June 6, 2006

Footballs World Cup dream of life after debt

Posted in Celtic Tiger ·
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If you want to see the future for companies, particularly those in the service sector (like accountants, lawyers and increasingly Irish building companies that are branching out abroad), buy a huge plasma screen and settle into the World Cup.

If you also want to get a leading indicator of where Irish companies looking for good overseas returns might invest, just switch on and put the feet up.

No sport better catches the essence of globalisation than football.

Football is the most popular sport in the world with 200 countries affiliated to FIFA. The World Cup final of 2002 was the biggest sporting event ever broadcast with over 1.8 billion viewers. Football is a brand – a global brand and its stars are global household brands.

Most of the players representing their countries this June play their football abroad. This is particularly the case for the Latin American and African teams. No other sport mirrors the fortune of the global economy nor signals changes that will ultimately be seen in most international companies.

Football, like economics and finance is becoming unpredictable. Greece won Euro 2004 despite being 50/1 outsiders at the start of the tournament and yet didn’t qualify for this World Cup. Despite mounting evidence, many sports pundits still refer to the worlds’ football “aristocrats” when it is clear that the game’s landscape and hegemony has changed. While the Italys, Brazils and Argentinas are still top dogs, something interesting is bubbling away just beneath the surface. The last World Cup revealed that the pecking order of football is changing to reflect something fascinating.

The surprise packages of the last two major tournaments – Greece, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Turkey (third in the World Cup 2002) and South Korea (semi-finalists in 2002) – share one economic similarity: they are all regarded as developing countries in financial markets.

In economic and financial circles they are seen not quite as First World economies, but rather as unstable and maybe a bit risky. However, they are growing faster and have more dynamism than the old economies of France, Italy, Germany and England.

Could there be a correlation between a nation’s footballing prowess, its team’s performance on the pitch and its economy? Could globalisation be meddling in international football as well as international economics?

Many people here argue in half-jest that the emergence of the Celtic Tiger was pre-dated by our emergence as an international footballing nation in the various championships of 1988, 1990 and 1994.

While it is clear that a good run in a major championship boosts national morale and spending on booze, barbecues and overly tight acrylic jerseys, could there be something much more fundamental going on?

Let us examine the contention that footballing success is about more than just good players. Why not entertain the argument that the fortune of a national team on the pitch is a function of the institutional robustness of a country?

Let us see whether it could be possible that the FIFA rankings constitute an accurate economic as well as footballing performance table. An interesting way to look at this is that the second-rate footballing nations, like the second-rate “emerging” economies, are catching up by virtue of the same globalisation process.

Let’s start by looking at the extremes. Take Africa. How can we explain the failure of African nations to make a real mark in any major championship at a time when the continent is exporting more quality footballers than at any other time in its history?

One reason might be that the structures are simply not there at home. The domestic infrastructure is so poor, the leagues so corrupt and the fan bases so penniless, that the national structure is entirely haphazard, amateur and cannot get it together to ensure that the sum of the team is greater than its parts.

This contention might not seem so outlandish when we examine what makes a national team successful. The most important ingredient is money. Money for underage facilities. Money to pay sports councils to organise leagues. Money to pay former professionals to coach young players. Money to support local clubs to nurture the local talent. Money to extract advertising revenue out of sponsors and money from a reasonably rich fan base to plough cash back into the game. A country needs money for footballing academies, for summer Samba Soccer schools and ultimately for stadiums, venues and viable training facilities.

In Africa, the cash is simply not there, so the national footballing organisation is bereft of any depth. So, while the players exist, the national teams make no real impact and do not expect to. Football in the third world – like oil, diamonds, copper and gold, – is an extractive industry where the riches are simply taken for use in developed lands. Globalisation has accelerated this extractive process in oil, gold and copper, as it has in football.

However, while globalisation has failed Africa, it has worked in the middle-income countries such as Greece, Portugal, Turkey, the Czech Republic and Korea. All these countries have benefited enormously in economic terms in the past two decades.

Cash has come into the countries, lifting, if not quite all the boats, at least a large number of them. Because the middle-income countries had initial infrastructure, rule of law and some clarity for investment, cash inflows have led to permanent increases in wealth. This has led to the emergence of a football-loving middle class who can be targeted by advertisers such as Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange, Amstel, Siemens and Nokia.

The advertisers and the increased cash in the coffers of the State allows the authorities to invest the requisite money.

THIS means that, at every level, the chances of the national team being more than the sum of the parts is enhanced.

Whatever about the robustness of the “McWilliams Football Globalisation Index”, one other observation from the football world is incontrovertible and that is that the structure and ownership of many of the world’s largest football clubs has serious implications for companies.

Chelsea, the champions of England, have considerably more foreigners in its first 11 than Englishmen, it is managed by a Portuguese and owned by a Russian.

In the future, this will be the model for the best Irish companies.

They will have to be the best and this will involve opening up their partnerships to immigrants, possibly parachuting in a CEO from outside and certainly looking for diverse ownership if they need the capital to expand.

Investment banks in London already work on this basis and it is unlikely that major Irish companies, if they want to thrive internationally, will avoid going down this route.

So as you settle down on Friday night to watch the first game of Germany against Costa Rica, think economics and realise that – as well as watching the greatest sporting tournament – you are also seeing a road map for the world economy and the global corporate sector. Forget the Harvard Business Review, pick up a copy of 4-4-2 instead.


  1. Mr P. Power

    So David,

    Based on the above argument who is your fancy to lift the
    gold ???

  2. Chris Hickey

    Some more grist to the mill – The biggest post WWII football shock came
    when Germany won the world cup in 1954. They were then emerging as a real
    economic power after starting from scratch. Swinging Sixties England won it
    in ’66 when they were experiencing the ‘white hot heat of the technological
    revolution’ at the peak of their post war boom. Argentina were getting it
    together economically in ’78 before los Generales eyes got too big for their
    stomach and they bit off the Malvinas. Recovering economically, they won it
    again in ’86.

    On the other hand!

    Wot about Brazil – basket case economics & brilliant football whatever the
    year. Although you could make a case for their 5 triumphs coming when their
    economy was on the up side of their economic cycle which it is this year!

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