Saturday, November 05, 2016

Football 3.0: China and Qatar provide a sense of the world game's Asian direction

Ten years ago, when people in football talked about Asia, it was often in terms of weak participants but potentially lucrative customers. Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester, argues that Qatar, China and India are now showing that the world game is shifting on its axis. 

China, once a football minnow, has now instigated a football revolution with global ambitions. Photo: China beaten 0-2 by Saudi Arabia in the 1984 Asian Cup final

THERE IS AN ARGUMENT that you can divide modern football into three distinct eras.

In the 19th century, we had Football 1.0 (the European era). As the industrial revolution reached its peak, football teams across Europe were formed, formal codification took place, league structures were created and the football that many of us either know or yearn for a return to was born. Football at this stage was a product of its time: a sport drawing from socio-cultural customs and practices established decades, even centuries before; an activity that reflected a need to escape the grind of urban, industrial life. The likes of England’s Notts County and Sheffield Wednesday were typical products of the era.

The 20th century gave us Football 2.0 (the United States era). Some people will read this and question what relevance the US has had for football. After all, here is a nation that has been grappling to embrace the sport for years. Yet 20th century America has had a profound effect on football across the world. Unlike elsewhere, US sport has almost exclusively relied upon the market to dictate its development, its finances, and its commercial success. This led to the emergence of broadcasting rights packages, sponsorship deals, stadium naming rights and merchandising. All of these are now common across football, be it Arsenal and its deal with Emirates or the Premier League and its sale of TV rights in more than 200 global territories

The 21st century, however, belongs to Football 3.0 (the Asian era). Over the last decade, football has been in the midst of a shift eastwards. Countries including Qatar and states of the United Arab Emirates have built extensive sponsorship portfolios in the West, acquired overseas clubs, and successfully bid to host international tournaments. More recently, China has increased the pace of world football’s ‘Asianisation’, with its bold, ambitious vision for football. At the same time, India has begun to take football more seriously with the inception of its Super League.

US sport continues to exert an influence on Asian sport, particularly through a focus on commercial development; likewise Europe’s football heritage, fan culture and understanding of the game is influencing developments across football’s new world. However, in Asia, there is an added dimension: the role of the state.

At one level, the state is an enabler and a funder of football (for example, see Chinese football’s bamboo revolution), although commercial independence is strongly encouraged. At another level, Asian states are utilising football for soft power and diplomatic purposes, and as a means of nation branding (Qatar is a prime example in all three cases).

This is a whole different ball game to groups of workers in industrial Europe playing football for their employer’s factory team. The world now is a very different place from the 19th century, characterised as it is by economic and political shifts and rapid technological change. As such, Asian football too is very much a product of its time, just as European football was during its formative years.

Such have been the changes in world football, that the respected British newspaper The Financial Times recently scheduled an Asian Football Summit in, somewhat appropriately, Doha. The tagline for this event: ‘Entering A New Era’.

That speakers and delegates from around the world would gather to discuss Asian football might seem anathema to many people. Yet the fact that it happened reveals something both about the changing nature of global football, and the potential for a shift in football’s current balance of power. Furthermore, it represents a change in narrative around Asian football, something which has very rapidly emerged in recent years.

Ten years ago, when people in football talked about Asia, it was often in terms of weak participants but potentially lucrative customers. China in particular was somehow positioned as the new Klondike, and was seen as the source of potentially endless revenues for financially hungry European clubs. Since then however, Qatar has successfully bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and China has instigated its current football revolution. Consequently, the narrative around Asian football has shifted, with nations cast as being globally ambitious rather than unwitting victims or distant customers.

China in the East and Qatar in the West conveniently bookend contemporary Asian football, even if they are not necessarily its common denominators. Indeed, for every Asian nation pumped-up on mineral wealth or economic prosperity, there are still numerous others whose football is underfunded, dysfunctional or, in too many cases, simply corrupt. Even so, China and Qatar provide a sense of Asian football’s current direction of travel.

