Saturday, 26 March 2011

Football and Society

In this exclusive interview, we talk to Jérôme Valcke, Secretary General of FIFA (the governing body of world football). We discuss why football has grown to become the world's most prominent sport, and look at the role it plays within our society. We also investigate the social, economic and political sides of football, its impact on the developing world, and the future of the sport itself.

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Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, March 2011

In any study of human society, the concept of social capital is important. Matthew Nicholson and Russell Hoye, in their 2008 book 'Sport and Social Capital' cite Burt (2000:3) who stated, "...the people who do better are somehow better connected". The authors explain how, "...in other words, there is an inherent logic in the idea that the more connections individuals make within their communities the better off they will be emotionally, socially, physically and economically." Taking this to a more functional level, the authors cite Bourdieu (1986:248) who stated that social capital was "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition." In other words; the collective notional-capacity of any community (whether a family, village, city, company, peer group or country) is linked to the number of connections between the individuals (actors) within that group. It is clear, though, that simply having connections is not enough. The 'quality' of those connections is of critical importance. Nicholson and Hoye took example from Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998:244) who identified that the relational dimension of social capital refers to the "personal relationships that people have developed with each other through a history of interactions". In this sense, they argue "..trust and trustworthiness, norms and sanctions, obligations and expectations, and identity and identification are considered key factors". They conclude by introducing a cognitive dimension to social capital (King, 2004:473) which consists of the "shared meaning and common values" in a community as well as "collective goals and a shared vision among community or network members".

As a species, we have the unusual paradox of being both highly individualistic, yet- in essence- social. We exist in what Peter Corning (and other biologists) describes as a "collective survival exercise." This view however, berates what human-culture has achieved. While at a very primal level we do certainly work as a collective to satisfy our basic needs for food, shelter, reproduction and safety; the real strength of our culture lies in what-happens once these needs are met. As 'social capital' develops, humans become increasingly able to perform feats way beyond the biological and cognitive limitations of the individual; we are the only species who have not only viewed the earth from another celestial body, but have the power to destroy it.

Such capacity requires the level of co-operation and mutuality which can only exist when society has a high level of cognitive bonding and bridging. For thousands of years, sport has existed (some argue alongside religion) as the pre-eminent medium through which such bonding takes place, and in contemporary culture- football (soccer) has become the pre-eminent sport of the world with two hundred and seventy million people (around four percent of the world's population) actively involved in the game of football, and perhaps many magnitudes more in number who enjoy it as spectators.

In this exclusive interview, we talk to Jérôme Valcke, Secretary General of FIFA (the governing body of world football). We discuss why football has grown to become the world's most prominent sport, and look at the role it plays within our society. We also investigate the social, economic and political sides of football, its impact on the developing world, and the future of the sport itself.

Jérôme Valcke began his career with Canal+ as a journalist in 1984, becoming assistant director of its Sports Service in 1991. Canal + then put him in charge of its brand new Sport + channel in 1997, and he held that post until 2002, when Sport + became part of the merger that produced Sportfive. He worked as Chief Operating Officer at the new entity for a year, before joining FIFA as Director of Marketing & TV in June 2003 and being elected to the role of Secretary General in 2007. Based in Zurich, and founded in 1904, FIFA (The Fédération Internationale de Football Association) now has 208 member associations, employs some 330 people from over 35 nations and is composed of a Congress (legislative body), Executive Committee (executive body), General Secretariat (administrative body) and committees (assisting the Executive Committee) who collectively oversee world football, and have been organising the FIFA World Cup since 1930.

Q: How has football grown to become the pre-eminent sports culture in the world?

[Jérôme Valcke] Firstly, football is such an easy sport to play. You can play it from age of around two years old and on any surface; you don't really need anything to play, you could even have a ball made of paper! Football is the easiest game to play- it can be played on sand, concrete, grass, wherever! That is the first reason. The act of playing football, kicking a ball, is incredibly easy and natural. It is a very natural movement, and thus we see football has become a very natural sport. That does not explain the whole story.

