How Soccer Became a Geopolitical Tool of Influence
"Manchester thanks you, Sheikh Mansour" reads a banner in Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium. A corner of the northern English city, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, is flush with the wealth of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Manchester City are the current champions of the English Premier League and, in Pep Guardiola, are coached by someone with a reputation as the best in the game. For many decades, City had been the poorer team in Manchester football.
Across town, 20-time champion Manchester United were the historic glamour club and wealthy enough to attract the best players from English football and beyond. But their dominance, shared at the time with London club Arsenal, was broken in 2003 once Chelsea, a smaller London club, were bought wholesale by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, an associate and confidante of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Five years later, City were bought by Sheikh Mansour.
Until as late as the early 2000s, Premier League clubs usually were owned by local men made good, businessmen who had bought the team they had watched on the terraces as children. But by 2018, English football has become a hotbed of "soft power" in a globalized geopolitical world.
Foreign influence now is an accepted part of a domestic enterprise, and international soccer is a vehicle for influencing others without force or coercion.
The Global League
The Premier League is the most-watched domestic league in world soccer, and the wealthiest, generating $2.2 billion per year in domestic and international television rights. In terms of England, a nation of fading diplomatic and economic influence, football has become a leading cultural export, jumping ahead perhaps even of the music industry that has had such a hold on the world since the 1960s.
Of 20 Premier League clubs, five are owned by American business interests, including Manchester United, bought when the Floridian Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took a publicly floated company over as a private enterprise in 2005, and Arsenal, now fully in the control of billionaire Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams and the Denver Nuggets.
And there are two Russians, with south coast club Bournemouth owned by petrochemical mogul Maxim Demin accompanying Roman Abramovich. Cardiff’s owner is Malaysian tycoon Vincent Tan. Leicester were bought by the late Thai duty free billionaire magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in 2011. And there are two Chinese-owned clubs in port-city club Southampton and midlanders Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Being part of the cartel conveys great respectability on the owners. The Premier League organization claims to put plenty of work into its "fit and proper person" ownership test, but has opened its doors to the world, unlike, for example, the NFL, whose 32 clubs remain American owned.
"As regards the number of foreign owners, it really isn't something we concern ourselves about," said former Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore in 2017. "What we do concern ourselves with is the owners' and directors' test to make sure prospective owners behave properly, operate properly and work within the collective spirit."
It is a practice that has made many, including Scudamore, very rich indeed.
A Russian Influence
Roman Abramovich made himself something of a pillar of London society. Sitting in his heavily protected executive box high in the stands of Stamford Bridge, he was a regular at Chelsea matches and adored by fans who celebrated his club collecting five Premier League titles and the holy grail of the European Champions League in 2012.
His presence still has caused much discussion and disquiet. Aside from spending over $1.5 billion that skewed the previous financial balance in the game, he has a heavy association with the Russian kleptocracy that followed the collapse of the former Soviet Union. By the age of 30, the former mechanic and street trader was in charge of a vast oil company, Sibneft.
Abramovich has helped fund the Russian national team, keeping in Vladimir Putin’s good books by doing so, and Abromovich's ownership of Chelsea has brought him great visibility and perhaps protection from the type of fall many a fellow oligarch has suffered. He has not, though, been immune to changes in diplomatic relations between Russia and Britain. In 2018, his application for a fresh visa was turned down, and Abramovich, a Jew, has instead taken up residence and nationality in Israel.
That leaves Chelsea’s future open to serious question.
A Gold Rush In Manchester
On Sept. 1, 2008, Manchester City struck gold. As news of the new owners’ wealth reached the club's fans, many of them wore Arab-style tea-towels on their head to hail the riches that would soon be flowing. The club’s previous owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, previously had been prime minister of Thailand, and had lavished what seemed like big money on City, only to close the purse strings when he faced corruption charges in his home country.
Sheikh Mansour, after buying Manchester City for 200 millions pounds ($255.925 million today), placed control of the club in the hands of Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who was educated in the United States and a key adviser to the Abu Dhabi royal family. Long-serving Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson sneeringly labelled City as "noisy neighbors," but since Ferguson retired in 2013, City have dominated Manchester and now threaten to dominate English football.
The stadium’s main sponsor is Etihad Airways, an airline run from Abu Dhabi. Other team partners include Etisalat, a telecommunications company, and Aabar, an investment company headquartered in the Arab emirate.
