"...the partnership of Luís Figo and Ronaldo supported by Zinedine Zidane makes for a front line with mechanical efficiency." Ronaldo and Zinedine ZidaneUnited Nations Development Programme Flickr

The year is 2003, and football is in the process of a seismic cultural shift.

Following his election as Real Madrid President in 2000, Florentino Peréz has pledged to buy one player of world-class quality each summer. What follows is perhaps the most notorious spending spree of the modern game. The result is a magnificent attacking set-up: the partnership of Luís Figo (signed for €60 million from Barcelona in 2000) and Ronaldo (signed for €45 million from Inter Milan in 2002) supported by Zinedine Zidane (signed for €73.5 million from Juventus in 2001) makes for a front line with mechanical efficiency.

“...football’s adoption of capitalism was most likely a reflection of broader economic trends at the time.”

Fresh from a 3-1 home win against Manchester United in the first leg of this Champions League Quarter-Final, the Galácticos enter Old Trafford with confidence, and rightly so: if they score just one goal, United must reply with four to win the tie.

United, however, also boast a squad of great depth and notoriety. Like Madrid, United’s squad is peppered with headline signings and raw talent. Alex Ferguson starts prolific midfielder Juan Sebastián Verón, whose £28.1 million transfer from Lazio in 2002 smashed the British transfer record, with David Beckham, who has reached a level of celebrity unprecedented for a footballer, on the bench.

Both teams epitomised what was a relatively novel trend in world football: hyper-commercialisation. It was becoming abundantly clear that while passion and charisma had defined footballing success in the past, money and fame would dictate it in the century to come.

As expected, the clash of these two juggernauts produced one of the most riveting displays of attacking football in Champions League history. Despite scoring four, a Ronaldo hat-trick (which famously inspired a standing ovation from the home fans) prevented United from progressing to the Semi-Finals.

"Abramovich’s approach has changed the landscape of football in this country." Roman AbramovichFlickr

However, the most significant ramification of this match was felt by neither United nor Madrid. Sitting in the crowd that night was Russian business tycoon, Roman Abramovich. Looking to invest in a sport to legitimise his vast personal wealth, he was allured by the glamourous football on display at Old Trafford. By June that year, he had bought Chelsea Football Club for £40 million.

Abramovich’s transformation of Chelsea in the coming years was immense, attracting world-class personnel including Champions League-winning manager José Mourinho and talismanic frontman Didier Drogba. Five Premier Leagues, five FA Cups and one coveted Champions League later, Chelsea have become the most successful team in British football since 2004.

“...now and again, stories reminding us of the importance of collective spirit in football emerge.”

Crucially, Chelsea have also spent the most money of any football team in the world (£2 billion) over this period. By 2019, they had invested £37 million more in transfers than any other club in the world that decade.

Alongside an impulsive transfer policy, a reckless approach to the hiring and firing of managers has also characterised the ‘Chelsea way’ this century. No manager under Abramovich has survived more than three seasons, with many, namely José Mourinho (2007 and 2015), Carlo Ancelotti (2011) and Antonio Conte (2018) leaving amid ugly feuds with the club’s leadership.

While critics contend that this has had a destabilising effect on the togetherness of the squad, it would be difficult to argue that it hasn’t worked: Chelsea tend to enjoy one (or two) good seasons under new managers before they have overstayed their welcome.

They are then discarded, and the process repeats. Abramovich’s approach has changed the landscape of football in this country. His model has proven that team spirit means very little when money can buy you championships.

The multi-million-pound transfers which have come to symbolise the modern game are a far cry from the socialist values which underpinned some of the most impressive footballing achievements of the 20th century.

“...Sir Alex Ferguson, the single most decorated manager in world football, is a self-proclaimed socialist.”

Brian Clough, for instance, attributed the success of his two-time European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest to the collectivist spirit which he instilled in his players. Similarly, Bill Shankly’s brand of unapologetic socialism inspired Liverpool to league success three times under his tenure.

In fact, Sir Alex Ferguson, the single most decorated manager in world football, is a self-proclaimed socialist. What made his 1999 treble-winning United team’s Champions League triumph remarkable was the comradery displayed by his players, a youthful group made up largely of academy products, including Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, who had been playing alongside each other since adolescence.

In contrast, the modern game has seen a noticeable shift in focus towards the individual, and away from the collective. Although it would be wrong to characterise football before the turn of the century as a moneyless endeavour, Abramovich’s takeover at Chelsea can certainly be marked as the dawn of a truly commercial age.

Facilitated by the growing role of the agent, social media and sports advertising, football fans have become infatuated with the cult of the individual. Rather than success shared with his teammates, the modern footballer chases material wealth, sponsorship deals and Instagram clout.


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‘Advised’ by a team of self-serving super-agents, he will abandon his boyhood club for a lucrative contract elsewhere, which begs the question: how did a sport with such close ties to the left come to embody consumerism?

In reality, football’s adoption of capitalism was most likely a reflection of broader economic trends at the time. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s promotion of ‘Third Way’ centrism exiled socialism from the political mainstream and catalysed the growth of the free market. Football appears to have followed suit.

However, now and again, stories reminding us of the importance of collective spirit in football emerge. Leicester City and Montpellier HSC’s domestic league triumphs in 2015 and 2012 respectively demonstrate that with a group of organised, determined players, less well-resourced teams can still compete with the wealthy titans.

So, perhaps traces of socialism remain at the highest levels of football. As Harold Wilson joked in 1966, “we’ve only ever won the World Cup under a Labour government”.

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