that’s how America likes to do things. They want their sports and their athletes to be seen as World champions. This for me is one reason why football or soccer has struggled to find its feet in the United States in any concrete way. Football is simply the biggest sport in the world, with estimates of four billion fans across the globe. The issue is American fans may struggle to get behind an MLS team where they can’t enter a sporting bubble that would hold them as world champions if they happened to win that year’s league title.
The chance to compete will start to grow if that system which exists starts to slowly be undone, and it is happening albeit slowly and difficulty.
The participation in soccer in the US is growing, and studies suggest that it is now the third most-watched sport behind basketball and American football. Attendance figures are rising, New York City FC, state that over the last 10 years their attendances had gone from 2.9 million to 7.3 million.
However, the MLS itself is in its infancy, its inaugural campaign was in 1996. They are playing a big catch-up game and slow progress is a tough sell when there is still a trio of hugely popular sports available from a young age. With new football franchises birthing and finding success almost immediately- Atalanta United won the MLS title in just their second season- the hunger for quick success is there in the US and it is of detriment to a slow blueprint which could bring long-term success to the US nationally and domestically. Quick fixes to make soccer more Americanised, such as the 35-yard one-on-one shootouts which replaced penalties was an interesting touch but far from a sustainable gimmick to get people interested. Yet then came the arrival of David Beckham. Everyone recognised Beckham’s gravitas and pull commercially and it sure did grab attention. Since some of the greatest players to have played the game have gone to the MLS, Thierry Henry in fact played more games for New York Red Bulls than he did for Barcelona. Yet with that came the moniker ‘retirement league’.
Big names bring fans and viewers, yet sustainable success cannot be easily bought. Yet the right formula has been struck by the MLS and the fruits of its labour are slowly appearing. Directing there focus away from Europe to the cheaper yet supremely talented young south American players, they are able to move away from the designated player model, and toward a team made up of talent. Miguel Almiron is just one example of such a player. He attracted Newcastle United and made the move to the luxury of the Premier League. Yet that removes the scoffing retirement league ideas Europe has, and people start to recognise the possibility that there could be some gems to be found in the MLS. Of course, American fans want to be the best, and they won’t be content with just being a talent farm for Europe. Yet the more they invest in this strategy, then bit by bit they can build a sustainable model which can challenge. The next way they have found success is by nurturing young players like Alphonso Davies through the ranks. Showing clearly a pathway to the top for footballers in North America. Kids will start to think twice before they take to the trio of sports laid out for them originally and may start to challenge the status quo because of shining examples like Alphonso Davies.
Furthermore, when talking of Alphonso Davies. The sport of soccer needs a male star to cover the front page of sports illustrated or Forbes magazine for North Americans to really take notice. I say male because, the American women’s national team are four times World champions, and Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are extremely popular and recognised figures in their own right. Yet unfortunately, the sporting world has revolved around male sports stars for generations. Despite the fact that women sports stars are now vitally being recognised as the athletes and icons that they are, there will not be a nationwide consensus and attention towards soccer until Megan Rapinoe stands alongside a male soccer champion who came through from American football. Alphonso Davies could be that cover star, yet hopefully, if MLS stay true to this approach, there will be a growing pool of talent to choose their cover star from.
On the surface, Brazil has a core culture which would put them much closer to be the next football powerhouse than the USA.
Football is ingrained in the Brazilian culture from cradle to grave.
Football is essentially worshiped as a religion in Brazil, with a study finding there to be more football fields than religious temples across the county. The cultivation of that passion is seated with the national team.
Brazil has been the defining force in international football. Since Garrincha and a 17-year-old Pelé led Brazil to their first World Cup in Sweden, 1958, Brazil have gone on to win four more titles, and become the most successful international side of all time. Brazil’s seat at the top when discussing the global game has been secured for generations. For me, that comes more from their style than simply their success. Brazil birthed “Joga Bonito”, a term which literally stands for “play beautifully”. It was a style of play intertwined between sport and dance, in particular Capoeira.