If you think back to around twenty five years ago, football was just a normal sport. It was played by a number of people, but it was not as strong as it is today. I definitely think that football became very strong when the world of the media changed. The advance of pay-tv was critical- that industry was looking for a 'product' which was strong and universal to launch across Europe. Whether we are looking at BSkyB, Canal+ or any other channels, the answer to this product challenge was football. When Canal+ was launched in 1984, there was not a single game of normal league football broadcast on TV. Suddenly Canal+ in 1984 said, "We are looking for a product, we need subscribers, and we have to give them something they don't have today to pay for to gain their subscriptions." They went to the French football federation and started to negotiate the broadcast of various football games every weekend, and it was for nothing - maybe a few thousand French Francs! Suddenly it became a product which became their top income stream, and the story was the same for BSKyB. Now, networks pay Euro 600 million for a season- versus a few thousand only twenty five years ago. When all these pay-tv providers arrived and became so strong on football- it contributed to elevating football to its current status- giving it a huge amount of global exposure.

It is important to remember that all the media attention we discussed started around the same time. It is not something which started first in England and then spread. It is a sport which was always there- it was not created by the media. What football had more than any other sport at the time was interest from the media and the exposure that it brought with it. I'm not saying that if Rugby had got the same exposure and attention they would have succeeded in becoming the number one sport in the world- football was already a universal sport, maybe not played everywhere- but definitely a sport which was so easy to understand and play, that it was the best target product for the television channels to develop.

Q: How does football impact human identity?

[Jérôme Valcke] The beauty of football is that it is not just one level. It "starts" from the club level, but there I'm not just talking about 'top clubs'. You see this at the weekend when you drive in the country- and you see that football is played everywhere. It's played by everyone from kids aged five, to men aged seventy five. The number of football games played over an average weekend is truly amazing. Football is the first thing to bring people together at least once a week. It brings families and whole communities together. Football represents the identity of their city or village or whatever the size of their group is. The main part of this identity is "your club". You are not just the fan of a national team- it doesn't work like that. You are the fan of a club, a region, where you are born maybe- or the team of where you have been living for a large number of years. That is the team you typically support. From there it progresses to the level of national teams. There are less games at that level- maybe a dozen at most for a national team. In essence, it comes down to two different things. Either you support your country because you are very patriotic and want to support your country against another- or you support the players of your club in the national team and for you it is just an extension of what they are doing every weekend when they play for the national team.

I'm not used to seeing many games outside where I am born in France, but it's true that when you are going to Marseille or when Olympique de Marseille are playing, it's the only one time when all the different cultures of the city are together in one place, and the only one time when there is no question about colour or race. There is a phrase used often by French player Lilian Thuram which says, "the only race in the world is the human race" and while it would be naive of us to think the world could be as utopian as this, I am always amazed to see how, in cities which are a "melting-pot"- football is the only time that people can be together. They enjoy it when their team scores a goal, and there are no more colour or race distinctions.

Q: Does football provide a social proxy to eliminate differences and conflict?

[Jérôme Valcke] The world is not that nice in reality. We should not be naive.

Football can, for sure, help. During these ninety minutes or more, people are brought together- but the world is a very difficult place, facing very difficult times, and football cannot just solve the problems that exist between people. Yes, it can provide a great medium when people are in the stadium, but outside the stadium? during the rest of the week? I'm not sure it helps.

It's important to remember, for the days and weeks before the match- everyone has the same goal- that their team has to win. And look what happened in Germany and South Africa. We had fans from Holland, Germany, England and France together- and there wasn't even a fight! When you have a sporting event at the size of the World Cup, for example, you have this feeling that everyone wants to work together- that there are no more problems between these people- but I do believe this is limited to the time the events take place. Maybe if we all played football every minute of our day, it would help the world to become more peaceful!

Q: How does football sit alongside Arts and other aspects of human culture?

[Jérôme Valcke] You see clearly how, in all senses, the cultural worlds come together. You have painters who now focus on football- and even artists such as Dali have produced works on the sport. Football has been part of our culture for years, decades in fact. In music, you see there is a link with the sport- a number of artists are football fans such as Sir Elton John who, himself, owned a club. Football is an intrinsic part of our social culture- it's what you do, what you watch! There is not a single weekend where people do not talk about the sport, so clearly it has formed part of our cultural world. To cut a long story short, football is entertainment and brings people together- just as music does.