All of the sponsors plough hefty funds into the club and have close links to Sheikh Mansour. A visitor to Manchester City cannot fail to notice such endorsements, and TV coverage from the stadium brings much the same perspective with signs for Abu Dhabi businesses in constant rotation on billboards. City are a running, jumping, kicking advertisement for an Arab state.
Abu Dhabi has the money and ambition to promote itself across the globe, and Manchester City, and its various sister clubs in New York, Melbourne, Yokohama and Girona in Spain are used as a promotional vehicle visible across the globe.
North Korea and Albania are the only two countries not to have a Premier League rights agreement.
Manchester City’s ownership model is the subject of heavy controversy. Such heavy funding from Abu Dhabi drew the attention of European governing body UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) and its Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, which prevent owners ploughing in funds without a club being able to exist on the money it makes itself.
In 2014, City were fined 49 million pounds ($62.7 million today) and had their recruitment restricted for a season. But according to reports in German magazine Der Spiegel, derived from the Football Leaks operation, a Pan-European investigative journalism collective, the team's wings have not been fully clipped.
It has been alleged, and is being investigated, that Mansour paid large parts of inflated sponsorship deals himself to circumvent FFP rules and that extra payments to players were paid into a secret shell company.
The club has denied the allegations and a further accusation that then-UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, current head of world governing body FIFA, colluded with City to make the FFP issue go away.
If Manchester City threaten to take a grip on English football, then Paris Saint-Germain already have the French game in its grasp. Instead of Abu Dhabi oil, the capital city club has received huge funding from Qatari gas reserves since a takeover by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011.
Qatar Sports Investments, which also owns the television company beIN, is a vehicle for the small Arabian Peninsula state. PSG have been able to sign world stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, the latter two who are currently the highest-priced players in the game at a combined cost of $463 million.
The club has won five of the last six Ligue 1 titles, but its dominance over the rest of the French clubs means it is often poorly prepared for the tougher disciplines of the pan-European Champions League.
And like Manchester City, it has been subject to UEFA investigations into its finances, landing itself a $70 million fine in 2014. That, though, has not stopped the club since lavishing those huge fees on Neymar and Mbappe.
How They Won A World Cup
Qatar’s desire to use soccer as a vehicle were made plain by its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Dec. 2, 2010, was the day a Qatari contingent in Zurich celebrated an enormous coup as failed bidders from Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States looked on aghast.
How Qatar won that contest is a question yet to be fully answered, but the awarding of a first Middle Eastern World Cup gave rise to a series of corruption scandals that took out the higher echelons of FIFA in president Sepp Blatter and heir apparent Michel Platini, and included Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, being probed for his links to Qatar.
The building of nine stadiums for the 2022 tournament has been the subject of worldwide controversy, with the rights and working conditions of the mostly Indian sub-continental workers coming into the public eye.
There has been a widespread expectation that the tournament never would be played in Qatar. It has required a configuring of the global club football timetable to do so since it would be impractical to play in the heat of an Arabian summer. But despite such factors, and a current blockade from its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, plans for the global event continue.
A Russian Summer
On the same night Qatar was awarded the World Cup, Russia was celebrating winning the right to host the 2018 tournament. Vladimir Putin jetted into Zurich to share in the celebrations.
"We are honored to win in this tough and fair fight," he said. "From the bottom of my heart, thank you.” He was speaking at a time before relations worsened with the West, and before the Ukrainian civil war in which Russia has taken more than a watching brief.
The idea of modern Russia put many fans and media off traveling to the summer’s World Cup, but those who did were rewarded with a tournament of high quality and one in which visitors were made to feel safe, and the logistics worked like clockwork. Issues of totalitarian government, human rights and attitudes of racism, sexism and homosexuality in Russia were washed away by a festival of football.
As a public relations exercise for Putin, it hardly could have gone any better.
The Global FIFA Roadshow
Those 2018 and 2022 bidding processes led to a civil war within FIFA, and an investigation by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations that continues to this day.
A World Cup offers a chance for a host nation to show off the best of its people and places, and that has helped lead to a wash of corruption, including that which saw Germany awarded the 2006 World Cup in a 1999 runoff with England.
