Football: it’s more than just a game!

An astonishing thing happened a few weeks ago. English clubs made up all four finalists in Europe’s top two cup finals. That’s a feat that’s never been done before. Three finalists from the same country is the best that has been managed: starting with Germany in 1980, then Italy in 1990 and 1995, and Spain in 2014 and 2016. In 2008, the UK also achieved that feat, with two English teams and one Scottish club, Celtic.

Yet, unlike those countries, England’s national football team has not won a World Cup since 1966 and has never won the European Cup. So how did its clean sweep of the two premier European club cup honours finals in 2019 happen?

The success of globalisation

The answer lies in the economics of globalisation and its twin modernisation, showing in particular why the process is so successful. But, at the same time, the process does carry downsides – or at least ramifications that also have to be accepted. These can include a loss of dominance, a sharing of influence and a pooling of sovereignty.

A global economy, with 99% of countries trading under the same set of rules, procedures and regulation to a greater extent than ever before in human history, creates an opportunity for firms and households to benefit from worldwide economies of scale.

Economic gains of a level playing field

This will translate, as it always does, into a greater variety of products at cheaper prices and more value added embedded in those goods than previously. In turn, the incomes of consumers and businesses will be greater as more income is left over to spend on other goods and services. Firms make more profits from the increase in the volume of goods sold even as the price per item falls. More demand from consumers and more investment by businesses creates a virtuous circle, just as it would in a single country that’s getting richer with a fast-growing population creating more towns and cities and, therefore, demand for goods and services. This can be summed up as productivity gains, with consumers and businesses sharing the benefits of creating more value added with less input of labour and capital.

English football is such a global business. Selling the Premier League to a worldwide audience has made Manchester United the richest club in the world. English teams now increasingly tour the world in pre-season, selling their merchandise to a potential market of 7 billion people.

Low barrier to entry: high rewards

Of course, not all can afford to watch them live physically but it can be streamed live! They can also buy their clubs’ wares too, possibly via Amazon or its Chinese or Indian competitors. Football is the biggest sport in the world perhaps because of another economic point: ease of entry to play the game is low. A ball (or something that can be treated like one) and any goal you can create from multiple objects is all you need to play the sport.

This point matters. At the top end, television rights make the Premier League extremely lucrative for top clubs. It is therefore a magnet for top players and managers. It also makes for a great investment albeit for a very expensive outlay. This narrows the field down to the global rich investor. Other factors may encourage them, perhaps glory and prestige alongside a sound investment. So, no surprise that none of the owners of the four English clubs in the finals are English.

Low barrier to entry: more diversity

When winning is all, if you are good enough you can get in the team. It focusses on talent not where you are from or who you are; just if you are good enough. It captures the biological truth that talent is evenly distributed around the human population. No one group has a monopoly on it. Hence, lack of diversity in football teams is not down to talent but to the pool for selection, reflecting local ethnic composition, for example. You can see a lack of diversity in sports that have high barriers to entry and a narrow selection pool. And you can see it in business areas where talent is not so easily able to navigate high entry, or where talent is not so externally visible and so easier to block.

Diversity of talent and skill

As this cycle continues, more English clubs that want the best talent from around the world are able to pay for it. As it grows wealthier this concentrates talent and success and can becomes a self-fulfilling cycle: success begets success. But the game of football can be fickle, and part of its attraction is that in a game, even the best team on paper can lose! It is a team game, but a moment of individual brilliance can change it in a second. It has emotional highs and lows – winning one minute losing the next, then maybe winning again in the last second of the last kick of the game. That human connection, too, makes it very attractive.

Of the 44 players in the semi-finals, only eight were born in England. Of the 12 goals, only 1 was scored by an Englishman – Reuben Loftus Cheek for Chelsea. The rest were from Spain, Germany, Italy, South America, Africa, to name a few places. What is remarkable is that this did not dampen the appreciation and enthusiasm of the fans in the respective cities and areas that these clubs represent. The foreign-born players were as committed to the club’s success as were its domestic players. So, the appreciation from their fans was mutual.

The attraction of top talent, the effort put in for the clubs, the raising of standards, the spread of best practice into the English game, the influx of new management ideas and techniques are examples of the benefits that globalisation has brought to the English game.

It seems to have percolated down into the younger players, such that England in recent years has won World Cup success at youth level (under 20). This summer an England team dominated by these young players may even win a major trophy – the Nations Cup.

Lessons for the wider politico-economic landscape

But the wealth has led to dominance by an elite stratum of top clubs – though one can argue that it was ever thus. Take the dominance in Scotland of Celtic and Rangers over many years, even without foreign money. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to spread the benefits of globalisation lower down the leagues. The winners from the influx of money and talent have to share the benefits more widely – another idea that has its roots in economic theory. But the English game seems healthy and the national team better than for a generation.

It is ironic that the effects of globalisation on the English game have occurred at a time when Brexit is supposed to be leading to the UK withdrawing from Europe, moving away from globalisation and curbing immigration. Although not all advocates of Brexit agree with that interpretation, one thing is for sure, English football suggests the future lies the other way.