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A footballer's worth

Updated Monday, 29th June 2009

Engin Isin asks why some footballers are 'special' and worthy of substantial salaries

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When asked if any footballer was worth the kind of money being offered the likes of Kaka and Robinho, Ronaldo replied positively but added "… if he is special." It was obvious that he thought of himself as a special footballer.
This was during the pre-game show on ITV before the Champions League final in Rome between Manchester United and Barcelona (27 May 2009). It turns out that Ronaldo had already signed a pre-contract agreement with Real Madrid well before the transfer.
 
Whether we think Ronaldo or Rooney is special or not, whether he is worth the money he makes is a good question. But we cannot answer that question without discussing who is making the evaluation. For whom is a footballer worth this amount?

Has football become a game where winning matches or even trophies does not matter?

The agreement with the Ronaldo situation was that all around this has been a sound economic exchange. BBC Sport’s Chief Football writer Phil McNulty makes that point. Manchester United made a handsome profit. Real Madrid made a commercial campaign with the likes of Kaka and Ronaldo by selling as much merchandise as possible with the club brand. One even wonders if it really matters that Real Madrid won any trophies. We can speculate that not winning any trophies would bring more attention and thus fame to the club than winning anything. Cristiano Ronaldo [image by Paolo Camera, some rights reserved] Creative commons image Icon Paolo Camera under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license Christiano Ronaldo

Has football become a game where winning matches or even trophies does not matter? A quick glance over the Deloitte Football Money League (2009) suggests so. Take a look at the league and you will find teams that won no trophies such as Fenerbahçe, a newcomer. But from the point of view of the two clubs, apparently a sound investment has been made. So Ronaldo proved his worth and made lots of money for himself and his clubs.

Is this good enough a reason to evaluate a footballer's worth? For FIFA President Michel Platini it isn’t and this particular transaction "distorted" the market, especially during recession. For Platini, “These transfers are a serious challenge to the idea of fair play and the concept of financial balance in our competitions.” Chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (FA), Gordon Taylor, is worried that this transfer “set a standard that so many clubs will be unable to compete with - and if you do try to compete (financially with Real Madrid) you are building massive volumes of debt,” he said. “Football isn’t immune to the world’s problems and, as such, is very vulnerable.”
 
Now I almost feel sorry for the likes of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard who merely make about £100,000 each per week rather than the £200,000 per week that Ronaldo will make. There is something seriously wrong with this picture. What is vulnerable is not the victims of world’s problems but football itself.
 
The week that the Ronaldo transfer was announced was the week when London Undergound workers went on a 48-hour strike over a new contract that demands about a 5 per cent increase. Many people were critical of the striking workers and it was frequently questioned whether it was right to ask for a raise when many were losing their jobs in a deepening recession. You could hardly hear a similar concern about the 100 per cent raise Ronaldo was due to receive. Why? Presumably we think Ronaldo, with his skills and talents, deserved it. But what makes us think that the skills and talents of workers who make the London Underground work are less worthy than Ronaldo’s footballing skills? We can surely survive without La Liga or EPL. Can we say the same thing about the underground?

What we are watching is no longer football on the field. It is an entertainment business off the field.

What is wrong with this picture is that the globalisation of football markets created massive inequalities and excess. While it may have created a more equal national competition, as Milanovic (2005) argues, it has created unprecedented inequalities amongst football clubs and footballers as Kesenne (2007) illustrates. Rather than dealing with these inequalities, the trend has been to seek investment from elsewhere - as Frick (2007) shows - to remain competitive and close the gap opened by these inequalities. This only intensifies the process, increases inequalities and fails to curb massive excesses that have been created. What we are watching is no longer football on the field. It is an entertainment business off the field. It is a strange game with no scruples or qualms. Since it is now built on massive inequalities it also blinds us to inequality as such. We read about millions suffering from starvation, disease, hunger and malnutrition around the world and watch without guilt a game that massively participates in creating such spectacular inequalities. We don’t see them as related. We have become immune to football’s excesses and the inequalities it creates and ignores. 

Find Out More
 “The Footbal Players’ Labor Market: Empirical Evidence from the Major European Leagues.” Scottish Journal of Political Economy 54:422-446, by Bernd Frick, 
 “The Peculiar International Economics of Professional Football in Europe.” ScottishJournal of Political Economy 54:388-399. by Stefan Kesenne.
 “Globalization and Goals: Does Soccer show the way?” Review of International Political Economy 12:829-850 by Branko Milanovic.
 

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