I suspect many area sports fans looked at the recent news about corruption plaguing FIFA, the international governing organization of soccer, with something of a ho-hum attitude.
I’ve written before how soccer fans like myself are in a minority in Johnson County. We know that despite the game’s growing popularity here, it is well behind the established giants of football, basketball, baseball, golf and racing in terms of sports to follow.
But true sports fans shouldn’t ignore what has happened with FIFA, and I’ll explain why.
Soccer is the world’s most popular game and arguably the most hierarchical. There are professional leagues in nearly every country on the planet, and each of those countries has a national team that competes in global competition, culminating in a World Cup tournament every four years. There also is an extensive network of youth soccer leagues, tournaments and teams in these countries, including here in the United States.
Because of the billions (yes, billions) who play and follow the game worldwide, a lot of money is attached to soccer. Multimillion-dollar sponsorships at the highest levels are a fact of life, and this financial involvement is replicated all the way down the food chain in amounts according to scale.
The development of the financial end of the game has created a lucrative target for a group of people who appear to have both hands and a few wheelbarrows in the collective tills.
Obviously, the details of the FBI corruption probe will continue to be revealed, but the fact that some of the people involved in governing soccer have had something other than the good of the game as a motivation is not a surprise to those of us who follow the game closely.
Now forget about soccer for a moment and think about how your favorite sports have changed over the past 40 years or so. To me, the biggest change is that the business interests of sports have taken precedence over the game itself.
Sports used to be about the competition, the question of who was the best and who was going to win. People followed their teams in the hope of a victory.
Fans still do that, of course, but the billions and billions of dollars now attached to sports, involving naming rights, media rights and, of course, the pervasive sports marketing culture that has advanced individual fame over team honors are really what drive the sporting world these days.
I’m not anticapitalist, but when participating in or watching sports becomes too expensive for large segments of the population, something is not right.
This is not only true for professional sports.
College football and basketball are lucrative television properties in this country. The sports management and sponsorship culture is a fixture, even at the high school level, especially for larger programs. Money dictates so much of what goes on. The outcome of contests can seem like an afterthought.
With FIFA, some money would go to supposed grassroots projects as window dressing to obscure the massive windfalls being made by the international barons of the game. In the same way, college scholarships will be cited as opportunities provided by sports for the most needy. But as with FIFA, I find those claims to be a bit dubious in light of the huge amounts being generated overall.
A favorite book of mine says that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil. I think it would be naive to think that the widespread scandal happening in global soccer couldn’t take place in our own games, especially where money is most abundant. Culture, politics and government affect how these things can happen from country to country, but don’t be oblivious to the tendencies of human nature.
The more our favorite sports are about money and not the essence of human competition, the winning and losing and all the important lessons (and emotions) that can go with it, the more potential there is for big and little scandals to take place. Or at least, a gutting of the heart and soul of what makes sports great in the first place.
Laugh at the global soccer scandal if you want. There’s no question the behavior of some involved deserves ridicule.
But don’t think a similar scenario couldn’t develop much closer to home.