Branko Milanovic chuckles when I ask him the million-dollar question: What is the solution to the growing economic inequality in soccer? The Serbian-American economist, author of the book ‘Global Inequality’ and a visiting professor at the City University of New York, is a fervent soccer fan and admits that he has no panacea for the ill that is casting an ever-increasing shadow over soccer and could well define the sport’s future. He has no doubt which direction the game is heading for. Milanovic says: “The world has become very commercialized. We go where the money is. There is no reason why soccer wouldn’t do that. In the last 30 years or so, soccer has become much more commercialized and globalized.”
Back in 1987, Milanovic watched Yugoslavia — West Germany in the final of the World Youth Championship, the equivalent of today’s U-20 World Cup, in the middle of the night on TV in Belgrade. It was soccer in a different era. By 1998, the landscape had altered dramatically: the Premier League and the Champions League had come into existence. The World Cup was expanded to 32 teams, and in Paris, Milanovic was heading to the final of the quadrennial high mass between hosts France and Brazil. At the stadium, the news about Ronaldo’s mystery illness bypassed Milanovic and the result left him disappointed after all the hype surrounding the Brazilian dream team, created not in a small part by Nike’s NKE airport advert. As a socio-economic phenomenon, soccer has changed. The game embraced capitalism in the 90’s, and hyper-capitalism in the past decade.
“The Premiership was important,” says Milanovic. “The Bosman ruling was a turning point, which enabled movement of labor within Europe for soccer players. The players market is probably the most globalized market in the world in terms of one type of skill. You don’t have doctors who can move so easily from Mali to France, England or Spain. You don’t have any other profession – writers, software engineers. Nobody. They all have limits in the ability to move across borders, but soccer players don’t and that is interesting because it gives us an inside how a totally open global labor market would work. I think that we would get a concentration of quality – because it is driven by money. There were several elements to soccer’s high commercialization: The Bosman ruling, the growth in England, the technological ability to project yourself.”
In that sense, soccer has been a mirror of society, where inequality has grown exponentially over the last three decades. In 2020, Oxfam reported that 2,153 billionaires owned as much wealth as the bottom 4.6 billion people in 2019. Economic inequality is also the core issue in club soccer. The game is rife with tensions between the haves and the have-nots. The divide threatens to undermine the quintessence of the game: its unpredictability. Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain are serial champions at home. Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate in Spain. They loathe the idea that soccer could be upwardly mobile. They don’t want to mitigate the financial disparity. They want to deepen it. The continent’s elite clubs have longed dreamed of a Super League, perhaps alienating local fans but exploiting global fan bases to generate unprecedented revenue.
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“The European Super League is inevitable,” says Milanovic. “All the commercial factors are in favor and Europe is a small area. Success between clubs is essentially driven by inequality in money. Manchester City is a recent example, a good club that was not at the top level. Once they had the money, they became a European top club, like PSG. There is very clearly a movement towards a Super League. It is totally feasible, and it would bring an enormous amount of money. Would Coronavirus make a difference? I doubt that. It is an intermission.”
The deep divide in Europe is a consequence of the neoliberal model soccer adopted on the continent. It is a stark contrast with American sports, where regulation prevails, but Milanovic doesn’t believe the American sports model can provide a solution for European soccer. Franchises go against the grain of European soccer clubs, which often have socio-political foundations.
Even though the game is teetering on the edge, Milanovic still sees a bright future for soccer. He considers national teams and the inclusive format of the World Cup a positive, and an outlier. At international level, the game hasn’t been commercialized entirely yet. Major international stars still play for their nationals teams, even if there is little financial incentive. “I had a debate with Nate Silver,” explains Milanovic. “He was saying: Well, how about having the World Cup always on beautiful fields in Germany or the U.S. with the 12 best national teams? That would totally destroy the objective of soccer. There is actually no real money for Neymar to play well for Brazil. It leaves the de facto less commercialized part alive. If we were to do destroy that as well, we could really destroy the soul of soccer entirely.”
But such a doomsday scenario isn’t imminent, according to Milanovic. Soccer, once a public good, has been usurped by the market and become one of the most successful products of the last century. It will ultimately also withstand those forces that want to squeeze it for profit and reposition the sports as pure entertainment, vying for the attention of global audiences.
“I remember the time when Obama said he could not run the country unless he had his blackberry,” says Milanovic. “Well, there is no Blackberry anymore practically. It was a very successful product that was then replaced by others. Soccer has been an enormously successful product for more than a century. That doesn’t mean it will remain so. We don’t know how human interest will evolve in the future. I am however very optimistic about the future of soccer because the spread in Asia is extremely important. These are the largest markets and they are growing. China is extremely important, even India. In that sense, bright days are ahead. Europe has become very powerful but I think there will be some decentralization.”