5 February 2017

Eating and Keeping the Cake: Unpacking the Hypocrisy in Modern Sport

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

Modern day sport is a monstrous machine that is driven by money in order to churn out results. That is an inescapable truth. So why then has there been so much pushback from traditional powerhouses of football at the rise of RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga and the exorbitant amount of money being spent in the Chinese Super League. CONQA explores the hypocrisy in modern sport.

Global opinion on RB Leipzig's rise is divided but fans from the East German city are ecstatic that they finally have a successful home team to cheer.

Global opinion on RB Leipzig's rise is divided but fans from the East German city are ecstatic that they finally have a successful home team to cheer.

Leicester City’s remarkable triumph in the English Premier League last season will go down in history as one of the great upsets in world sport. Unfortunately, the Foxes are languishing in the lower reaches of the table as the miracle of the past slowly fades to memory.

A cursory look at Europe’s top football leagues will give a sense of comfort to those who like to see the traditionally big teams dominate proceedings. The two Spanish giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona currently occupy the top two spots while over in England, the top six richest clubs are all in the top six positions on the table. Manchester United, the wealthiest club in the world, is currently last of the sextet, but with fourteen games still to play, these mighty teams will no doubt continue to trade places.

In Italy and Germany, perennial champions Juventus and Bayern Munich sit pretty atop their respective leagues. It would seem that all is as it should be and that the top dogs on their blocks have outmuscled their weaker opponents.

Only one team is bucking the trend across Europe’s elite. RB Leibzig, the Bundesliga outfit from the East German city 160km southwest of Berlin, have rocketed up the leagues from the fifth tier of German football to second place in the Bundesliga just four points behind Bayern. In isolation, this is a remarkable fairy tale worthy of a Disney classic. However, most football pundits, particularly in Germany, are treating Leipzig’s rise as an Orwellian nightmare and a precursor to the death of the beautiful game.

In 2009, the club was called SSV Markanstädt and toiled away in anonymity in their regional league in Saxony. But their fortunes, as well as their name, crest and kit, changed when Austrian energy drink giants Red Bull bought the club’s licence and injected a reported €100m into the transfer budget.

The “RB” does not stand for Red Bull. German football dictates that clubs cannot be named after their sponsors so the team was rebranded Rasenballsport Leibzig, translated as “lawn ball sports”.

It’s not just the name change or the blatant marketing campaign parading as a football club that has drawn the ire of RB Leibzig critics. In Germany, there is a so called “50+1” rule that states that clubs must hold a majority of their own voting rights. In essence, German football clubs are run like social democracies where the people hold power rather than oligarchic shareholders. As the Guardian’s Philip Oltermann explains:

“RB Leipzig sign up to the letter of the 50+1 rule but – so their critics allege – corrupt its spirit: while membership at [Borussia] Dortmund costs adults €62 per annum, being a “gold” member at Leipzig will set you back €1,000 a year – and that still only makes you a “supporting” or non-voting member.

Even after being forced by the German FA to open up their membership structure in order to get a licence for the first division, RB Leipzig only have 17 members proper – the majority of whom are either employees or associates of Red Bull.”

Opposition fans have boycotted matches against RB Leipzig and in the first round of the German cup this season, a supporter of Dynamo Dresden threw a severed bull’s head on to the side of the field. RB Leipzig has been labelled as ‘El Plastico’ (a reference to the ‘Galactico’ tag often ascribed to Real Madrid).

Despite an innovative style of play that is attractive and exciting to watch, fans around the world are divided. At the heart of the problem is money. Here is where the hypocrisy of modern sport reveals itself.

The model for success has long been laid out for any European club hoping to gain a seat at the elite table: if you want to compete with the big boys, you have to spend money like the big boys. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, two of the loudest critics of RB Leipzig, have dominated the German landscape in recent years.

Since VfL Wolfsburg lifted the Bundesliga title in 2009, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund had a net transfer spend of €294.55 million and €39.06 million respectively and have shared the league trophy between them. In that time Bayern have won 15 titles, including a treble in 2013, to Dortmund’s 5. The correlation between financial muscle and on field success is clearly evident when comparing Germany’s two most decorated teams.

