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Lettera aperta all’UEFA – english version

At the origins of everything: ‘The Neymar/Mbappe’ case, the trouble of football, the supporters and the Fair Play. A letter to the UEFA Executives and to the  National Football Associations of Europe.

Neymar da Silva Santos Junior and Kylian Sanmi Mbappè performances have been acquired by Paris Saint Germain (PSG) for almost 450 millions of euros (the investment with all the commissions for the agents, but without the wages for the footballers is more than 500 millions euros). In this session of the transfer market Barcelona FC acquired Ousmane Demblé for 145 millions euros (without counting the commissions for the agents and the wages for the footballer). In the last two sessions of the transfer market Manchester City FC, managed by Joseph Guardiola who criticized the PSG transfer market, has spent 1 billion euros. This is something that need to be thought through, starting from what Sir Matt Busby –  my godfather and Manchester United manager – said and still is actual for the time we’re living: “we must pay respect to the supporters because we are not allowed to forget the fact that they pay our wages”; the Club is listed at the Stock Exchange. We have sold our soul, but we don’t know to whom”.

At the beginning of Football happened by chance that the numbers of players for each team was 11: the dormitory were made of 11 beds. 

At the beginning of Football happened by chance that the game itself was invented in the Victorian and Puritan England because of the regal public decency, made football possible only in indoor and defined places. At the beginning of Football happened by chance that the European colonialism together with technological discoveries made possible football as we know it now. The difficulties to find expansive materials in order to secure the roundness and the endurance of the ball, was won by the arrival of rubber and the invention of the inner tube. At the beginning happened by chance that no players could run with the ball in his hands (except the goalkeeper) or charge the adversaries; the founding Secretary of the Football Association, Mr Morley, defeated Mr Campbell who instead wanted to make football more like a sort of a weaker version of Rugby. At the beginning happened by chance that Football arrived among those ones who equipped it with fantasy and happiness: the necessity to build a railway on the shores of the Rio de La Plata brought to Brazil a British company. From that moment on, thanks to the export of British refrigerators in Montevideo, the endless rivalry between Uruguay and Argentina (since today the two nations didn’t find an answer to the question if Carlos Gardel, the great “tango dancer” was Uruguayan or Argentinian. And it those places tango is a serious matter) moved to the football pitch too. 

I can go on forever about the importance that randomness, real and not real, had on the spread of football in every corner of the world. But I am not writing this letter to the UEFA Executives to draw up a simple list. Also because the list of those chances could tell that I am a person interested in a nostalgia operation. I didn’t decide to write this letter to remind the old good times, even if they really were good at the end. In this letter I would like to underline something that the Neymar and Mbappè cases made me realize: once again, since football exists in Europe, the randomness – in my perspective it’s always a terminal station of a cultural process – has taken the form of a ball kicked by chance without knowing where it will end up. We voluntarily forgot about the randomness generated by a process of putting something extraneous on top of the European football movement and of the common sense. The last protagonist of this extraneous superimposing, artificially forced, is the Qatar Investment Authority. This huge “chest” – it makes me think of the Pirates’ treasure chest full of doubloons  – is not only dismantling the rules of common sense, but also the rules of a necessary synchronicity (the simultaneity of two events chained together by a sense, but in a casual way) that events in life should have. If we want to understand the seriousness of the Neymar/Mbappé cases (dragging as a tragic domino effect also the Dembelé case) we need to remind modern sport was born mainly in Britain and spread in the rest of Europe. The European people in the last 150 years, got attached to sport achievements thanks to the efforts of men and women who, for different reasons and through different journeys, became legendary because of victories that made them rediscover the sense of being part of a place and of a history.

“The prices of the trasfer market have incredibly grown. But that’s how the market works. These businessess are limitless…”  – said Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA President in an interview given a few day ago. This is how we realized that the UEFA President, the most important organism in the European football organism, has surrendered to the inescapability of a certain mercantilism that became part of the character assumed by the sport movement in the last few years. But let’s continue with the PSG case and try to remind ourselves a bit of its history. PSG was born in the ‘70ies from a typical French determination to have a football club in Paris. It was in fact odd that Paris, the capital of France, didn’t have a football club in the elite of football. The club that seems one of the many drift of the excessive wealth caused by the exploitation of natural gas, was born instead by the involvement and passion of many people. In 1970, following a subscription promoted by some distinguished people in Paris, 17.400 persons decided to become future partners of a football club that aimed at a public company like Real Madrid FC. They committed even though they had no club, no team, no stadium and no a championship to play. But they indeed didn’t lack of passion. To cut this story short, I just like to remind that from this passion was born one of the football club that made the history of the Ligue 1 and of the sport in Paris.

