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Shifting Goalposts: The Changing Face of Commercial Football

Shifting Goalposts: The Changing Face of Commercial Football

By Saamir Askari

Edited by Anandita Malhotra,Senior Editor,The Indian Economist

Boys became men when their elders, who glowed at sight reminiscing when their fathers had done the same to them, treated them to their first pre-match pint. Three generations would walk together to the stadium arm in arm, as they sang praises of the men who brought them joy every weekend. They would then find themselves sitting amongst men donning the same shade of red, and as they would chant ‘You’ll never walk alone’, the eleven familiar faces came out to light up the stage…

For the last century or more, generations have been bound to the beautiful game. Men with vast age differences could be seen talking about the man who scored that historic goal in that memorable year during that unforgettable tournament. Infants were taught the words ‘Giggs’ and ‘George’ before they were taught how to walk, but now that they’ve grown up, they can’t do the same to their children. In the past, millions would chant one common name, however today those names come and go so quickly that they’re hard to remember. Being a legend is a thing of the past. In a world where results matter more than identity, severe measures are being taken to ensure success. The game is changing, and fast. With the coming of big money and commercialization, football’s face is morphing into an unrecognizable head every time you look away. The dynamic flow of capital and individuals is degrading football’s culture, and here is how.

During our father’s time, the names Ryan Giggs, Tony Adams, and Alan Shearer were synonymous with the Premier League. Careers started and ended at one stadium, and throughout their lives they were showered with unconditional love by their faithful followers and devotees. Fast-forward a few years, and the current crop does not show signs of being proclaimed legends. It’s not tough to imagine – is the name Suarez chanted with the same reverence as Gerrard?

That is because when Steven Gerrard started his career in his own neighbourhood, commercialisation hadn’t taken the football world by storm. It has now, for buying success is now the norm. With profitability of commercial football proven, big investors are lining up to take over clubs. These investors want short-term gains rather than long-term returns – trophies over consistency. So they splash the cash on players and staff they feel would bring them this temporary success. With transfers becoming mad dashes to the market to grab the most-valued player off the shelves, the time given to a player to prove himself on the pitch is shortening. That further results in the face of the team changing every year or so – too fast for the fans to remember them.

This phenomenon is not isolated to footballers alone. Managers, who are the architects of a football club, face the same situation. A manager designs how the team functions, what strategies they adopt, and in general affect the mentality of the squad. If the squad’s style of play doesn’t click, owners are too trigger-happy and they find it convenient to give the gaffer and background staff the boot. Take the case of Chelsea; since 2007 they have had 9 managers, an average of 1.5 a season. Chelsea in any case is a perfect example of the new norm – in the same period (2007-early 2014), they have seen a massive total of 67 brought in at Stamford Bridge. Such a number explicitly indicates how the team changes year after year, and their style and identity follow suit.

Commercialization also means the transfer fees and player values are seeing inflation. When a player proves himself on the pitch for a season, his value shoots up, and various teams fight for his signature. Today, this in-demand player is further helped by his brand value. Yesterday’s weekend stars were coal miners over the week, while today’s demi-gods use their weeks doing photo shoots for luxury underwear.  It is this brand value that is further inflating the price clubs have to pay for his services. For example, in 1996 Alan Shearer’s transfer to Newcastle from Blackburn was valued at £15 million. Contrast that with Gareth Bale’s recent transfer in 2013 to Real Madrid for a whopping £85 million. This incredible valuation of players just shows how players are no longer individuals, but commodities. The invasion of the upper fractions of capitalist class in the common man’s game has made average men with sublime skills into shiny toys on the shelves of the international market.

Big money has its plus points too. The Barclays Premier League is showing a potential of having it’s greatest season yet, with last season’s stars like Diego Costa, Filipe Luis, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez seeking ‘greener’ pastures in England. Just watching all of them play on the same field as Ozil, Rooney, Toure and Aguero would make one’s eyes water. However the fact remains that the negatives are far more than the positives. Football is no longer tied to the country; the ball’s now kicking off on a global pitch.

Saamir is a student of Economics at Hindu College, Delhi University. He is a writer across various platforms, most noticeably as a playwright. Apart from having a keen interest in the political and economic affairs of the country, he spends most of his time either in a cold, dark room writing; or on a hot, vast track running. He can be contacted either via his blog (, or through his email ([email protected]).

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