All the top leagues are dominated by clubs that spend a lot of money. Whether you like it or not, that is a reality of modern day football. RB Leipzig is simply a by-product of a system that has been allowed to spiral out of control by not placing a salary cap on players’ wages and UEFA’s inability to police the financial fair play regulations. To single them out for criticism, especially if you’re a fan of Bayern Munich or any other big spending club in Europe, is to live life with blinkers on.

There has been similar disdain from Europe’s elite concerning the growth of the Chinese Super League. In an effort to grow the game in the world’s most populous country, club owners in China have opened up their bottomless pockets to entice top talent to join the revolution.

Carlos Tevez, once of Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus, is now on the roster at Shanghai Shenhua where he will earn nearly $40 million a year. His fellow South American, Oscar, previously with Chelsea, will collect $26 million a year at rivals Shanghai SIPG.

Paul Pogba is almost as famous for his haircuts and off field persona as he is for his talents with a football. He is the quintessential modern day footballer. 

Paul Pogba is almost as famous for his haircuts and off field persona as he is for his talents with a football. He is the quintessential modern day footballer. 

China is not a traditional powerhouse of the game and so players who join for top dollar are being branded as mercenaries who value financial gain over prestige. But why should tradition play a major role in public opinion? If China can’t compete with Europe in terms of historical clout, are we justified in heaping scorn on the ambitious young league?

The parallels with Manchester City in England are obvious. Before being bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group in August 2008, the club had long lived in the shadows of their city rivals, United. Massive investment saw the Citizens shake up the hegemony of the traditional “Big 4” by winning the Premier League title in 2012. Since then, the club has firmly established itself as one of the giants of the English game. This would never have happened without the substantial spending power they now enjoy.

Ultimately, traditional values guide our beliefs but like any abstract concept, tradition is subject to change and interpretation. They do not have to be set in stone and as the sporting landscape changes, so too will the values that that dictate moral guidelines.

Ten years ago, emojis, at least as we know them today, did not exist. Nor too did the viral dance move “the dab”. Today, both have played a defining role in Paul Pogba’s career. The 23 year old French Manchester United midfielder is as loved for his football talents as he is for his own personal brand. Audacious haircuts and choreographed goal celebrations make Pogba the quintessential modern day footballer. Two days before United’s Premier League clash with old foes Liverpool, Twitter collaborated with the star to produce an emoji of his head to go along with #Pogba.

The hashtag went viral but with the man himself producing his worst performance of the season in a United shirt, the knives soon came out. Former United defender Phillip Neville tweeted, “We need more from Pogba” after the poor display while others were not so diplomatic in their assessment.

Every elite player has an off night but with Pogba’s brazen self-marketing campaign, which included his initial’s shaved and dyed gold on the side of his head, his abject display was much more harshly scrutinised.

ESPN’s Andy Mitten summed it up in a piece titled “Pogba’s branding means Man United’s record buy will be under more scrutiny”, when he said, “But, for the player’s themselves, if you have to face adorning advertising hoardings, personalised boots and shave your initials into your head, you’re putting yourself firmly above the parapet. Which means you’re open to criticism when things go wrong.”

A fair point, but football fans and pundits should not be so quick to throw stones in the glass house that they have helped build. Pogba has over 3 million followers on Twitter and many more fans around the world that idolise him and treat him like an uber human. We have no right to damn elite athletes them when they play the role of celebrity.

The Corinthian ideals that shaped athletic competition over a century ago are all but dead at the elite level. Professionalism has seen to that. The great juggernaut of modern sport eats up resources at an ever expanding rate and with more regions cottoning on to the idea that money makes the ball go round, there seems to be no end in sight.

Sport today is played at a higher level than ever before. The athletes that we adore perform feats that take the breath away. The cost has been the commercialisation of the games we love. Pogba is a product of modern sport just as the Chinese Super League and RB Leipzig are. To criticise these individuals and organisations independently is to try and eat and keep a cake.