Not so many clubs like Paris Saint Germain are the fruit of dreams and wishes of a great number of people, a dream that was shared by people from every class and status from workers to business owners, from professionals to fallen noblemen, from philosophers to marginalized people from the Banlieu. Those 17.400 people and the philosophy that animated them cannot, in the mysterious ways how randomness works, have given green light to spending 400 millions euros for two football players.

It’s not complicated understand the rage of Barcelona FC, knowing that the exaggerated clause to release Neymar was fixed to put a limit to the possible, as a declaration posing an ethical limit to all the human actions. It’s the story of the Western civilization (from the Greek philosophy, to Christianity and Emanuel Kant) to have set this limit to human actions, establishing a principle already established even in the Magna Charta Libertarum in 1215 – a fundamental document that set, for the first time in the history of the human events, the mutual rights between the actor who had the active exercise of power (the king) and the passive subject of this power (the people). It was not just a rhetoric gesture of compassion towards the rights of the common people, but a sign of acknowledgment of a fundamental fact in life: everything is temporary. Our lives are transitory; our time is transitory; our power is transitory – the institutions instead last forever. So they have to be preserved from the transitory actions of men. That’s, on my opinion, the heart of the matter: to whom football belongs? Who had the opportunity to look over my actions in the football world (always for and in behalf of the supporters) knows that this is not the first time that I put to myself this question because it’s hard to define where the geopolitical or financial interests end and where the interests of football start. Of course, and I talk like a supporter, I wait for elected organisms to control and regulate the interests of Football (UEFA, FIFA, national football associations…). An Englishman, as I am, doesn’t give for granted, since the days of the Magna Carta, that the ruling class  (the football executives are included in this class) should defend the general interest of the institutions that are called to control and regulate.

Since 1858, when the Sheffield Rules were written – the basic instructions that make all the football matches the same all over the world – nothing had ever prevailed the way the beautiful game was played. On the contrary, everything looked too conservative in the management of the various competitions, the ones among clubs and the ones among national teams.

One day some curious scribbles appeared on football clubs official shirts – the so called technical sponsors. It looked like good business, income grew immediately  and they looked acceptable on the shirts. A small step usually takes to another small step and so some time later the sponsors logos from outside the football world appeared on the front of the official shirts. This market had its start at the beginning of the ‘70ies and established itself in the 80ies. At the beginning the supporters, those who came from a time of almost 100 years where the shirts were sacred and untouchable as a flag (can you imagine the logo of a brewery in the middle of the “Union Jack”?), tried to oppose it but, as usual, they were silenced with analysis of the terroristic type. The club, according to certain (sic!) analysts, were dangerously sitting on a pile of debts and risking bankruptcy. But, thanks to these new sponsors the danger could be stopped. The sacrifice of seeing the shirt with an advert written on it at the end was acceptable, to continue to watch our eleven heroes running on the green pitches of our stadiums.

It could be educational to look at the financial balance of Liverpool FC in 1979, in order to verify the urgency the club had to place the name of a famous factory of electronics on their shirt. Many people would be surprised to discover that Liverpool FC wasn’t sitting on a pile of debts. But it’s easy to take advantage of supporters taken by fear – we are all lovers with no reserves. In the majority of the cases, us supporters, we are treated like addicted customers. How conveniently easy was then for the football club owners to confuse love for the team with a simple drug addiction.

In 1983, Tottenham FC was the first football team to be listed at the Stock Exchange.  Some time later the clubs received lucrative income from the television rights. It was clear that the world of football was more and more becoming like a big financial holding. The cost of tickets for a football match, despite the matches been televised, continued to grow. Everything that was made, was made to produce income. The owners of the clubs justified themselves with the growth of expenses like in 1985 with the Bosman ruling. All this epochal changes didn’t stop the usual commentators from saying that football continued being a sport too conservative. It’s a classic study case in clinical psychology: you must always blame the victim (in this case football) in order to continue to make steps forward. Steps forward, as we know, made at the end of the 70ies. Steps made to mess up everything and to make people forget the most important thing that is at the origins of football: Fair Play.

In the ethical structure of the British college students in Victorian times, it was absolutely unthinkable operate outside a loyal competition. Those students would soon become the future ruling class of the Empire and to the idea of the Empire, to all those people who scarified their life for it, they had to show loyalty. Loyalty was a moral principle and used as a compass for all their activities. You could and you should aspire to win (ambition was absolutely a moral quality!), but if victory arrived, it should arrive in absolute respect for the rules that guaranteed same opportunities of victory to all the contenders. This was important because as a ruling class those students had felt the obligation to give an example. It doesn’t care the social class you belonged to because, as the Magna Charta reminds to everyone, we have duties and we have rights in front of the Law. And the Law, so the rules that compose it, must be the result of a shared path. The Magna Charta reminds us that nobody, even if for divine rights or for the power of money, can take advantage of this shared path. Only this shared path, as mentioned at the beginning of this letter, can generate right things even if happening through randomness. And this is something I really want to underline here, with all the strength I have left in me.