Today we, as people working in football, are very lucky to have not been impacted by the problems of the world today in economics and other areas- but football, as entertainment, is a way of bringing smiles on faces- and allows people to forget about their week and their lives for a short while, and whether people are young or old- football retains the power to give them a dream. That's why football is not just a game- it's an entertainment programme, and a way for people to enjoy life. Football gives all that.

Q: How is football affected by global issues such as urbanisation and climate change?

[Jérôme Valcke] I don't know if football is affected per-se, but as a sport we cannot close our eyes and say, "we are not interested in environmental issues." We must take care of our environment, and looking forward to 2014 the World Cup will have a green programme in place to make sure that, for example- any time we do something to burn carbon- we will plant trees in the Amazon. There are many such programmes in place.

Football potentially, in many cities, could become the only one green pitch or green-area you see when viewing overhead from a plane. You will see a few green spots, which are football pitches! and that's it. In areas like the centre of Sao Paolo, apart from the richer suburbs which have nice green residential areas, the rest of the city is just towers and it's true that the only one thing you see apart from helipads are green spots- which are football stadiums.

That's where artificial pitches come in. There are relatively low maintenance costs, and they can be built and used anywhere- regardless of the weather- and whether it is rain, snow, cold, hot- it provides a surface for people to play. It's a magnet. Just put twenty kids somewhere, they will be sitting and bored. Just throw in a ball, and within half a minute you will see that all of them will stand up and try to play, putting two or four jackets down to create goals, and start a game- with one guy in charge as referee! That's why these pitches are so important- and our programmes in Africa and around the world have proved this. This also impacts health-related matters. If you talk about health issues such as HIV, the only way to succeed is education. If you don't tell people what something is about, how will they be able to decide what to do!. When you see, for example in South Africa- where even some high-ranked officials said that you don't need to be protected to prevent HIV- it's a nonsense! Education is the only way for people to understand how you can avoid being infected by any disease, and that must start at schools and, again- football acts as a magnet to bring people together- so just use football, put people on a seat to have some education, and then put them on the pitch to enjoy!

Looking at the developing world:

Q. What is the social & political role of football within developing economies?

[Jérôme Valcke] The role of football is huge. Football is the best platform for development programmes. Not just for our programmes at FIFA, but I am talking about any number of programmes. It's the best way to bring people together, the best way to push kids to go to school- if you give them the chance to play football, they will love to go and play, and they will engage in courses at school.

Football is a way for governments to bring people together. I would not say it is “l'opium du peuple” as some say Religions are, but it's something which is at such a level. Football is maybe the only one thing in the world which can bring so many people together without conflict. It is very well understood by a number of governments, but also foundations. All the large global philanthropic funds run by people such as Bill Gates and Bill Clinton know, exactly, the power of football- and how it can bring people together. That's why they are asking us to use this platform to help them develop their programmes against malaria and all these other various diseases- as it brings the community together to deliver programmes.

Also, look at the case study of South Africa. Suddenly, after hosting the World Cup, South Africa became a top-country in the world's eyes. This doesn't just mean that it is now known by a number of people who otherwise would not know where the country is on a map- it's also because South Africa got a seat at the G20, a non-permanent seat at the UN security council, and joined the Brazil, Russia, India, China group- which is now called BRICS. South Africa got a benefit from the World Cup which is not a direct benefit, but is clear nonetheless. These benefits happened after the World Cup, but I am sure the event itself gave South Africa the attention from the world- not in this case from the fans or people watching TV- but from nations and states who suddenly said, "...wow, South Africa is a strong country- and we should involve them and include them in a number of things." So that, again, is the power of football on an economic, political and social level. The number of corporate social responsibility programmes we, as FIFA, have assisted around the world connected with football is also amazing.

