The Champions League final is meant to be the epitome of club football, the ultimate match on the ultimate stage. For many, this year’s contest between Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich will be just that. Two evenly matched teams with innovative coaches, engaging styles of play, and star-studded squads. What more could you ask for in a Champions League final?
Cast in a different light, though, the final represents everything wrong about modern football, a showpiece of its most deplorable elements. Sportswashing project meets mega-rich super club. That, in essence, is what the final is. It’s the ultimate indication of how far football has gone down the path of what UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin calls “globalization-fuelled revenue polarization.”
Globalization broadened the reach of football to an international audience in unprecedented fashion, but only a few clubs were able to truly capitalize on the game’s new stage. The international outreach of a Real Madrid or a Manchester United is simply impossible for the majority of clubs to engineer. The result has been an explosion of inequality in football, concentrating talent and resources in the hands of a small yet overwhelmingly powerful elite group of clubs.
That concentration has threatened the very unpredictability of the sport. From small European leagues to the Bundesliga, financial disparities decide league champions before a ball is even kicked. Of course, it’s an imperfect system. Humans are still involved after all. So you will get an Atalanta or a Lyon in the Champions League or a Leicester City in the Premier League. But the game is moving in a direction where such instances are increasingly rare and more worryingly unwanted.
Talk of a European Super League hints at the desire of the footballing elite to make success from the unestablished a structural impossibility. Even if UEFA continues to fend off the prospects for such a future, doing so will force them to make further concessions to the big clubs, perpetuating the cycle. As football continues to serve the interests of the global brands at the top, the teams at the bottom – and the communities that depend on them – edge closer to extinction.
That’s not even the limit of globalization’s influence on the game. As the sport has amassed a genuinely global audience, it’s provided an avenue for ill-perceived governments to present an alternative image of themselves to the world, enabling easier integration into international economics and culture. One could argue that football has been used in the manner for decades, such as Franco with Real Madrid or the 1978 World Cup.
But recent forms of sports washing – the term that has recently entered the academic and public lexicon to describe this phenomenon – are markedly different. With individual clubs having larger fan bases, ownership of a team can buy a human-rights abusing country an unpaid army of advocates. If success is delivered on the pitch, the blood needed to produce it is forgotten. It’s a powerful way for a country to be normalized, and more nations are beginning to take notice.
PSG are the proverbial apex of sports washing, extending the soft power and tempering the image of a rampant human-rights abusing regime in Europe’s most prestigious football competition. It’s why their presence in the final should never be normalized. If we do, we run the risk of allowing football to be expropriated by murderous states in silence.
And so we return to the final. More than giants of football, Bayern Munich and PSG are emblems of the larger forces ensnaring the sport at present: rampant inequality and sports washing. What is present in both is that football itself is relegated to a secondary status, as profits and power become the priority.
Football is entering the world of Guy Montag. In Ray Bradbury’s censorship and thought-control induced world of Fahrenheit 451, Montag serves as a lone dissident (of sorts) in a society where any semblance of culture or self-expression is destroyed. Yet he is routinely reminded of the virtual impossibility of resistance when there is, quite literally, nothing left to cling on to.
If football continues on its current trajectory, we may all become Montags. What will be left to defend in football when it becomes too predictable for results to be unknown? Too predicated on the concentration of talent for strategy to matter. Too steeped in the blood of human-rights abusing owners to represent anything other than a nefarious foreign policy project. Melodramatic perhaps, but a frighteningly plausible scenario nonetheless.
Fair-play. Competition. Motivation. Pride. Name any aspect of football that makes it admirable and loveable, and proceed to plunge it into the abyss of wealth and power that will soon replace it. We are nearing a reality where football becomes stripped of its identity as a sport and is reshaped as a conduit through which hedge funds and murderous regimes can develop their economic and political power.
It goes without saying that there are no easy solutions to problems like this. What’s disheartening is the lack of impetus from football’s governing bodies to even attempt to change anything. So long as the profits keep coming, come what may. If that continues to be the prevailing attitude, football may well reach – if it hasn’t already – a point of no return.
After Sunday the Champions League final will be behind us, but its symbolic representation of the threats facing modern football will continue to loom large.