FIFA meanwhile operates as a nation state of its own, asking hosts to charge no taxation on its own vast earnings, which are then funneled back to its Swiss bank accounts. Countries like South Africa, in 2010, Brazil in 2014, plus Russia and Qatar, are happy to pay such a price for the exposure and have been the type of nation that FIFA’s executives have warmed to. Each bidding process has been wracked by controversy until 2018, when a tri-nation bid of the United States, Mexico and Canada was unopposed by all but Morocco to host the 2026 finals.
A World Cup can change a nation’s worldwide image in one short month of top-level soccer, and FIFA was thrilled to offer that service. Or at least for the right price.
The Chinese Way
China President Xi Jinping is a soccer fan and has heavy designs on his country hosting the World Cup. It will compete to host the 2030 World Cup.
And the same political forces that pushed China to the top of the Olympics medal table eventually want the same for a football team that has qualified for just one finals tournament, back in 2002.
The Chinese Super League briefly created a bubble in the global club soccer market when a series of players based in Europe made moves east, including former Chelsea forwards Didier Drogba and Oscar, and former AC Milan striker Alexandre Pato.
In China, wages could be lucrative. Attacking midfielder Dario Conca, practically unknown outside his native Argentina and China, was one of the world’s best-paid players with Shanghai SIPG FC in the early part of this decade. However, in June 2017, a new transfer tax to restrict spending on recruitment was introduced, which reduced the gold rush. The league still remains full of foreigners, though only four are now allowed in each team and three at the same time.
In the meantime, Chinese ownership of foreign clubs has increased, with interest always high in England, while AC Milan were briefly owned by businessman Li Yonghong. With every Chinese business part-owned by the government, it is clear that soccer is being used as a vehicle for global expansion.
The Scandal of 'Sportwashing'
In November 2018, as Football Leaks ran a week-long expose of Manchester City’s off-field activities, human rights group Amnesty International gave its view on the club’s links with Abu Dhabi.
"The UAE’s enormous investment in Manchester City is one of football’s most brazen attempts to ‘sportswash’ a country’s deeply tarnished image through the glamor of the game," commented Amnesty International’s Gulf researcher Devin Kenney.
"As a growing number of Manchester City fans will be aware, the success of the club has involved a close relationship with a country that relies on exploited migrant labor and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders."
Such accusations also have been leveled at Qatar and PSG, the 2022 World Cup and against Saudi Arabia, a nation looking to expand its sporting portfolio and lately linked with funding a global FIFA club tournament and buying into Manchester United.
Harnessing Soccer for Populism
Politicians have long used soccer as a tool for populist power. In European terms, the most famous exponent of this has been Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media magnate and owner of AC Milan from 1986 to 2017.
Berlusconi served as Italy’s prime minister for nine years, as the leader of Forza Italia, a center-right party, and was a dominant figure in his country’s politics for two decades. But to those beyond Italy, he was perhaps best known (at least until 1994, when he was elected prime minister) as the owner of Milan, a team that won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990. One of the greatest teams of the 20th century, their exploits brought billionaire Berlusconi huge international exposure.
In 1994, Milan won the Champions League, which was a reformation of the old European Cup that converted a previous knockout competition into one where established, elite teams played more games, and filled coffers with TV revenue.
Berlusconi had been a key driver in that change, something which has altered the financial makeup of the game. His political career may have ended amid allegations of corruption and sex scandals — he became notorious for his "bunga bunga" parties — but his legacy is far more respectable in soccer terms.
A Monument in Manchester
The Etihad Stadium is an ever-expanding structure, sitting atop a vast complex named the Etihad Campus. It includes a training pitch on which the women’s and youth teams play with capacity for 7,000 spectators, facilities that would be the envy of many clubs in the lower divisions of professional English soccer.
The influence of Abu Dhabi is unavoidable in what had been a neglected part of the city. Meanwhile, Manchester City Council has acted in partnership with Abu Dhabi, building museums, hospitals and the regeneration of living space.
Meanwhile, while such investment is welcomed to Manchester, the nation state carries on its war in Yemen, does not allow freedom of the press and has not signed up to any human or workers rights' treaties. The local folks who exalt in the performances of Manchester City, and sing for Pep Guardiola and his brilliant team, have been made aware of this situation, but for many of them, it is a moral price worth paying.
And that demonstrates how soft power is able to get such a grip on the global game.