Matt Scott: When money can’t buy peace: How history tells us a football revolutions is afoot

“Our properties within our own territories [should not] be taxed or regulated by any power on earth but our own.” Thomas Jefferson

Conflict, throughout the course of human history, has taken on many forms. But whether it be the bronze swords and spears of Homer’s Iliad, the muskets of Jefferson’s American War of Independence or the rockets, bombs and drones of today, some things have been constant.

One constant is the continuous presence of the narrators of current affairs, whose words inspire men to the supreme sacrifice and who justify the mass loss of life in terms that make the suffering of families more bearable. Homer’s epic spoke of love and of the Gods, of the glory of nationhood and of individual heroism; themes that have underpinned thousands of years of wars ever since.

But the greater constant in human conflict has always been money. Whether in wars of conquest or in defence of the realm and of the political status quo that goes with it, the chiefest motive has tended throughout the generations to have been coin. Jefferson’s speeches railed against tyranny and demanded “freedom”; self-determination against the rule of an illegitimate foreign occupier. But the truth was more prosaic and far less spiritual. It was the Crown’s Currency Act 1764, which served to tighten monetary policy in protection of British creditors over American debtors, that sparked the American Revolution.

Money and who commands it is what foments revolution. The territories might have differed but whether the American, the French or the Bolshevik, the control of the economy’s wealth has been common to them all. Now, in business terms at least, in football a similar struggle is today under way.

By common consent, the FIFA World Cup that ended with Philipp Lahm raising the trophy on Sunday was a phenomenal party. The pinnacle of international football burst into life when the reigning world champions suffered a 5-1 demolition at the hands of the Netherlands. This marvellous élan only faltered in the quarter-final stages but by the time the hosts were atomised 7-1 by Germany in a semi-final, Brazil 2014’s place on the pedestal of World Cup history was secure.

As the trademark tells us, it was the FIFA World Cup. But though it is the commercial property of the world governing body, there is a growing discontent among FIFA’s subjects about the way it has been run. The European Clubs Association (ECA), which represents the interests of the most successful clubs in that part of the world, provided more than three-quarters of the players who participated in the tournament this month and last.

They were made available to FIFA under the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding or ‘MoU’ the ECA initially signed with the European confederation UEFA in January 2008 and extended four years later. Under its terms the ECA agreed to take US$70 million from the FIFA tournament proceeds to permit their players to go to Brazil. That equates to 3.5% of the $2 billion FIFA generated in “event related income” in 2012 and 2013 alone.

Yet the FIFA-related terms of that MoU will expire on July 31, and I was told last week that the ECA is preparing to adopt a hawkish stance over the use of its players.

A senior source from the clubs’ organisation told me: “Without the MoU the clubs won’t feel bound to release players to [international] teams from outside of Europe. The MoU expires at the end of July. So what about when Argentina, Brazil and Cameroon call up players for friendlies or qualifiers then?”

The text of the agreement would seem to put ECA hawks on firm ground. “If no such similar [extension] agreement is concluded, ECA and its member clubs will not – as per 1.8.2014 … be bound to comply with the FIFA Regulations on players release with regard to the release of players for non-European National Associations.”

It follows up: “For the avoidance of doubt, in case … no agreement with FIFA is concluded within the meaning of article E.4, this Agreement shall not serve as a legal basis to oblige ECA and its member clubs towards FIFA and the non-European National Associations (a) to acknowledge any FIFA rules and regulations including FIFA’s decisions/changes to the International Match Calendar, nor (b) to be integrated in FIFA Structures or to take part in FIFA club Competitions, other than agreed between UEFA and ECA in this Agreement or otherwise agreed between the Parties.”

In other words: the ECA will consider itself and its member clubs to have broken away from the FIFA regulatory umbrella as of August 1 this year. That’s about a fortnight away.

With such an explosive development just around the corner there has been astonishingly little said about it. Perhaps people feel this juncture has been faced before and overcome. But before now there has never been a legal framework for the ECA to act, one under which it has set out its terms for instigating revolt.

Despite the approaching deadline, FIFA’s general secretary, Jérôme Valcke, seems supremely insouciant. “We have a good relationship with the ECA and there is no issue at all,” Valcke has said since my revelations appeared in a British Sunday newspaper. “We have agreed that we will sit down in September, October, November to discuss the next international calendar and we will also discuss an extension to the current agreement over insurance. It’s just a matter of discussing the terms. I’m sure we will finalise an agreement.”

Make no mistake: with these words Valcke is calling the ECA’s bluff. The next round of international matches under the FIFA International Match Calendar takes place in September. Leaving negotiations until then risks the current crisis escalating into conflict. The ECA has made provision under its MoU to withdraw its players from international matches in the Americas, Oceania, Asia and Africa. If it does, clearly it will throw into chaos the international tournaments those regions hold.

Who will blink first? It will certainly be very uncomfortable for FIFA if its member associations cannot properly conduct their international fixtures with their best players because the employers who pay their wages have told them to remain at home. In that case, an uprising of the clubs may not be the only revolt FIFA faces.

So what weapons does FIFA have to ensure the players are released for international duty? Well it might order national associations not to provide officials for matches involving rebel teams. But, in some territories at least, the national association has only a minority stake in the organisation of professional referees and assistants. In England, for instance, the Football Association owns only a one-third share of Professional Game Match Officials Limited: the rest belong to the Premier League and the Football League. The FA would be powerless to act on FIFA’s instruction. As such, domestic football leagues hold a powerful card in this game.

FIFA would probably bar all insurgent clubs from its competitions but few would be concerned about not competing in the FIFA Club World Cup. Moreover those clubs have already set out their intention to secede from FIFA under the terms of the MoU agreement, so they will probably feel this a blunt weapon not to be feared. Clearly the ECA clubs have their own view on their obligations to FIFA but there will be much argument over the clubs’ obligations to their employees.

For instance under “Obligations of the club”, clause 6.1.9 of the standard player contract of the Premier League states: “The club shall release the Player as required for the purposes of fulfilling the obligations in respect of representative matches to his national association pursuant to the statutes and regulations of FIFA.”

Should a player wish to defy a club’s instruction not to attend international fixtures in September, things are going to get very messy indeed. But then revolution always does.

Learning from the lessons of history, FIFA’s best hope is probably to pacify the revolutionaries with money. But that will be expensive and perhaps short-termist, and whether the clubs would even accept that measure alone cannot be foretold. In return for guaranteeing player participation at the Russia 2018 World Cup, the ECA might seek to extract more wide-ranging concessions from Zurich – a rewriting of football’s entire social contract and inclusion in FIFA’s decision-making processes within the executive committee perhaps.

FIFA might refuse such a condition, and insist on the application of its laws without any regard for the demands of the clubs. But if it does, then it should brace itself to hear echoes of the rhetoric Jefferson used to rail against tyranny. And, throughout time, those kind of words have stirred men to acts of historically momentous effect.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1718765030labto1718765030ofdlr1718765030owedi1718765030sni@t1718765030tocs.1718765030ttam1718765030.