But it’s in England, in 2005, that for the first time football supporters had the feeling to have lost touch with their team and their history. I am talking, with a lot of pain, about the acquisition of a club through an action of leveraged buyout (the acquisition of a company with money charged on the some company balance) – Manchester United (the team I support since I was born) – by the Glazer family.

Manchester United financial assets, florid until that moment, were emptied and weighed down by the monster debt of this influential family from the New York State, owner of a baseball team. From that moment the Glazers import to Europe the American line of reasoning that sees a sport club more like a “franchise” than a “club” as in the European line of reasoning. The “franchise” has its main objective, being a private company totally redeemed from the territory and its story, not to guarantee sport results but lucrative profits. Everything, in the ideal world of a franchise, becomes goods to sell, even the friendly matches before the beginning of the regular season. My team now in summer trains around the world in exchange of money. The team became like a second home to my uncle Matt; now it is become more a brand for advertising (you can even find underwear with the name “Red Devils” on it) than the sport symbol of a large part of the Mancunian community. And us, the supporters, we had to suffer everything without the possibility to react. The philosophy of the franchise brought the price of the tickets at Old Trafford above 100 pounds, leaving out the working class of Manchester. This is not the future Matt Busby had in mind for the “Theatre of Dreams” (this is how the Old Trafford stadium is called). The Theatre of Dreams shouldn’t be a machine hungry for cash, but a place where the people could be happy at least for a moment without spending a fortune. My uncle spent his whole life and all his pain for the loss of the “Busby Babes” in Munich. He would be horrified watching Manchester United become a “corporate football” more that a sport club. A corporate football that in twelve years saw its debts growing to almost 600 millions euros of its financial balance and a gain, evaluated in fault, above 100 millions euros (datas from the New York stock Exchange) in favour of the Gazer family. The Glazers are the owners of Manchester United e, for the last ten years, of a baseball club, the American sport by definition. In baseball, like the other professional sports made in USA, there are cast-iron rules  that nobody can break or eschew; rules that allow the regularity of the entire sport system. No club in USA, for example, can count on the price going up or down of a player because all the players’ transfers are practically like the transfers of European players at “zero parameter”. In addition, no team can give players on loan to another team, with all the positive consequences that anyone can think of. To cut it short, a player cannot become an asset of af club in USA when we talk about the players’ transfer market. This is because even in the land of the free trade, the rules, in respect of personal interests, prevail. This makes impossible that a single club might become too strong or too weak. A fundamental principle of Fair Play in sports. And it makes me think that an American owner indeed, the Glazers – accustomed to obeying the rules of the Major League – used and still use methods belonging to the most wildest capitalism, in spite of any ethic concept or Fair Play. But, as a Czech saying tells, “if you believe you have touched the bottom, listen; you will hear someone knocking from underneath”.

Aleksander Ceferin continues in his interview: “we are happy about the football product, it’s fantastic – its income grows and distributes profits. The real problem is the money that leave the system…”. What Cefarin refers to are the huge supposed payed commissions to sport agents when they make transfer deals for the players they represent. But are these money really leaving the system?

The Sovereign Fund were created as special vehicle using public investments, to invest in finance and other activities like fiscal surplus and reserves of foreign money”. This scholastic quote clarifies that a Sovereign Fund invests always in foreign territories/Countries declaring, in its original constitution, that it doesn’t want ties with territory/Country where it’s investing. All the money the Sovereign Fund make from these investments will be used in the only exclusive interest of the citizen of the Country to whom the Sovereign Fund belong. But if this is absolutely correct, as logic says, then there is a contradiction: a Sovereign Fund controlling a football club treats supporter as customers and ends up using the outstanding profits generated by the supporter/customer (a person provided with an unconditional love for his team that doesn’t need huge investments in marketing to make him love the object in question) in places far away from him. The supporter/customer, spending his money to buy tickets for the stadium, for the TV subscription to watch its matches or the merchandising, decides to “offer” his money, because of his unconditional love for his football team, to someone was has the power to use them: the club owners. The supporter/customer could now sleep well, if the property of the club is in the hands of people with the same unconditional love. But, as I explained earlier, a Sovereign Fund invests in something different and distant from the people having this unconditional love. And here lies the problem of the Neymar and Mbappè cases (or of Manchester United, City and the Bembelè case, etc…) has made clear. The acquisitions of these two footballers have not been made in the Parisian club interest, but only in the Sovereing Fund of Qatar interest. And here, dear Executives of the European football, you cannot turn your attention away (specially after the scandalous acquisition of the Manchester United FC by the Glazers). You should pretend, as guardians and regulators of the European football,  that Fair Play – namely the respect of the rules and of the loyalty in the name and in behalf of the weak in order to make the victory of the best validated by justice, are respected. 

