By Paul Gardner
I think it's safe to say that there is a general feeling that soccer, being a vigorous, healthy sporting activity in which millions of young people are involved, should pay attention to its image. Meaning that it should not be linked to products and activities that do not reflect that wholesome image.
It’s a brave enough image, but one that the sport evidently finds it impossible to live up to.
Not that long ago, one of FIFA’s big-time official sponsors for the World Cup was Camel cigarettes. That was in 1986. Then president Joao Havelange was asked whether he felt FIFA should be helping to spread nicotine addiction. He denied the accusation, saying that he had grown up surrounded by abundant tobacco advertising but had never smoked. Which seemed to prove that advertising didn’t work. Camel may have seen the light, or simply bowed to the growing anti-smoking campaigns. By 1987 it had vanished from the list of FIFA sponsors.
Smoking, in fact, is the one area in which FIFA has been able to make a principled and successful stand against something seen as an unsuitable partner. A very different story emerges when one looks at alcohol, another product with a formidable record of anti-social addiction problems.
When a new international tournament appeared in the USA this summer, it arrived with the title of the Guinness International Champions Cup. Which surprised or shocked no one, so entrenched has the relationship between soccer and alcohol, particularly beer, become. Budweiser is a longtime FIFA World Cup sponsor. In Europe, UEFA has Carlsberg as the main sponsor for the European Championship, with Heineken in the same role for the Champions League. In England, the Premier League from 1993 to 2001 had Carling beer as its title sponsor.
In the USA, both the U.S. Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer count Budweiser as an official sponsor. Curiously, both organizations also share el Jimador as their “official tequila.”
Soccer’s ready acceptance of beer sponsorship has its critics. A study made last year in England of six televised games, came up with the extraordinary total of 2,042 visual and 32 oral mentions of alcohol during the 18-plus hours of viewing. Most of the visual references came as beer logos in field-side advertising. During the telecasts, there were only 17 formal beer commercials.
Dr. Jean Adams, who led the study, painted a gloomy picture: “Alcohol causes such a large range of problems, a range of health problems from sore head the next morning to deadly liver disease. It also causes a really wide range of social and, with knock-on effects, economic problems.” But the biggest objection to all the beer publicity came because of the assumption that the television audience would include many young viewers -- which does not fit happily with the alcohol industry’s voluntary agreement not to aim its advertising at under-18-year-olds.
Another of the researchers thought action was required -- “We believe a similar restriction to that imposed on tobacco products may be justified.”
Justified, possibly -- but not very likely. An even more blatant contradiction between soccer’s professed aims and its actions can be seen in the case of gambling. There is growing concern within the sport that the number of “fixed” games is rising, the result of global activity by gambling rings based in East Asia.
The recent news that 22 El Salvadoran players -- including some top stars -- had been suspended for game-fixing, was quickly followed by a story from Australia announcing the arrest of nine players and a coach from a team in Melbourne for alleged game-fixing. Yet, while the head of the Australian soccer association threatens to “throw the book” at the accused, Australia is notorious as a country where the people will “bet on anything.”
England is not far behind when it comes to legal betting -- advertisements for betting shops appear regularly in soccer magazines. The Football League Championship -- i.e. the second division, one tier below the Premier League -- is actually sponsored by a betting firm, and is also known as the Sky Bet Championship.
All of which strongly suggests that despite the claims repeatedly made by FIFA’s leaders that soccer has the global power to bring people together and to promote peace, it does not look so powerful when confronted by local customs and traditions. The classic example of FIFA failing to act where it obviously should do is to be found in its stringent anti-doping regulations. Stimulants are comprehensively banned as performance-enhancing drugs. All of them, except one -- caffeine.
Like the other addictions mentioned above -- alcohol and gambling -- caffeine is too widely consumed (in coffee), too deeply implanted in too many cultures for any ban to be enforceable. So caffeine, a powerful stimulant, escapes the ban on performance enhancing drugs.
The failure to ban caffeine can be seen as an admission of reality, the only practicalcourse of action. Not so with alcohol, where the suspicion is bound to arise that soccer’s lack of action is influenced by the fact that it is clearly making a lot of money from its association with breweries. It is also true that soccer’s fight against game-fixing and gambling rings is compromised and loses the rectitude of a moral campaign as long as the sport profits from advertising and sponsorship money from legal betting.