Looking at differences such as gender, race and so forth- whatever is happening in the world in these dimensions will not change without education. Whatever people are saying, none of the kids around the world who are suffering will have any chance to move-on and change their lives unless they receive education. I think that education is a top level priority- it gives you a chance in life, and can also give you the potential to understand how the world works and how to respect the differences within it while working together. More important than all of this, is the fact that it gives you the chance to read. I think around ninety million children in the world do not have access to schools- and this was one of the statistics which spurred the goals of our "1Goal" Education for All programme. These programmes are not just about "talk", it's not fair to make that assessment. You have to move from getting support from states, to the level where you bring these kids to school. Remember also, you cannot bring ninety million kids to school without the number of teachers to support them- so you have to train, educate and create all these teachers and then bring all these kids to school. It's a long process!

The way it fits into education is thus. If you bring kids somewhere to play you can make a pact and say, "look, you play football in the afternoon, but you go to school in the morning, and on top of that we will give you something to eat at lunchtime which means your family doesn't have to support you and how to give you the food you need twice a day." You can use football to create something which is unique in its ability to give kids a better chance in our world.

If you look at teams from the UK and USA doing tours of developing nations, this is not necessarily a negative thing- but if you are a team from Europe, say Chelsea or Real Madrid, going to play a game in Africa- you have the feeling, as a spectator, that you are in a dream. It's like being in a Rolls Royce showroom in Africa when what you would like to have is a bike- you may think, "yes, this is a wonderful thing, but I will never access this level". I don't know whether from a development perspective this is particularly helpful. One thing is for certain though, which is that it gives dreams, and dreams are important- without them, your life would be sad and poor, but these sort of tours are dreams more than anything else.

The main goal to give hope is not just to communicate to people "what the west is" and to give them the dream of flying to Europe with or without a chance to find a club- but rather, to make sure that all the continents learn to play football so an African kid feels he can play football in Africa, for a team in Africa, and can have a future in that continent. We are not succeeding in delivering hope if the only future we give him is the dream of flying to a country where all these stars come from, with a dream-like club brand such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United. If you want to work on grass root programmes with education and development- these are not the strategies which will help you succeed. It's good, no doubt, to show football at the highest level when explaining to the world what the game is, but- again- I don't think it's part of the success strategy of developing football in a country just to showcase the game without considering the delivery.

Q. What is the economic impact of football and it's competitions within developing economies?

[Jérôme Valcke] Whenever we organise an event in a country, we put in place a number of projects that create business, infrastructure and other items needed to host the event. Whenever we are building something through our Goal programme, there are also a number of companies from the country who are involved in the construction. The impact can also be seen in companies who use football to promote their brand- and they are using people on the ground for this too. If you see the number of people working directly or indirectly in football, this is clearly one major area where impact exists- but beyond that, and for the future of that country, you see a wide range of facilities, such as training centres- which are built and used to play football and host events on an ongoing basis.

If I refer to the most recent event we hosted in South Africa, there were thousands of people employed- not just during the four weeks of the World Cup, but also during the four years prior to the event which is about stadium building, hotels, and all the things which were created. On top of this, there were thousands of people trained before and during the World Cup where the focus was on hospitality, accommodation and stadiums. There are many people now who really are professionals in their fields following the World Cup, because most of the people who we use when we host an event in a country are, of course, local to that country. We take a minimum of staff with us, just the very senior team- but most of the people working around the event are people from the country.

You also create business wherever you create football. Look at the case study of New Zealand where the “All-Whites” qualified for the World Cup. Suddenly, a number of companies in New Zealand moved to football. At schools, football is growing in strength too as previously children playing sports at school only had a single dream, which was to play rugby for the “All-Blacks” once in their lifetime. Football therefore helps. Suddenly, in New Zealand, there is a new economy about football not just rugby- which creates new economic and business opportunities; and these opportunities are bolstered when their team qualifies for the World Cup.

Looking at the "developed" world:

Q. How has the influx of wealth (sovereign, investor, corporate and media) into football affected the sport?

[Jérôme Valcke] Wealth in football? It's big, but limited to a few countries. We are talking mainly about England- and starting to see additional wealth-impact occurring in top European countries.

I've seen very few people, though, who have not become completely crazy when they get involved in football! I've not seen anyone who just says, "I will invest into football, and buy a club." thinking it will be a good business investment! You go to football with your heart, and most of the time you are losing a lot of money.

