“Sport and politics should not mix” is a quote that is all too often bandied around. It’s also one of the greatest pieces of nonsense ever uttered.
There are rarely more political organisations, in terms of the inner workings, than sporting ones, and that has been highlighted locally and internationally in recent weeks. Starting with the latest sporting controversy, the move by Europe’s “top 12 clubs” to try form a European Super League (ESL) was inherently a political move. It was driven by hyper capitalism to invent a close shop football league in which the profits would be centralised and ring fenced for just the clubs in question.
Before it collapsed, it had the potential to spell devastation for domestic and grassroots football here in Ireland. The Football Association of Ireland is majorly dependant on funding from FIFA, UEFA and the Irish Government to stay afloat. It is no secret that the organisation is already in dire financial straits, even before the impact of the pandemic. Any potential breakaway league would have taken huge revenue streams away from UEFA and this in turn would have meant less of a grant for the FAI and in turn, the grassroots in Clare.
Local leagues like the Clare District Soccer League would more so have depended on the generosity of local businesses to stay going in the face of what little funding they receive from the FAI drying up. The Irish Government have already bailed out the FAI to the tune of €30mn in recent times and certainly could not justify throwing more money their way on the back of dented UEFA finances and therefore national grants. Make no mistake about this, if the Super League went ahead, football in all corners of Europe and around the World would be changed utterly and irreparably damaged. Instead, fan power killed the ESL before it got off the ground, with several club Presidents being forced to resign in the wake of the ESL collapse.
Such centralisation of power is often driven by greed and can often lead to corruption as we have seen time and again in the history of sport. The Sepp Blatter saga in FIFA tells us that such centralisation makes demigods out of people, leading them to believe in their heart of hearts that the game cannot survive locally without their presence at the helm. Small favours turn into expectations of support and a cycle of abuse of power begins. Ultimately, Blatter and his associates did long lasting harm to European and World football, which in some small way contributed to the original concept of the ESL. Nevertheless, there was also significant political pressure from the European Commission, which had signalled that a ESL may break European Competition Law, and the British Government, which had threatened a tightening up on visas and a new windfall tax to be applicable on clubs. For once, the political world appeared united in condemnation of the move and may be seen as one of the good guys fighting against unadulterated greed. Ironic,
However, having a demigod figure does not necessarily lead to corruption, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with other pitfalls that can also hugely damage a sport they profess to love. Often, people do get to the belief that an organisation cannot survive without them. They believe that they have been in position so long that there is no one else who could step into their shoes and that were they to leave, the house would fall down behind them. All the while though, the organisation stagnates, stuck with the same old ideas and personnel that haven’t been able to keep up with the times in a quickly changing landscape. As adult sport, at all levels, becomes more ‘professional’ in nature, some officials remain rooted to amateur game thinking.
Change is a dirty word in so many aspects of Irish society and vast ‘political’ networks are maintained in certain sporting organisations in order to keep the status quo in place, even when the performances on the pitch are not matching the ambition of the fans and trophy cabinets remain far emptier that they should be. This is particularly visible with the GAA where the organisations mantra of amateurism has seen development of the national sports stagnant badly at almost every level. I often remark though, sitting in any GAA ground I find myself in, that there are only two types of people not getting paid to be there: the ordinary supporter buying the tickets in the stand and the players on the pitch providing the entertainment. Remind me again how it’s not a professional organisation? Change can be scary, but a fear of change stops progress, evolution and growth. It’s no wonder other sports are growing at the GAA’s expense.