Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ping-Pong Soccer Diplomacy

. Saturday, October 17, 2009

We've written before about how soccer and international politics intersect. Now I see that Michel Platini, the President of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), has been playing peacemaker lately:

Two weeks ago, he was in Jerusalem discussing with Israel’s head of state, Shimon Peres, the role soccer might play in the Middle East peace process.

Platini followed that up Wednesday by accompanying the presidents of Turkey and Armenia at a World Cup soccer match between the two nations in Bursa. It was the first time an Armenian president had attended a bilateral event in Turkey since relationships were broken off during World War I.

UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, which Platini heads, heralded the event as “Football for peace — three Presidents in Bursa” over a picture of Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan; Turkey’s Abdullah Gul; and UEFA’s Platini side by side in the tribune.


To his credit, Platini isn't pulling a Bono: he knows his job is to promote the integrity of the sport and leave the politics to the politicians. And, quite frankly, his current task might be nearly as difficult as getting a meaningful peace agreement in Palestine. He's trying to bring salary caps to soccer. And not just one league... he wants to simultaneously achieve this for all the leagues in Europe.

There was plenty of skepticism toward a former player pleading the case that sport in Europe needs what it gets in America — some acknowledgement of its special place in society and some freedom to operate under its own laws.

But Platini is making progress. In September, the European Commission, the executive arm of the E.U., held a two-day conference on licensing systems for club competitions. Surprisingly, this conference, for all sports, broadly supported Platini’s determination to bring the soccer teams within Europe, even those run by free-spending multibillionaires, under an UEFA umbrella to regulate club spending.


Platini has a trump card: UEFA runs the two most prestigious club tournaments in the world (the Champion's League and Europa League), so if national football associations don't play ball with him, he can kick them out of those tournaments (if he has the support of other leagues).

It's fascinating to me to see how national/regional governments deal with sports differently. In some places, they are subsidized. In others, heavily regulated. In some, professional leagues are given monopoly exemptions. In others, they are susceptible to competition. In some, there are pay limits. In others, none at all.

These differences are interesting. I wonder if they are emblematic of national/regional differences more generally (as this paper argues, ungated pdf here) or whether it is just a coincidence of history.

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