Most individuals have to put a lot of their own money into clubs. Look at what happed to Robert Louis-Dreyfus and Marseille, look at Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. The UAE, for example, are spending huge amounts of money in Manchester City.

So is it good? or is it bad? I think it's good- at least for the players. There is more competition, and while transfer fees went through the roof over the past year- it seems they are now getting more controlled not only because UEFA is pushing for financial fair-play but because people are more reasonable and realise that you cannot have eighty percent of your income allocated just on salaries- and you have to bring an economic system into your club which is more in-line with the wider business community. It's important to consider whether these investors are in the game for the long-term. If a person is leaving the club- so if, for example, a wealthy club owner suddenly said, "I am no longer interested, and I'm going to go." then you are left with a club who either must find another suitably wealthy individual to buy the club, or there will be a great deal of hardship. In the meantime, we see that all the investors at this level always say they don't want to disappoint the fans- and they don't want to leave the club. It's always a race to keep the club at the highest level- which is rather the point of their involvement. Nobody is putting money in the club just to play in the second league, all of them dream of winning the champions league which- of course- costs a lot of money.

Against that, it's not good if it just becomes a permanent competition to pay "whatever price" you have to pay to get a player, not because the player is worth that price, but just to make sure that the club who sells him will make tonnes and tonnes of money- you have to find the right balance and I think we are on the way to finding it. I agree, though, that in the past five or ten years, things went too far and too high.

Q. What are the key challenges faced by the sport?

[Jérôme Valcke] I think that if we have one obligation- I would say that FIFA and other structures involved in football such as member associations and confederations have an overwhelming responsibility to protect the sport, to protect football. The sport is beautiful- we as organisations are all making a lot of money and so we can invest in grass-roots football, we can organise events and campaigns to fight things such as racism- but the most important thing is to protect the sport. Today, football is such a big sport- that we face the same problems as wider society. When you are talking about corruption, we are talking about match-fixing. When you are talking about drugs, we are talking about doping. We cannot afford to have anything which gives a doubt about the sport. These are the main fights. Racism, for example, will be a permanent fight. Who can say that in five, ten or twenty years that there will be no more racism. I don't think anyone can say that- that is the unfortunate human condition- and so this is a fight we must continue from Monday to Sunday, from the first of January to the thirty first of December, it's a permanent fight- and we have to put in place a number of structures in our statutes and systems so that any time we have an incident, we can sanction the club, the player or the fan. For us as an organisation, the main fight is to make sure our sport is not killed by a few people because there is so much money in the game that people are just looking at football as a potential way of making money. There are too many things around football which are dirty, and that is where we have to put in place all the systems to combat issues such as match fixing, doping, violence and anything which could create a kind of doubt about the sport and which could possibly make people say, "wow, football is not what it was." It's tough! We are not talking about Rugby which, with all respect, is still relatively unchanged from its original form- we are talking about a universal sport which is played all around the world in a difficult society, in a difficult time, and definitely football is a magnet which attracts our problems.

Q. How has technology impacted football?

[Jérôme Valcke] I think television has definitely helped the sport to grow, this is what we said at the beginning. I mean no disrespect to any other sports- but certainly football has attracted more interest than any other sport- and you have more football on TV than any other sport in the world. I'm not sure if there is a single day in the week when football is not being broadcast in one country in the world. We also have an average of fifteen cameras in most matches, with up-to thirty two at the World Cup. This gives fans the opportunity to feel like they are the coach, the player, the fourth referee- ultimately, the feeling that they are a complete part of the game. The other areas such as goal-line technology are just to support the referee, and to support the game in avoiding mistakes such as those seen occasionally at the World Cup. What is interesting in football also is that when you consider a typical Monday morning where people go for a coffee in their regular-venue- what is nice is that everyone is talking about what happened in the past weekend and not the game. Often the point of discussion is not the game itself, but mistakes made by players, the referees and so forth. It's part of sport and part of football to discuss for days and days and days what has happened before. I mean, we are still talking about 1966 and England! We will be talking about 2010 in South Africa over the next twenty years! If suddenly the game is too clean, and too clinical- where whatever is happening is already solved by technology- by video or other sources- the game is finished! I'm sorry, but something which is too clinical has no interest. A person who, as we describe in France is "Lisse", meaning they have nothing- no character- after one day you become bored, and you want to progress to someone who has character. It's like food- you don't eat something with no taste, you go for food with flavour. What I want to say here is that ultimately we are no longer aiming to bring about a "popular interest" in football, in essence we need to make sure that football is so popular that nothing will go against football. That's where we are today. It's not to 'develop more football' but to ensure we have more and more kids playing football- developing more grass-roots programmes and to ensure that these kids have the dreams to play at the highest levels without having to fly around the world to find a club. You have to make sure that you give them a structure where they are learning what life is all about, and you can't educate players aged twenty to be a nice referee, for example- it is something they have to learn when they first start playing. So that is a number of things where we see football as a "school of life."

