football as soft power cover image: ball in between two white flags

During the Super League fallout, we were reminded that football is as much about what goes on off the pitch as it is about what happens on it. Football is political. E&M‘s Jonas Fleega argues that its political reach indeed far extends the geographies of the not-so-super Super League. He writes about football’s soft power appeal (and failures), and what John Wayne and Cristiano Ronaldo might have in common.

On the 23rd of August 2020, 380 million people worldwide tuned in to watch FC Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain play in the final of the UEFA Champions League, the premier European club championship. 

A global audience has connected with European teams. Fans throughout the world regularly watch and argue over the El Clásico match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Meanwhile, the transfer of South Korean player Son Heung-min to Tottenham Hotspur added 11 million South Koreans to the club’s fanbase overnight; all with an intense interest in regional phenomena like the ‘North London Derby’. ‘You Will Never Walk Alone’, the Liverpool FC football anthem, can be heard on the alleyways of Cairo after a win as Egyptians celebrate their striker Mo Salah. 

The global dominance of European football is a cultural asset contributing to Europe’s ‘soft power’ by cultivating an international fanbase for top clubs. A positive association with major European cities such as Munich and Turin contributes to European foreign policy goals and amplifies the global influence of European ideas and products. 

The growing international popularity of European ‘mega-clubs’ led to the recent (and now imperilled) proposal for a Super League, whereby the richest teams from the UK, Spain, and Italy would abandon national competitions in favour of an exclusive European League to deliver higher quality matches more regularly. Such proposals prioritise larger fanbases in China and Indonesia over those in Bristol and Seville – a by-product of globalisation.

But with a pivot to a growth model reliant on international consumers, especially in China, clubs have had to adhere to a strictly apolitical stance on issues including  slave labour and human rights abuses. 

Situations can arise where remaining silent is itself a political statement, such as when Arsenal FC players such as Özil were censored for speaking out on internment camps in Xinjiang. Proposals for a ‘Super League’ threaten to reinforce the self-censorship effect as an increasing amount of revenue comes from overseas markets. 

Football as a soft power tool is a double-edged sword: the greater its commercialised influence becomes, the less it resembles the image which Europe wants to project. The European values of free speech are getting lost in the pursuit of pleasing autocratic regimes gatekeeping their markets. 

An insightful parallel can be found in another soft power behemoth: Hollywood. 

John Wayne and Cristiano Ronaldo

The U.S. has traditionally dominated the film industry. During the Cold War, people in East Germany gathered around TVs to watch ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and follow their favourite characters weekly. Apparently, Stalin himself adored cowboy films with Jon Wayne and commissioned Soviet versions of his films. The positive perception of American values portrayed in its films demonstrates effective soft power, contributing to American success in the systemic rivalry with the Soviet Union.

While the propaganda efforts of the Cold War era are long past, the allure of American cultural products continues to be a crucial tool of Western soft power. Yet, much like with football, an increasing reliance on foreign markets has forced Hollywood to relinquish control over scripts and give in to active censorship by the Chinese government. American values are increasingly malleable at the behest of the West’s current systemic rival, substantially weakening America’s image as China flexes its muscles abroad. 

That does not mean Hollywood always acts apolitically; as shown by production companies pulling out of Georgia in protest over voter restriction laws. An inconsistent approach has developed, whereby the industry stands on the side of the disenfranchised in the U.S. whilst toeing the line of the oppressors in China. 

But the reason the U.S. is unable to stop the decline of Hollywood’s soft power is the very same reason for which Hollywood is so successful: lack of government intervention. Short of nationalising the entire industry, the USA can’t force studios to act in a certain way – there is no propaganda ministry.

Is football equally doomed? Fortunately, unlike in the media industry, there is a corporate governance structure which would shift the focus of clubs away from purely commercial goals towards a more fan-based approach.

Democratising football

In Germany, club governance is structured in a fairly unique way as club ‘members’ or fans are guaranteed a majority of the voting rights (50% + 1 share). The system prevents foreign investors from taking over the majority of the club and steering it towards the kind of commercialisation the European ‘Super League’ represents. 

Of course, football in Germany is still commercialised – clubs like FC Bayern Munich travel to China on exhibition matches whilst Borussia Dortmund is listed on the stock market. However, it does mean that there is democratic, fan-based consultations over the type of self-censorship that will be tolerated in the pursuit of commercial goals. 

For example, the case of FC Bayern Munich’s internal debate over the inclusion of a human rights clause in its constitution, pushed for by fans, shows that the accountability goes far beyond that experienced at clubs like Arsenal or Chelsea. It also showcases another value inherent to Europe’s soft power: democracy. 

Instituting the ‘50+1’ rule in the UK, as talked about by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, would ground clubs to their grassroot fanbases, democratise club governance, and prevent harmful self-censorship. Whilst the extent of reform will become clearer in the coming weeks, one thing remains certain: to protect European soft power, football needs to change.

Cover photo by Bermix Studio (Unsplash), Unsplash licence 

  • Jonas Fleega is half Iraqi and half German, grew up in Southern Spain and has lived in London for the past 5 years. Having started off with an undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Jonas is now studying for an MSc in Political Economy of Europe. His interests lie in the intersection between culture, politics and economics applied to a European context. He is particularly interested in populist threats to the EU and how to navigate the increasingly uncertain political landscape of Europe. In his free time, Jonas likes to travel, eat and visit his 9 dogs in Spain.

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