Posted inOpinion

The Beautiful and the Damned: Football and Climate Change

“Dirty money”. We’ve all heard the phrase. Probably from one self-righteous football fan to one whose club is notorious for dodgy investment of one kind or another. Really, the problem is much more universal. We live in an era of football where clubs’ sporting success is proportional to having the biggest investor. With such wealth in gas and oil companies, it is unsurprising that many teams accept this questionable source of income. In the increasingly profit-driven finance of the sport, can football defend itself from the accusation that it funds climate change?

Dirty money is usually used to denote a  source of money directly in violation of human rights and, though more difficult to define, human decency. Indeed, there is a case to be made that the meaning can be reinterpreted when considering the climate as a stakeholder. While shareholders may be the primary concern in the business ethics of a multi-billion pound oil or gas company, it is the long-term impact which ought to dominate the ethical calculus. Even if the company can claim ethical neutrality or positivity in the short term, there is a competing long-term business interest which is harmed: our dependence on a functioning climate in order to live. It is a fact easy to be impatient with but the consequences are no less true. If a football club cannot choose but to accept such self-defeating sources of revenue, it sets both the game and its fans up for a self-destructive trade-off: if you want to watch football, then you facilitate the destruction of your planet.

This trade-off may seem a slippery slope scenario, but it is representative of current affairs. Team INEOS in cycling, the funding of the Champions’ League by Gazprom and countless other examples in widely viewed sporting events are testaments to the tension within the world of football – not only as a sport, but also as a financial game. If football teams’ ratings and TV deals depend upon maintaining a place in the highest possible league, and games are won by buying (and coaching) the best players, then the price of winning can only rise. Sure, you can “grow your own” players in an academy and make a profit from their sale, but the short term financial gain comes at the cost of long-term talent. What incentive is there to stop other clubs buying the cream of the academies as well for knock-down prices? Then they own the future as well as the present.

Similarly, the rise of inter-club transfers pushes the talismans of smaller, grassroots academies such as Cheltenham Town Ladies’ FC to Arsenal’s more prestigious set-up. Without such a bountiful supply of capital, smaller football clubs cannot choose but to lose to more established teams. Still, against the odds, even with such little capital, you might pull a “surprise” victory and get promoted. Prestigious teams can, however, quickly and easily buy back their historical advantage, and naturally the price is paid in more of this environmentally ‘dirty money’.

Unfortunately, or fortunately for the elite clubs in question, fans’ outcry against their club’s sources of income are conveniently tempered by the inevitable results which such money brings. Perhaps, the fans might argue that the club’s promise is what draws in these profiteering investors in the first place. Indeed, if a club were unlikely to generate profit, many of these dodgy investors would look elsewhere to grow their billions. In the FA leagues, if a club cannot show its net loss as an acceptable rate, then the amount allowed for player wages is decreased. It is a structure that may well be argued to safeguard from the slippery slope of cash injections.

Perhaps a pill so bitter to swallow is ultimately necessary in the monetised game of football. Nobody, for example, who watched the women’s Euros could deny that the greater the financial backing is that is poured into the game, the greater both the spectacle and quality of football being played. Indeed, on the BBC coverage, pundit Ian Wright hammered home this very point as a primary takeaway from the Lionesses’ victory. 

Nor, however, do we wish to regress to those depressingly recent days where athletes found themselves in need of working multiple jobs alongside football simply to make a living. Increasing professionalisation has already bolstered the competitiveness of the WSL and international tournaments for women. This interest is itself perpetuated once investors are forced to take notice: investment into growing the women’s game and Cobham Academy among other positive ethical effects were near-ubiquitous promises on the manifestos of bidders for the financial backing of Chelsea. Whether motivated by genuine interest or opportune window dressing, we cannot deny the importance of these conditions on investment as a vehicle for advancing equality.

Money is the double-edged sword upon which the game relies. Cash injections into a club are both exponentially beneficial and exponentially harmful. We cannot deny this. But how can we ensure that the benefits are kept, while the damage is managed?

I would suggest that the structures which mould how leagues (domestic and worldwide) operate is the area which has the greatest capacity for change. Football fans are fans of a game which exists within these leagues. The leagues can and ought to safeguard fans from the despicable trade-off between football and the climate – it is their direct responsibility. For instance, leagues can devise a way in which the amount of money spent per club is capped relative to an acceptable wage and the running cost of putting on fixtures. The current rule of the FA is that if a club is found to pump noticeably more money in than it makes back, it must spend less. That there have been workarounds by clubs involving performance-related bonuses, counting the profits in creative ways, and having sufficient power that UEFA or the FA is unable to hold them accountable is proof that this rule is too soft. Yet however we set the threshold between not enough profit and enough profit, the security of having a big financial backer ensures some kind of workaround such that the rules become meaningless.

Instead, I suggest that something more like the men’s rugby set-up would be both stronger and better. If every club can only spend X amount in total on players’ wages, then (in the FA leagues at least) players will be more equally distributed, allowing less prestigious teams to access the quality of players which makes the games competitive and, thus, engaging. This would have to work on an international scale in order to prove meaningful. Otherwise, players would simply emigrate to other leagues without these financial constraints. Rather than things like women’s football being items on the manifestos of would-be investors, these important recipients of investment would be beneficiaries of the excess profits of these clubs. Rather than being at the discretion of Chelsea’s board of shareholders, such benefits to the sport would be transparently built into the very financial infrastructure of the league itself. 

There would be other obvious areas of investment which the profits of these teams could fund. I’d like to see more rigorous centres of sporting excellence and academy programs equipped with the appropriate provisions of career support for those who do not make it as professionals. And perhaps one day, areas of investment could themselves in fact be climate positive. Forest Green Rovers’ environmentally friendly (and vegan!) stadium and catering is highly popular as a talking point and could be emulated elsewhere.

This financial utopia, however, is highly unlikely to materialise. Realistically, if wages were greater in non-English leagues, better players would leave, and the positive impact of firmly capping spending would be negated. As the situation stands today, I don’t see either UEFA or the FA having the spine to implement such radical changes. There will always be a sneaky loophole, even if they do. Nonetheless, money remains at once both dangerous and instrumental to the growth of “the Beautiful Game”. Without governing bodies’ genuine desire to clean up football’s financial side and, in turn, our planet, this danger can only grow.