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  1. Long reads
1 July 2002

Drink up and play the game

Can a soccer star any longer distinguish between playing football and promoting his sponsors' produc

By Ross Diamond

I woke up this morning and breakfasted on the official Fifa World Cup fast food, washed down with the official Fifa World Cup sugar drink, had a quick shave using official Fifa World Cup razor blades and sat down to watch the match on an official Fifa World Cup television. After the game, I put on my official Fifa World Cup training shoes and climbed into my official Fifa World Cup car. I then drove to town to collect a set of photos – taken, naturally, using the official Fifa World Cup roll of film – and for which I paid using my official Fifa World Cup credit card. Returning home, I slumped back to watch the second game of the day with a few bottles of the official Fifa World Cup beer. After the match, I drafted this article on my official Fifa World Cup computer, and e-mailed it to the New Statesman using the official Fifa World Cup internet service provider. If only there were an official Fifa World Cup brand of cigarettes, I could satisfy my one remaining craving.

Vast sums of money are sloshing around the football industry from advertising revenue and sponsorship deals, as well as from replica shirt sales and good old-fashioned gate receipts (at bad new-fashioned prices). Yet as many as 30 professional clubs in English football face bankruptcy, ITV Digital has collapsed partly because of its football coverage deals, and the Wembley Stadium fiasco continues amid pleas of financial hardship. As with many things apparently caused directly by scarcity, the problem is not really one of poverty, but the result of the unequal distribution of plenty.

The relationship between the football and advertising industries is multi-layered and intricate. It is not hard to see why a Fifa sponsor such as the car manufacturer Hyundai would be so excited about the World Cup: it affords a rare opportunity to reach a genuinely global audience. But why should such corporations want to purchase the “official” tag? They get pitch-side hoardings, the opportunity to provide corporate hospitality at the matches and the right to use the words “official sponsors” on their advertising, products and packaging. Otherwise, they get little that the “ambush” advertisers do not get.

“Ambush” or “hijack” advertisers make use of high-profile events without formally sponsoring them – a classic example being the European football championship print-ads which read: “Tango: officially a drink during Euro 2000”.

There is nothing to stop companies that are in direct competition with official sponsors from taking half-time advertising on commercial channels. Most people are surely unaware that although Coke is an official sponsor, Pepsi is not. Indeed, Coke has an English TV campaign which, instead of highlighting its official Fifa World Cup status, follows the fortunes of a three-legged football-playing potato whose best friend is a goalkeeping mole. Meanwhile, Pepsi employs the fame of David Beckham and other international soccer superstars in competition with sumo wrestlers, without making any direct reference to the Fifa-run tournament in the Far East.

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It may even be that Coke, and hijackers such as Nike, are attempting actively to distance themselves from the safe and uncool “official” status that Fifa is selling. Nike, for example, has a series of apocalyptic ads directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python and Twelve Monkeys fame: they feature international soccer stars battling it out in the belly of a rusting oil tanker in a Rollerball/Mad Max-style soccer tournament.

Fifa and its official sponsors chose not to stress the benefits to the game (or its fans) that their involvement might bring. For a small outlay, they could have brought us heartening images featuring people of all ages, races and abilities united in what Fifa calls “the game the world plays”.

Can you imagine the feel-good film of war-stricken children playing together in shiny new boots on previously landmined pitches, as a dusty sunset highlights the picturesque poverty from which soccer will save them? Can Fifa and its sponsors really be so shy and modest about their charitable work that they choose to keep it secret? Perhaps they do not want to be seen as too “goody-goody”. Or, perish the thought, is it that they do not actually do very much other than promote themselves, run the occasional tournament and make vast sums of money?

The myriad unofficial advertisers can associate themselves with the tournament by having individual footballers endorse their products. Or (as in the case of Dell computers) they can simply superimpose a football on to an otherwise unrelated advert, without paying Fifa for the privilege. National flags and images of anonymous players can be used with impunity and a wide range of companies – from Budweiser and McDonald’s to Madame Tussaud’s and Standard Life – appear to have developed footballitis: in a series of nervous jerks and twitching reflexes, huge corporations have been overcome with the urge to make soccer the basis of their summer advertising campaigns.

There is clearly something about sport – and football in particular – that is proving irresistible to advertisers, be it at a local, national or global level. This is not simply a result of soccer’s current high profile – where were the Carling and Sainsbury’s adverts telling us to stock up with lager and snacks for the equally high-profile jubilee weekend? – but is related to the perception of the classless, uncontroversial nature of competitive sport (though try telling that to the wounded and bereaved in Moscow after the riots that followed the Russian team’s defeat by Japan). The amount of official and unofficial football-related advertising this year reached an all-time high. In the end, this can only detract from the tournament, because it simultaneously increases the fans’ expectations and their cynicism.

Although some of the players and fans seem able to focus beyond the hype, others seem to share the outlook of Shaquille O’Neal, the basketball superstar. Frustrated by the constant questions about his $121m contract with the LA Lakers, signed in 1996, O’Neal said: “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi and wear Reebok.” That there is still something shocking and comic to our ears about O’Neal’s internalisation of his paymasters’ values is, sadly, probably only temporary.

The late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick used the basketball star Wilt Chamberlain as an example in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), a defence of the free market and an attack on egalitarianism. Chamberlain’s astronomical wages, argued Nozick, might easily be the result of a negotiation between the star and the fans, who would choose to pay higher ticket prices in order to see him rather than other stars in action. To interfere with this negotiation, Nozick went on, was to undermine not only Chamberlain’s freedom but the fans’. (A similar argument could be made about captains of industry, but the Chamberlain example will be more attractive to many people.)

But what if the fans can’t afford the tickets? And what if the players do not want to wear corporate logos? Such “freedom” can undermine the very liberties that the libertarian right claims to be defending.

As one official Fifa sponsor admits: “there are some things money can’t buy”, but, as the same sponsor adds, “For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”

Hunter Davies, page 58

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