The Wild West of sports

Last week, the president of one of the most popular sports teams in the world was forced to resign for bringing one of the most sought-after players in world to his team, and you probably didn’t hear about it.

Sandro Rosell, the now-former president of FC Barcelona, stepped down last Thursday after a Spanish judge agreed to investigate irregularities in this summer’s signing of Brazilian sensation Neymar. Rosell was forced to disclose that the $78 million transfer fee that the club reported (money that Barcelona paid in exchange for Neymar’s rights) was actually closer to $120 million. That included millions of dollars to Neymar’s charitable foundation, and millions more to his father for “marketing and scouting,” according to the Guardian.

Adding another wrinkle to the deal, it turns out that Neymar’s economic rights were owned by a third party, rather than his team or even the player himself. In international football, a management company often supports a player at the beginning of his career by paying for his training and marketing in exchange for a large portion of future transfer fees. This situation isn’t uncommon, especially among up-and-coming South American players, but in this case, that third party was a company owned by Neymar’s father. Even of the original $78 million to which Barcelona admitted, less than $24 million went to Santos, Neymar’s former Brazilian team, while $55 million went to his father.

As if this story weren’t strange enough, the details only came out because a Barcelona fan sued Rosell in Spanish court. FC Barcelona is owned and operated by its supporters, and so Spanish pharmacist Jordi Cases was able to able to compel Rosell to reveal information that would never become public at any other club.

Yet the most remarkable part of this whole saga is how little any of it even matters. A scandal like this would bring down the sky on any American sports team, but in Spain no one is really surprised. The legal case against Rosell and the club is unlikely to lead anywhere, and the team won’t face any sanctions from its league. Rosell probably would not have even stepped down over the affair if he hadn’t already made so many enemies at Barcelona.

International football is the Wild Wild West of sports. Match-fixing is endemic across Europe and the rest of the world, including the top Spanish division, La Liga, where Barcelona plays. The head of the Spanish professional football league openly acknowledged last year that at least eight matches in Spain’s first and second divisions are fixed every year. Dozens of high profile Italian players, including several on the country’s national team, became embroiled in a match-fixing scandal of their own over the past two seasons, and only eight years ago Italy’s most popular team was demoted (the equivalent of the Miami Heat being sent to play in the D-League) after another massive match-fixing ring was broken up by the police. FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, has become synonymous with corruption, and most recently was accused of selling the rights to the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

These people make Pete Rose and Tim Donaghy look like choir boys, and nobody should be surprised by the tactics of Barcelona and other teams in a sport that allows shady management companies to control where an athlete plays for his entire career. The biggest surprise is that Rosell and Barcelona bothered to keep all of that information a secret. Remarkably, nothing in the club’s agreement with Santos and Neymar’s father was against any rules of the sport. Even the $117 million transfer fee, although one of the highest ever, was outshone by the $125 million that Real Madrid shelled out for Gareth Bale last year. Most regard the case as nothing more than political theater with little legal merit, designed only to embarrass Rosell.

There are times when the beautiful game more closely resembles a circus, but I’m not going to pretend that this is the reason why soccer isn’t popular in the United States. The country that brought you the 1919 Black Sox, Lance Armstrong, steroids in baseball and, most recently, Aaron Hernandez, has no right to be sanctimonious about its athletes. There are also countries that handle soccer’s cultural problems better than others: the English Premier League, for example, bans third party ownership altogether. But soccer touches more lives across the globe than any other sport, and the international soccer community as a whole has a responsibility to eradicate the culture of corruption, cheating and backroom deals that pervades some of its elements. Barcelona is one of the richest and most successful teams in the world today. It should be the one leading the charge, not sinking knee-deep into this current morass.

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