«I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air, They fly so high, nearly reach the sky, Then like my dreams they fade and die.»
As a life-long fan of “Football Manager”, I have been trading and selling football players and managing football clubs since I received my first computer around 1996, testing my talents as a football manager in the virtual world, comparing myself to current Liverpool managers and other friends playing. It was not until I started studying Sport Management, I started to reflect on the complexity of managing football clubs/teams and that the players are highly valuable assets – a (human) commodity to trade.
While the core product of football clubs is the production of sporting events or the co- created experience at match day supplied by secondary product/service categories, history has shown us that football clubs weight wins and trophies more highly than a healthy balance sheet by investing increasing sums in transfer fees and salaries to attract and keep talents. It is because the skills, expertise and capabilities of the players should enhance sporting performance with the expectation to achieve both the sporting and financial goals of the organization.
This is backed up by research that I have been involved in. When talking to CEOs of professional football clubs, they consider football talents primarily as an internal resource, instrumental to the performance on the pitch, attracting fans, sponsors and media – therefore achieving their dual objectives – winning on and off the pitch. Interestingly, the CEOs also acknowledge that talents are an important commodity to trade, as one CEO explains:
“Actually, we think of them as talents and then prospects. I would say it is a resource. For me […] a player starts as a raw material and then develops into a product that we can sell or resource that we use”.
Another CEO explains: “With one player sale you can earn more than the whole club works for a year”. When selling players, clubs often also receive training compensation and solidarity payments (FIFA regulations) from future sales. According to VG, Malmö in Sweden have received over €12 million through Zlatan Ibrahimović’s transfers. Just to highlight the economic activity of trading players and it’s huge economy, the Big Five leagues traded players for £5.82 billion in 2018. These quotes and numbers highlight the reality that there is a system in place that makes players a core product of football, at least from a football club perspective. The product is the talent and the base of the talent supply chain starts with the process by which a player in raw commodity form goes from being a talented amateur, to a professional, and then to being traded to other clubs and leagues.
Often (and compulsory in some countries e.g. France and Germany) football clubs invest in football academies with the aim to develop their own talents and to become self-sustained by selling them at their peak with profit. This is an especially attractive strategy among football clubs that play in a league without high-valued media rights or other strong commercial opportunities (e.g. the Nordic leagues) compared to the strongest European leagues.
This strategy has been employed in Norway in recent years. At the same time the governing bodies have demanded more professionalization within the academies by launching an academy classification system (inspired by other top football nations) where clubs are financially rewarded by satisfying certain talent development criteria.
“The Academy classification represents a professionalization and ‘benchmark’ for how we work with player development” – Leif Øverland, CEO Norsk Toppfotball.
In theory, the idea is good – providing children the right environment with top coaches and top facilities to develop into professional players. Hence, developing a valuable asset and a commodity to trade. However, based on my experience in “Football Manager”, I am not convinced of this strategy, as like me, clubs and their managers are afraid of using inexperienced players due to their opportunistic behaviour. They want to win and fielding young players is too risky. A recent report of the football players’ labour market in Europe shows that an increasing proportion of clubs do not give as much importance to the presence of players from their youth settings in the first team squad. In fact, the proportion of home-grown players in the first team has never been as low as of today. Meaning that very few academy players make it into the top ranks.
Calculation shows that only 180 of the 1.5 million players in organized youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League Professional – a success rate of 0.012%. Moreover, out of all the boys who enter an academy at the age of nine, only 0.5% will make a living from the game in their future. Research also show us that one of the biggest issue in football is the rejection from a football academy and the lack of support for young players, which results in various difficulties that are challenging to cope with when their strong football identity and their dreams of a professional career is shattered.
So why are football clubs putting club interest over fates of young individuals? Why are football clubs recruiting minors and children when evidence shows that they are selling them a false hope? The answer is simple; football clubs see profit opportunities in developing young players that bridges the expenditure on ready-made players.
While many of us play Football Manager, perhaps for the purpose to deny our dreams to fade and die, there is a cynical football industry out there that plays with real human beings and their dreams. Hence, shredding possible child- and adulthood opportunities. The ethical position of the clubs, the production path, and the roles of the actors involved (governing bodies, agents, and so on) needs to be highlighted much more.
The central issue, as well as the main problem, is that minors have been reduced to a commodity in the sports trade and are no longer seen as individuals; or as children, for that matter. Our duty as governing bodies, sport managers, coaches, and parents are not to blow bubbles in the air as the lyrics in West Ham football club supporter song describes.
Our duty is to allow children to be children.
Senior researcher Birnir Egilsson:
Birnir Egilsson is a senior researcher at Møreforsking and a lecturer at Molde University College, Specialized University in Logistics, Molde (Norway). His research looks into (among others) career transition, support and integration issues within the supply chain of talents.