There are supporters that have been and continue to be clearly fooled by a Sovereign Fund that can’t and mustn’t pursue, for its own constitution, the interests of their passion for football. The Executives of the European football must intervene not only to protect a patrimony as the supporters are, but also the rights of all the other clubs in Ligue 1 who don’t have the devastating strength of a Sovereign Fund. Fair Play, that is the nature of the game of football and it’s reminded in any event where FIFA is present, imposes that everyone has to respect the rules without abusing of an abnormal power to bypass them. This, as it is evident to everyone, is not happening in League 1. And it’s not happening in Italy too with the arrival of the Chinese who bought Inter FC and AC Milan, two of the most renowned club in Italy and in the world. For the unique form of the power in China, private company don’t exist, but   private people can have companies granted and regulated by the Government whom the private people running this companies have to answer to. So we are in front of a system of companies that, in reality, composes a huge Sovereign Fund in disguise severely controlled by the Chinese Government (note: to be clear this is just an objective valuation of data, not a critic – positive or negative – of a political/entrepreneurial system. Something that, eventually, someone more qualified than me should do). Every time I talk about Fair Play at the end, skeptics and not, they ask me if I have a solution for this world gone crazy. And every time I remind them a beautiful and significant story. A real story happened in Sweden even if it sounds more like a fairy tale. Borlange is a freezing town of 40.000 inhabitants in the Svealand region, there you can find a strong Kurd community. This Kurd immigrants,      animated by their passion for football and by an ardent nationalism, founded a football team in 2004, Dalkurd FF. Its shirt has the colors of their national flag and they joined the lowest level of championships of the Swedish Football Association. The Kurd community financed the Dalkurd FF and the team was made of young immigrants. From that moment on, Dalkurd FF won all the championships it took part until it arrived in the Superettan, the Swedish second division. At this point two wealthy entrepreneurs in the communication business, the brothers Sarkat and Kawa Junad, decided to invest in the club. Someone would say story repeats itself: the passion of the supporters finance the growth of the club, then two millionaires arrive, take over the club, and enjoy the results of those who had worked to create the dream. But the Swedish Law (like in Germany) doesn’t allow it (do you remember the guarantees of the Magna Charta?): the law in Sweden imposes the control of at least 51% of the football club by a widespread popular share ownership. This is because, and this is the answer to the question I made few lines back, the Swedish politics has realized that a football team can only belong to its supporters and can only be the exclusive asset of a specific territory where the team plays. This in the name of an anthropological/cultural tradition of Europe of which the game of football is the son.

Nobody, not even the powerful Sovereign Fund (specially if it has culturally nothing to do with Europe), could and should put in discussion this principle. But instead it’s happening now in Paris. I vehemently urge the UEFA President to intervene with determination in the name of Fair Play and of our traditions because they cannot and must not be bought. The UEFA President shouldn’t not fall into temptation surrendering to this blackmail to create an independent European tournament organized by European Club Association (the association of the 14 wealthiest clubs in Europe)  who is taking in serious consideration to heal the economical effects of the Neymar/Mbappè cases with the intention to definitely bypass the restrictive rules of the financial Fair Play.

The beauty of Football is most of all in the everlasting possibility that the weak might win against the strong (this is called “the unpredictability of the result”). The spirit of this game could only been born in the continent where the idea of “welfare” was born, a concept that cost a lot of sacrifices and some time even lives of a lots of people. Football is a school of collective life representing not only the European history, but the soul of Europe too. No other continent like Europe feels as a collective necessity the necessity of a single person. On this elements football was born. And on this basis the spirit of football was spread and loved. The Junad brothers, because you can’t buy a dream, resigned themselves to own “only” the 49% of Dalkurd FF and promised to bring in five years the club in Champions League with decisions taken and shared with the supporters. This is my answer about “what to do” and I hope the other political authorities, following the example of those in Sweden and Germany, have the courage and the foresight to remind who they are and why they have been called to the great honor of manage our things.

I will do my part fighting until the last day of my life to make supporters rightly become again the protagonists of the decisions of the club they support. Finally, as Matt Busby would have said: “when it’s possible, pass the ball to George Best”. And let the dream continue… 

Anthony Weatherill

Carmelo Pennisi

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