At one stage, Qatar was arguably unique in the world. In seeking to build an economy that is less dependent upon mineral resource wealth, the country instigated its 2030 Vision. One of the strategic pillars underpinning the pursuit of this vision was sport, most notably football. Aside from the 2022 World Cup, this resulted in the country hosting the 2011 AFC Asian Cup as well as purchasing clubs including Paris Saint Germain (PSG) and signing sponsorship deals with others such as FC Barcelona (FCB).

At the same time, Qatar has been keen to improve the quality of its players, leading to a strategy that has embraced measures ranging from the formation of Doha’s Aspire academy, through to the purchase of Belgian club K.A.S. Eupen (which the Qataris have used to provide its players with training and experience).

For China observers, this overall approach will surely be reminiscent of the country’s own recent football focus. For Qatar at PSG, read Suning at Inter Milan; for Qatar Airways and FCB, read Wanda and FIFA. While the countries may not share the same levels of wealth or mineral resources, they do share ambitions. More importantly, they share similar strategies.

This means Qatar is no longer unique – in fact the country now almost seems like ‘China Lite’. Even so, the two nations are trailblazing on behalf of Asia: strong on vision, focused on clearly defined goals, embracing a strategic approach to football, and driven in combination by the state and private sectors.

Welcome to Football 3.0 which, like football in the 19th and 20th centuries, is very much a product of its time. We have entered the era of change and now a question looms: by 2050, will China really have won the World Cup? Given current developments in the sport, one would be foolish to discount it.

Simon Chadwick is ‘Class of 92’ Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University, Manchester in the UK, where he is also a member of the Centre for Sports Business. First published in The Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum. Read the original article

See also: China's Guangzhou Evergrande are being hailed as Asia’s first football ‘superclub’ (9 Oct 2016); China’s soccer seduction illustrates a governance challenge for world football (14 Sep 2016); The unknown costs of China’s state-sanctioned soccer club spending spree (28 Aug 2016);  European football: meet soccer's 'hot money' new club owners from China (21 July 2016);  China’s push for FIFA World Cup victory (through taking over the world game) (19 June 2016); Chinese football and future power: not simply in the sport to play the game (23 Apr 2016); China's clear signal to the global football game: the centre of power is shifting (10 Feb 2016); Do Chinese fans prefer traditional football clubs? (9 Jan 2007); Report: Still a market for ManU tours to China (29 Sep 2005) 

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

A study in contrasting football soft power strategy: Iceland 1, Qatar -1

The football soft power contrast between Qatar and Iceland speaks volumes. According to James M Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, a comparison of the strategies of both countries demonstrates that it takes more than money to leverage soccer to create political, geopolitical and economic opportunity.

MONEY AND WORLD SOCCER body FIFA’s desire to take one of the world’s foremost sporting events beyond Europe and the Americas helped Qatar win the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Six years after the awarding, Qatar is a nation under fire by human rights and labour activists for its controversial labour regime, has yet to convincingly counter widespread suspicions of wrongdoing in its campaign to win its hosting rights, and is suspected by pro-Israeli circles, Christian conservatives and Arab detractors of supporting militant Islamist groups.

Iceland is a nation that is emerging from virtual bankruptcy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It lacked the funds to mount the kind of high-profile, flashy sports diplomacy that is central to Qatar’s soft power strategy. Rather than focusing on attention-grabbing moves, Iceland built its strategy around performance on the pitch that took many by surprise and embedded it favourably in the consciousness of soccer fans across the globe.

Oil and gas money has bought Qatar entry into the boardrooms of major corporations, catapulted into being a major player in financial markets, and allowed it to employ sports, arts, air transport, high profile real estate acquisitions, state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera, and a high-powered, fast-moving, mediation-driven foreign policy as building blocks of its soft power. The strategy has enabled the tiny Gulf state to punch above its weight. It has also allowed Qatar to host multiple international sporting events and international conferences that have helped put it on the international map and develop niche tourism.

