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An 'away goal' for global labour

May 06, 2004 12:30 IST

"Goldman Sachs is an American investment bank, but there are plenty of foreigners working there. Nissan is a Japanese company, but it employs plenty of American workers. . . . Look at the music industry. Yes, South Americans, Africans or East Europeans might be willing to perform for less, but have they pushed EU artists out?"

The statement comes not from a pro-globalisation economist but from Sports Illustrated soccer commentator Gabriele Marcotti making a thoughtful case for allowing more foreign players in the European soccer leagues.

It is striking that a sports writer should draw an analogy from the world of conventional business to highlight the success of one of the world's most dynamic field sports.

As large parts of the world grow increasingly xenophobic about the foreign factor in national labour markets--Indian IT-enabled services being a current bogey--it might be useful for policy-makers and politicians to look to European soccer to allay the doubts and prejudices.

Soccer purists might rue the development, but Europe has emerged as the most prosperous region for the "Beautiful Game" primarily because it started organising itself more soundly on commercial from the mid-eighties.

Commercialisation and investment have created a virtuous circle. They have allowed European clubs the resources to attract the best talent, wherever it is available in the world, and, in turn, drawn in more fans and players to the game than ever before. As a result, European soccer is probably the world's most multinational business.

Despite the grumblings of fans that foreigners are edging out local talent, it is fair to say that the sport has been the biggest beneficiary of this change.

Writing in Forbes.com, Kurt Badenhausen comments, ". . . when you look at the number of people playing soccer, it's a major growth sport. Almost 18 million people played soccer in 2002, up 15 per cent from 15 years ago according to SGMA International. Baseball participation is down 31 per cent over the same period to 10 million people." There is no doubt that multinational talent has spurred that growth.

Indeed, in spite of a ruling that does not allow European clubs to field more than three non-EU players per match--which Marcotti rightly calls discriminatory--the galaxy of South American, African, Australian, Japanese and Chinese stars has made European soccer a truly booming global business.

It is fair to say that were it not for European clubs, fans would rarely get the opportunity to see the truly awesome talent from Africa that is on display today.

The English Premier League is a good example of the benefits of relatively free labour mobility. Despite the somewhat spectacular losses of several of its clubs (mainly on account of bad financial management), it is among the most prosperous soccer tournaments in the world.

Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB alone pours $2 billion for the rights to broadcast the game. Soccer players from more than 20 countries play in its top clubs.

The upshot: instead of local journeymen, genuine fans get to watch inspirational and exciting global talent like Hernan Crespo, Christiano Ronaldo, Jose Antonia Reyes, El Hadj Diouf and so on.

Does it bother fans that they're not watching home-grown talent? Well, Englishmen seem to have had no problem feting two Frenchmen, Thierry Henry and Arsene Wenger, striker and manager respectively of the 118-year-old Arsenal Football Club, which was recently crowned EPL champions.

In Italy, current heroes include a Ukrainian, Andrei Shevchenko, and a teenaged Brazilian, Kaka, of Serie A champions A C Milan. Ironically, both come from nations that have been accused of flooding European soccer with "cheap" talent.

Cheap? Talk to smaller soccer clubs groaning under the burden of ever-increasing player salaries and costs. If anything, player salaries in Europe have risen far faster over the past decade, when the sport has been globalising its talent base, than any time before.

As Marcotti writes, "...it's a little hypocritical for the West to insist on globalisation if it is not ready to open its doors to foreign talent. The West is happy to export televisions and sneakers to Brazil and Nigeria. Well, soccer players are some of Brazil and Nigeria's best exports, shouldn't the West be open to them as well?"

Surely, the same argument applies to other businesses as well?

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Kanika Datta