This was originally written a while ago as a submission to Late Tackle magazine who passed on it, so rather than waste the effort, here it is:
In early June it became clear that the fallout from shocking corruption allegations against FIFA delegates was not about to result in any significant effect on world football’s governing body other than to enable President Sepp Blatter to be reelected to his post for a fourth 4-year term without challenge. Though sponsors made clear their disapproval at being associated with the bad publicity, FIFA and Blatter rode the storm out with promises of reform.
For those who considered this too little too late, there was one obvious source from which change could still be forced. The clubs not only had the clout to do it, but also easily-understood motivation. FIFA at its core is a multinational money-making engine, they would say for redistribution for the benefit of football everywhere, but a money-making engine nevertheless. They don’t own the source of their income however. The clubs’ employees, the players, provide FIFA’s vast income for them. The clubs might conceivably wish to take a cut of that money for themselves, or perhaps even all of it.
It was no surprise then when the European Clubs Association (ECA), who represent hundreds of top-level clubs from all over the continent, began to muscle into the situation. Their chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, also chairman of Bayern Munich, spoke in July of the corruption at FIFA, his objection to being led by people who were “not clean”, and the obligation to intervene and change a situation which was wrong. He expressed doubts that change could come from national associations, no doubt correctly as it is the national associations which voted for the current situation. When he spoke of being ready for revolution if no other avenue for change arose, he hinted strongly that it would be the ECA leading that revolution, in the form of a breakaway. The agreement between European clubs and the governing bodies ensuring the participation of clubs in UEFA competitions and the release of players for FIFA’s internationals runs out in 2014. The Guardian quoted an unnamed ECA source who made it clear that the threatened breakaway would involve an alternative competition to the Champions League.
It seemed that a juggernaut had been set in motion, ready to build momentum up to a climax in 2014 when the ECA would be free legally to go their own way. The ECA were ready to use a time of widespread public disgust with FIFA as the perfect opportunity to wrest control of European and international competition from the governing bodies. Then, at the ECA general assembly in early September, the unstoppable juggernaut coughed, sighed and coasted gently to a halt. Rummenigge backed down. “Our goal is not to break away – we know we have to release our players to the international teams – but we want good governance, democracy and transparency,” he announced. More tellingly, he also revealed that he had already spoken to Blatter and Platini to discuss demands that the ECA get an uncapped percentage of UEFA TV money, newly to be centrally negotiated for European Championship tournaments, and a reduction in the number of games in the international calendar.
The idea of the ECA as the saviour of football is a difficult one to get used to. There’s a very good reason that the clubs aren’t already in charge of FIFA, UEFA, and the individual FAs around the world, which is that a concentration of power in the hands of any one set of stakeholders will inevitably result in the aims of that group taking precedence over all other considerations. Clubs are interested in youth football, for instance, not as something to be supported for the enjoyment it brings to its participants, but as a conveyor belt of ever better talent, able to be lucratively exploited. The ECA might well ideally wish there was no international football at all to be forced to release their employees for. Imagine if a group like that were in charge of the international calendar. Lower-league football would also be deemed an irrelevance rather than considered as a possible destination of TV money. In short, football as governed solely by the elite clubs would be an improvement only for those actually in control of them.
How, anyway, is good governance, democracy and transparency either served or achieved by the ECA gaining a bigger portion of TV cash, or by them securing reduced demands on their employees by the international game, or for that matter increasing the payments they receive and injury insurance provided for those employees on international duty? It’s clear as things stand that they’ve used the fears of the governing bodies that the current climate in football could see them swept away to negotiate better financial terms for themselves rather than risk the possible pitfalls of an attempt to seize control, as was initially claimed to be their aim. That probably isn’t a bad thing for football if you take a cynical view of the likely direction the ECA might follow in command of the game. They might well yet, of course, merely have improved their bottom line in the short term while still intending to break away in 2014, we can’t know for sure until then. The shame though, is that they didn’t use FIFA and UEFA’s current fear and their own clout to achieve something other than a percentage, a merchant’s victory; lasting change for the better in that leadership, governance, transparency and democracy of world football’s governing body which they had claimed mattered so much to them. With the threat of withdrawing players in 2014, FIFA would have had no choice but to comply and give in to the ECA’s demands, whatever they may have been. Maybe that would have needed them to prove the cynics amongst us wrong and do something not entirely self-serving for once. As in many things, the cynic is rarely disappointed in football, and in choosing to boost their bank balances rather than take a possibly once-in-a-lifetime chance to cleanse the game effectively in a way only they could, the ECA have left the game mired. In grabbing the chance to feather their own nests when they can, the ECA have shown themselves to have exactly the same priorities as the corrupt FIFA executives they criticise so readily.