What all of this did not buy Qatar is popularity and respect beyond the corridors of power. British You Gov polls showed that 77% of Brits and 90% of British soccer fans believed that the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar was the result of bribery and corruption. 78% favoured the tournament being moved to another country. A similar survey concluded that Qatar Airways had succeeded where the hosting of the World Cup had failed: 96% of those polled rated the airline from positive to very positive.

Nonetheless, Qatar Airways’ sponsorship of FC Barcelona, which figures prominently in the airlines’ advertising, was extended in July despite an online petition last year that called on the club to ditch the Qataris as its shirt sponsor unless it “treats its workers fairly” attracted within days more than 50,000 signatures. Beyond being a sponsor’s worst nightmare, the petition constituted a first indication of a potential groundswell of fan opposition to Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. There is little evidence that Qatari reforms of its kafala or labour sponsorship system that have introduced change but not fully abolished it have substantially improved the Gulf state’s image.

Qatar’s reputational issues were highlighted this month when the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) gave FIFA three weeks to avoid legal action in a Swiss court on behalf of a Bangladeshi migrant worker, Nadim Sharaful Alam. The FNV, the biggest union in the Netherlands with 1.1 million members, is demanding in the first such legal challenge targeting FIFA that the soccer body admit that it should have demanded abolishment of the kafala system as part of the awarding process or concede that the World Cup should not have been awarded to the Gulf state.

In contrast to Qatar, Iceland’s stunning performance in June’s European championship and its steady progress in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers has positioned it as the underdog that everyone loves. Not only has it made Iceland a darling of a global soccer-crazy public, it has boosted the country’s bottom line. Icelanders from the country’s president to its foremost writers and businessmen celebrate the impact soccer has had on their ability to do business.

“I was in Brazil for the Paralympics [in September] and every Brazilian I met said: ‘Iceland did well in the football.’ Iceland now exists in Brazil, as it were. It will be the same in other countries. Iceland has really made itself known through football and that will help the country in many ways,” the country’s president, Guoni Thorlacius Johannesson, told The Guardian.

“I was in America to promote my books in September and everyone you meet has been to Iceland, wants to go to Iceland or their friends have just been there. It’s worldwide. The football team has really put Iceland into focus again,” added Icelandic crime writer Ragnar Jonasson, whose books have been translated into 15 languages and have skyrocketed in France in recent months.

Ua Matthiasdottir, rights director at Forlagio, Iceland’s largest publishing house, echoed Mr. Jonasson’s experience, saying soccer had made it easier for him to forge links to publishers in other countries. “It makes it easier when people know your country actually does exist, and the football certainly helped,” the British paper quoted him as saying.

Exports of Icelandic products ranging from literature to yoghurt and frozen food have boomed in the wake of Iceland’s soccer success as has tourism and finance. Dairy producer MS Dairies has enlisted the country’s foremost player, Eiour Guojohnsen, as its ambassador. Increased passenger traffic has prompted privately-held Icelandic airline, Wow Air, to order three new aircraft.

Qatar’s soccer team too has been performing exceptionally well, raising hopes that it could qualify for the first time for the World Cup finals. The country’s state-owned airline, Qatar Airways, has been continuously expanding its already significant fleet and destination network. None of this has impacted the country’s continued reputational issues.

The bottom line is that soccer’s potential as a tool of public diplomacy and soccer is considerable. It takes however more than success on the pitch and money to harness its power. It takes a mix of policies that address both domestic and foreign concerns, an efficient public relations and communications policy, and a measure of transparency and accountability.

To be fair the issues for Iceland are easier. Unlike Qatar, it is not struggling with a demography in which the citizenry accounts for a small minority of the overall population that forces the government to walk a delicate tightrope between domestic and foreign concerns. And Iceland does not have the kind of rights issues Qatar is dealing with.

Nonetheless, the comparison between two nations in which soccer has become a key element of their public diplomacy, suggests that Qatar could benefit from taking a close look at Iceland’s successful exploitation of the sport. Invariably, Qatar’s issues are complex and not resolved with a stroke of a pen. There are however policies and communication strategies it could adopt which could significantly increase its return on investment in the world’s most popular game.

Dr James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of W├╝rzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.