The famous saying “the Englishmen may have invented the game, but the Brazilians perfected it”, is evidently true, yet why has the English Premier League become the globally followed league and not the Campeonato Brasileiro.
The Brazilian way is admired globally, and the country is seen as the birthplace of the ‘beautiful game’, yet 90% of Brazilians do not usually attend football matches. It seems improbable as the people are religiously obsessed with the sport, which is ingrained in their culture, yet since the 2014 World Cup in the country, the majority of the mega stadiums built sit empty.
Only three Brazilian clubs sit in the top 100 in the world attendance figures. In fact, one comparison really exposes the serious dilemma Brazilian domestic football finds itself in. The Arena Pantanal which was built for the 2014 World Cup has a capacity of just over 41’000. The arena cost around 97 million pounds to construct. Out of the 41’000 seats that could be filled, the stadium averaged around 381 fans in attendance for fixtures. Meanwhile, in the 8th tier of English football, sit Glossop North End, a team which gets an average of 390 fans through their stands on an average basis, at a stadium which can only seat 209 of them. The issue is, the people at the top of the pyramid are making no effort to increase the value of the league by improving support. That also comes down to the ticket price structure. When honest, hardworking fans are being outpriced for tickets, and the league is not looking to increase fan engagement or brand activation, the stadiums will remain empty.
This mismanagement stems much deeper. The Financial Times estimated last year that in ten years, the top 20 league team’s debt had soared 176%. This is due to the clubs themselves, rejecting the reform needed to save them, and that is effective management. The Brazilian domestic league refuses to adapt to the globalisation of the game and try to be competitive with the successful European model. Each Brazilian club is run as a non-profit organisation by a powerful executive. Without ownership, the executive rarely invests and leaves after a three-year term. This leads to a regular system of spending more than they raise. Whereas in Europe, each club operates like a company who is part of a professional league with a governing body. Corruption is at the heart of this model and it muddies the image of domestic football. Cruzeiro reached more than R$100 million of debt and stopped paying players’ salaries, they were also subject to a police investigation into money laundering and fraud, sadly this is not just an exception to the rule.
FIFA estimate that Brazil exports more players than any other country, at more than 1000 every year. There is a serious young talent drain occurring whilst the clubs continue to be mismanaged at the top. Ronaldinho left Gremio for PSG when he was 21, Ronaldo left Cruzerio for PSV Eindhoven at 18 and Neymar left Santos for Barcelona at 20, later becoming the most expensive player in the world. Under the current model, Brazil’s clubs rely on players sales to keep afloat, and thankfully due to the passion for football in the nation, they have a pool of successful talent waiting to be poached across to Europe. It is damning to see. The country which prides itself as being the icon of national football, can’t fill its stadiums or keep its best players in the country.
Yet the possibilities are there. To receive investment and not rely on player sales for revenue, the clubs would have to accept a European company structure. Yet the high placed executives who profit from the corruption of the current system, and also benefit from lower tax rates due to the club’s status as a non-profit organisation, they are expectantly very hard to convince to the notion of change.
It is a long road to get Brazil to the domestic football powerhouse they could be, and it’s a road, unlike the USA, that the people at the top, don’t want to go on. Brazil has the passion and the culture of the fans. They have ‘Joga Bonito’. They produce the finest talents ever too grace a football field. Most importantly, a study suggests that managed properly, football could contribute 1.1% to Brazil’s gross domestic product and create 3 million jobs. That shows that the country and its people are the ones paying the cost of the inefficiency of their football system and the elite who run it.
With the desire to restructure, Brazil could become as successful as the English Premier League, financially, where TV revenue generates billions. Yet also for the game of football, as the foundations for a great football league are there, if they can keep the players and attract the fans.
In 2012, Flamengo created a board of fans, who aimed to reform their club who were on the cusp of bankruptcy. Sponsorship deals were brought in to levy the debt on the club, and cash was gradually freed up to develop it. Flamengo have since won the South American Champions League, and most recently came runners up to Liverpool in the final of the Club World Cup. As the vice president of Flamengo, Wallim Casconcellos says “there is no magic”, the reform is there for Brazilian football, they just need to be willing to take it.