The world of professional soccer is notorious for having a bad relationship with money. In the early 2000’s, the Italian Serie A division was rattled by an extensive referee-bribing scandal. Numerous famous players have been caught evading grand amounts of their taxes. And Fifa, soccer’s governing body, is nearly synonymous with corruption.
One of the biggest threats that money poses to the game isn’t the imprisonment of a fan favorite, abolition of the sport’s governing body or even the garish marring of jerseys by advertisements. It is happening beneath our very noses. Because of money, the world of soccer is losing more and more of the local ties which make it unique.
In 2003, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club for 60 million pounds. Once a decent, but not elite, London club, Chelsea was quickly turned into a soccer powerhouse; with funding from Abramovich’s deep pockets they bought great players and won great titles.
As Chelsea enjoyed success under this ownership model, many other English clubs followed suit — Stan Kroenke bought Arsenal F.C, the Glazer family bought Manchester United, and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan bought Manchester City. Despite being entirely willing to splash cash on these clubs, and fund their successes, most of these owners had few ties to their respective teams before buying them.
Kroenke and the Glazers are American, and Mansour is Abu Dhabi Royalty. To the average American, this seems normal. The teams in nearly every major American Sports league — MLB, NFL, NBA — are owned by billionaires and corporations. The difference is that soccer hasn’t always followed this ownership strategy.
Teams in countries like Germany and Spain often employ systems in which fans who buy memberships elect presidents and other members of club bureaucracy. And even in England, where individual ownership of teams is most popular, owners were once lifelong local fans.
Soccer fans also hold more personal bonds with their teams than many American fans do with theirs. This has to do with the relatively small number of American sports teams in their respective leagues. While in Europe, every town, province, or village has at least one soccer team, some American states don’t even have athletic clubs.
European soccer teams are a matter of religion to small towns. They are worshipped and prayed to, songs are sung at matches. For a city (like Cardiff, Wales for example), having a soccer team in the English Premier League is like having a representative in Congress. To have an overseas owner buy up the team more often than not ruins that feeling.
The spirit of the club is sometimes warped. For example, Cardiff’s new owner, Vincent Tan, changed the team’sclassic blue color to red. The spirit is also commercialized, having ticket prices for premier league clubs have soaring recently.
Though rich overseas owners may bring success and financial stability to football clubs, damaging the intangible parts of them is a high price for fans to pay. Those intangible things about soccer are what matter the most. FIFA, and organizations like it, have a responsibility to ensure that club owners — if they must exist — are caring, fair and appreciative of the history of their teams.