Fair competition and legitimacy

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Level playing field?

Like many team sports football is essentially competitive. Even among friends the game provides more pleasure if played with the aim of winning. But each competition needs rules that are perceived as just. Nothing is as likely to kill the interest of the game than the perception that there is no level playing field for the participants.

As a spectator sport football will not be able to remain the attractive game that it is if there should be a widespread and lasting perception of unfair competition. There is much talk, and rightly so, about match-fixing, a scourge that must be eradicated in order to protect this sport from irreversible damage. But match-fixing is just the extreme tip of the iceberg. Even without any fraud and tampering, football competitions on whatever level will only remain legitimate if they provide a fair chance of success to all participants.

Hence the eternal debate on video refereeing. True, moments of injustice are one of the most powerful sources of football’s capacity to produce narratives that take root in collective memory. This being said: in the long run, injustice is only tolerable if it remains the exception. Today, however, technological progress exposes each tiny error in broad daylight.

Hence also the need for an improved solidarity between the participants of professional competitions. The tendency towards a monopolisation of victories by an ever smaller number of participants – clearly observable in the Champions League for several years in a row – will not be sustainable in the long run. If the redistribution of generated revenues continuously favours the rich to the detriment of the less wealthy, the competition as a whole will lose its legitimacy.

Hence, finally, the necessary but highly sensitive initiative introducing the famous financial fair-play. Once more, the perception of a rule against which some are more equal than others would deal a fatal blow to the legitimacy of the legislator who set it up in the first place.

These are but three measures aimed at regulating competition and correcting its excesses. All of which only make sense on a European level, since football, as many activities, has undergone a seemingly irreversible process of Europeanisation.

It is tempting to draw a parallel between these measures and the attempts of the European legislator to regulate the big single market that was built on the pillar of the promise of ‘undistorted and fair competition’. A single market that was, by the way, launched almost exactly at the same time as the Champions League. Two decades years later, has it kept this promise? Has its evolution not reinforced the perception that competition systematically favours the strong and rich? That the benefits from market integration always serve an elite, while the drawbacks invariably hurt the weak?

Football is only a game, and a rather simple one. But quite often it can help making sense of market mechanisms in a tangible and understandable way. Sometimes one cannot help but feel that the political actors would be well advised to take inspiration in the Europe of football if they really want to understand why their legitimacy seems to be eroding from one election to the next.

Albrecht Sonntag, The EU-Asia Centre at ESSCA School of Management, Angers.