Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Messi Malaise and Football Corruption

A Spanish judge today rejected a prosecutor’s request to drop the charges of tax fraud against Lionel Messi and ordered an investigation into three charges of unpaid taxes. The judge claimed that there was sufficient evidence to believe that the star knew about and consented to the formation of corporations that shielded image rights revenue from taxes in his adopted homeland. In June, it appeared the well-publicized case would be resolved, but that is no longer the case.

Messi and possibly Barcelona will now face renewed scrutiny regarding their finances (after the Neymar debacle last year, that found them guilty of underestimating the cost of the purchase of the Brazilian star) and the notion that football has fallen too far out of step with the reality of everyday citizens in Spain, and across Europe. As Spain attempts to recover from the economic devastation of the real estate collapse, and unemployment of the young hovers around 50 percent, Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to pay exorbitant transfer fees, huge salaries and essentially ignore the plight of their country. Messi and his father now face charges of trying to defraud Spain of tax revenue, with the punishment if found guilty currently unclear.

Messi is the fourth highest paid athlete in sports today, with over 31 million Euros in salary and bonuses and another 18 million pounds in sponsorship deals, behind only boxer Floyd Mayweather, Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo and basketballer Lebron James. And yet it appears that he might have been involved in trying to keep a few million more pounds of that money over the period from 2006 to 2009. Corruption is, of course, nothing new to the world of football. In just the past decade, we have had QPR coach Harry Redknapp facing tax evasion charges (though he was exonerated), a sting operation finding match fixing across the world (including in England), the infamous 2006 Italian football scandal that involved the top teams in Series A and B (including champion Juve) fixing matches with favorable referees, charges of racial abuse levied against John Terry and Luis Suarez and pervasive across the major leagues of Europe, violent fans attacking and even killing players of rival teams (most famously with Lazio and the Jewish Tottenham fans), shadowy agent dealings and referees fixing games. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/world-cup/10918404/Football-match-fixing-Referees-guilty-of-fixing-final-scores-in-high-stakes-games.html).

Juventus might be the most famous case in recent years, resulting in relegation to Series B, deduction of 9 points, fines in excess of 68 million euros and being stripped of their Series A titles for 2005 and 2006. Since returning to the top, they have won the Italian title three years in a row, though their now ex-coach Antonio Conte himself faced a four-month ban last year for failing to report match-fixing from his time at Siena. There are still charges that match-fixing is prevalent across the game and leagues and that referees are often involved. In Brazil last year, a referee in a lower league game stabbed a player during a game and was subsequently beheaded by fans!

The question that emerges is how deep the corruption reaches and whether world football has fallen too far out of step with the struggles of everyday people suffering around the world, who arguably help to generate the very funds that lead to that dramatic disparity. Transfer fees continue to rise beyond the reasonable (with fees up to 30 million pounds for young, largely unproven future stars – or 16 million pounds for a backup right back who has only played in 25 games in the EPL), players salaries are exorbitant at top clubs even when they rarely play and ticket prices for fans go up year after year. There is also the continued presence of racism across European football from Italy to Spain to England and Russia and one scandal after another involving players driving drunk, making inexplicable and controversial political statement or showing little loyalty to the fans and teams that make them rich. And there is the sense that teams like PSG, Manchester City and Chelsea are buying crowns with rich plutocratic owners from the Middle East and Russia.

Is World Football then a reflection of the increasing inequality and corruption in society, ignoring the plight of so many to serve the interests of so few, or a route out of poverty for so many youngsters who dream of playing the beautiful game for fame and fortune? The World Cup in Brazil offered both of these realities in stark terms, with fans across the world watching on as beautiful football and beaches largely hid the dramatic poverty just around the corner. Sure there are the few that take the long road from the ghetto or favela to the top of the football world, but how many others are left behind, to suffer the failure of their dreams with nowhere else to turn? And can football do anything about this reality?

As with media, the question is often asked of whether it simply reflects society or leads it toward a particular worldview. It is hard to fathom a reasonable argument in which football is leading the charge of increased inequality across the globe or the notion of winning at any cost. And yet one can ask whether players like Luis Suarez should recognize their place as role models to future generations and try to set a good example for those youth. There is the question of whether managers and owners can try to strip the game of its corruption, even if the stakes are so high (as bicycling has tried to do in the past few years). There is the question of whether FIFA can finally force Sepp Blatter to step aside and try to address their own long history of bribes and corruption. There is the question of whether UEFA can force clubs to actually abide by Financial Fair play, even as we watch transfer fees move toward the surreal. And there is the question of whether fans can demand more of football at every level, using their money and numbers as power to force change.

On the other hand, the fans themselves want their teams to win and find themselves steeped in the very world that football reflects. One thing I am near certain of though is that while Messi might pay a large financial punishment in the future, the thought of robbing Barcelona and the world of its most cherished asset seems beyond the realm of possibility.

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