As I said, the goal is not making football more popular- it's making football stronger and using it as a way of making the world a better place. I don't know if we can achieve it alone- but it is a tool to bring people together, and pass messages, give education- and that is clear. I don't know if will change the world, but I think it would be sad not to use the power of our game to do so.

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Professor Grant Jarvie in his 2006 book 'Sport, Culture and Society' describes how, "...it is impossible to fully understand contemporary society and culture without acknowledging the place of sport. We inhabit a world in which sport is an international phenomenon, it is important for politicians and world leaders to be associated with sports personalities; it contributes to the economy, some of the most visible international spectacles are associated with sporting events; it is part of the social and cultural fabric of different localities, regions and nations, its transformative potential is evident in some of the poorest areas of the world; it is important to the television and film industry, the tourist industry; and it is regularly associated with social problems and issues such as crime, health, violence, social division, labour migration, economic and social regeneration and poverty. We also live in a world in which some of the richest and poorest people identify with forms of sport in some way." Looking at the role of sport economically he continues, "...in some ways global sport has never been more successful. The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games involved 10,300 athletes from 200 countries, attracted more than US $600 million in sponsorship and was viewed on TV by more than 3.7 billion people. Sport's social and commercial power makes it a potentially potent force in the modern world, for good and for bad. It can be a tool of dictatorship, a symbol of democratic change, it has helped to start wars and promote international reconciliation. Almost every government around the world commits public resources to sporting infrastructure because of sport's perceived benefits to improving health, education, creating jobs and preventing crime. Sport matters to people. The competing notions of identity, internationalisation, national tradition and global solidarity that are contested within sport all matter far beyond the reach of sport." In this context, it was seen that Ernesto 'Che' Guevara himself said (of football), "It is not just a simple game, it is a weapon of the revolution."

If we understand broadly-human culture as "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterises an institution, organization or group", it becomes acutely apparent that within this broad definition, we are to see elements such as language, art, music and sport as the vehicles through which these shared values (and in turn, shared experiences) are communicated.

The influence of each 'element' of human-culture on the shape of society varies, but we see that the elements which act as the greatest equalisers (insofar as those which attract the greatest level of participation from all levels of society) are the components which have the most profound impact.

As a paradigm let us consider language which, in general, is spoken by everyone in a given society. Visiting a Brazilian favela, for example, you will speak essentially the same form of Brazilian Portuguese as if you were speaking to a member of Brazilian high-society. In the latter case, the language may be more refined- but your ability to communicate and find common ground remains unchanged. "Mutual confirmation..." as Buber described in 1958, "is the most important aspect of human growth. An I-thou relationship involves real knowledge of another, and requires openness, participation and empathy"

So perhaps we see football as having achieved a similarly profound cultural status. The language of football is spoken by people across cultures, classes, religions, continents and any other form of division you care to mention. The language itself remains relatively unchanged; and though we may see more refined variants (such as the UK premier league) versus basic levels (such as a few children kicking a crumpled-paper ball around) the content and ability to communicate- the rules, metaphors, drama, and social elements- all remain the same. It is a natural and accessible language rich in metaphor which has the unique pull to bring individuals together, as a society for whatever purpose they wish.

As Bill Shankly (1913-81, one of Britain's most successful and respected football managers) once said, "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that."

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