Football, the most played and most watched game in the world, is currently celebrating its carnival season in Russia. The once-in-four-years carnival usually throws a lot of surprises. In Russia 2018, Germany, Argentina, Spain have already been eliminated at the early stages. While elimination of major players happens infrequently in major tournaments, elimination of three major forces of football in the early stages of Russia 2018 demonstrates the intense competitiveness existing in the world football at the moment. Other major teams have struggled against lesser opponents and Russia, considered the weakest team of the entire bunch, are through to the quarterfinals after eliminating Spain.
Every world cup has thrown in a surprise in terms of a lesser known or least expected team progressing deep into the tournament. While the inaugural world cup featured only 13 teams, without any qualification round, as most European teams decided against participation considering the long travel to Uruguay. Uruguay, the Olympic champions, won the tournament comfortably. Qualification rounds were brought in 1934, 32 teams participated in the qualification rounds and 16 teams qualified to play in the final tournament. Italy won it and it was not without controversies. It was widely speculated that Benito Mussolini influenced the outcomes. However, the Italian team was one of the strongest teams, reiterated by their wins in 1936 Olympic games and their successful defense of world cup in 1938. The 1938 world cup was boycotted by Uruguay and Argentina as a protest against conducting the world cup in European soil consecutively.
Meanwhile, the World War II had begun and tournaments in 1942 and 1946, to be hosted by Germany and Brazil respectively, were cancelled. A classic final was not played in the re-inaugurated 1950 world cup in Brazil wherein a final round was played like the group rounds. South American and European teams were predominant and they disposed lesser known teams from other parts of the world with relative ease. India withdrew from the 1950 world cup citing the long travel to Brazil. As the game progressed with the globalization of football and enthralling football played by Ferenc Puskas and Pele in the subsequent tournaments, more teams competed in the qualifiers and the final participant size was readjusted to allow 24 teams to compete in 1982. This was further remodeled to allow 32 teams to compete in 1998. The huge success of France’98 paved for increased viewership and media rights in the subsequent world cups. The qualification rounds saw increased participation: 200 teams in 2002, 205 teams in 2010, and 210 teams in 2018. In a more recent change, FIFA confirmed that the 2026 world cup in North America will have 48 teams fighting for the coveted trophy.
There have been significant transformations in football in terms of tactics, game plays, player origins, coaching modalities, discipline, racism, professional development, media, fan following, and threats. Of these, the most heartwarming change is the varied player pool that has formed over a period of time due to increased social equality in various countries. This multicultural ethnic background resulted from globalization. Media revolution to telecast the English premier league in 1992 resulted in the English league becoming the most followed league in world football. As revenues grew, teams grew in stature and dedicated scouts were employed to search for new talents across the world. The 1998 world cup winning French team was an epitome of multiculturalism with 14 players of the squad being racially, ethnically different from each other. While few countries have accepted players from different racial, ethnic backgrounds with open-handedness, other factors have played a role in preventing certain players being welcomed into certain leagues. To quote an example, the contract of Ahn Jung-hwan, the scorer of the late goal which knocked out Italy in the 2002 world cup, was torn up by Luciano Gaucci, the owner of Perugia, an Italian club citing farcical refereeing decisions that resulted in the elimination of Italy. However, racial abuse towards players is rampant across the globe and even big names such as Roberto Carlos, Yaya Toure, Paul Ince, Ruud Gullit, Mario Balotelli, Thierry Henry, Dani Alves and Samuel Eto’o. Despite showcasing their talents in the biggest stages, these players were abused based on the color of their skin and physical appearance. Racism is so rampant that the Spanish head coach Luis Aragones used the word “black s**t” to mention about Thierry Henry in a training session. The Spanish football federation was fined USD 87000 and was issued a strict warning. Despite such sanctions, the racism in football is yet to be curbed. Kick it out, established by FIFA in 1993, plays a major role in educating fans about equality and in preventing racial abuse.
Despite all the adversities, it is indeed satisfying to see players like Kylian Mbappe Lottin getting an early chance not because of his minority allocation but because of pure talent. Mbappe is of mixed ethnicity, his father is Cameroonian and mother is Algerian. The French national team is again a mixed bag with 15 players representing different ethnicity. At the other end, we had Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka signaling the eagle sign after scoring goals to pay homage to Albanian flag in relation to the Serb wars and failure of Serbia to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. Politicizing the gaming stage is considered immoral and the duo were duly sanctioned by FIFA by fines and were fortunate to escape bans. In essence, the opportunity to represent the country is obtained based on the talent and not on a racial or minority reservation. This works well for football or any sport as demonstrated by the French and English national football teams.
Another aspect to consider is the growth of football as the most followed sport in the world. With the advent of satellite televisions and media rights, the telecasting of club matches and internationals reached a new high in the 1990s. Viewership in Asia was minimal before 1990s and the with the telecast of matches, the viewership increased many fold to cross a billion of which more than 800 million fans follow the English premier league as per Repucom, a sports research company. India has around 170 million fans of football and the figure is expected to soar beyond 500 million. It is not surprising that the football viewership in India has grown by 134% since 2011. While the English league is the most followed, Spanish league and Bundesliga are not far behind. English league got to India first and the other leagues will eventually catch up to it. Another factor of increased fan following is the acknowledgement of famed clubs of their fan base in Asian countries by conducting tours where a proper first eleven team plays an exhibition match. Revenues have soared after tours and teams have deep pockets which are then used to bring in a player of choice without worrying about the economic implications. It was not surprising when Paris Saint-Germain paid 222 million euros to Neymar and 145 million euros to Kylian Mbappe to make a statement in world football. Chinese football has been the retirement home for most footballers and has been so lucrative that young footballers move to the Chinese league as demonstrated by the transfer of 26-year-old Oscar who moved from Chelsea to Shanghai for 60 million pounds. This has resulted in the employment of super agents like Mino Raiola and Jorge Mendes. Jean-Pierre Papin’s transfer record of USD12.9 million in 1992 is nothing compared to the transfer fee of USD 120 million paid for Paul Pogba in 2017. However, the 222 million euros, 145 millions euros, and 120 million euros paid for Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and Philippe Coutinho has pushed the transfer market beyond imaginable limits. As I write this, rumors of a bid of 310 million euros for Neymar by Real Madrid are rampant in the media. While super agents do play a role in bargaining good deals for their players, certain sports research groups reiterate that the inflation and widening inequality in football fees are not the result of super agents. This is part of the natural progression in football to remain competitive and increase fan base and in turn result in increased revenue. However, changing ownerships of football clubs have resulted in smaller or struggling clubs grow into big clubs that have unlimited purchase power as evidenced by the growth of Manchester city and Paris Saint-Germain over the last few years. This trend began when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea and brought in a string of changes. This resulted in Chelsea winning the English top division after 50 years, after their only victory in 1954-55 season.
At around the same time, the television revenues have raised manifold. The English top division sold its TV rights for USD 246 millions in 1992. In 2016, the rights for the 2016-19 period were sold for USD 6 billion dollars. The pundits argue that the transfer fees and salaries for players are actually compensated by increased revenues through prize money, merchandise sale, and media revenue. Social media revolution with Facebook and Twitter has resulted in football leagues, national teams, football clubs, and individual players communicating directly with their fan base and the impact has been assessed in a variety of articles which we shall discuss further in successive episodes.