DAVID SHONFIELD: How football brings out our best — and worst

Football has a great capacity to bring out good things in people, and also some of the worst. In the last week we’ve seen both.

For the good, just look at the worldwide solidarity in the wake of the plane crash that wiped out the Chapecoense football team, killing 71 of the 77 on board.

Tragedy naturally evokes sympathy, especially with an almost unknown club on the verge of glory.

However, the response in Colombia was extraordinary: An occasion of real generosity and humanity of which football as a whole should be proud.

“El Football No Tiene Fronteras” — football has no frontiers — read the banner in the Atletico Nacional stadium in Medellin, painted in the green and white of Chapecoense. Tens of thousands of Colombians, all dressed in white and carrying lights, had packed the stadium to mourn and pay tribute to their Brazilian opponents.

Sadly there is another side to the game — greedy, grasping and shameless — and it was duly exposed at the weekend with a new set of documents from Football Leaks, which suggest that top people in the game have been lining their pockets with the help of tax havens and a series of shell companies.

Among those identified in the documents are Cristiano Ronaldo, José Mourinho, and their agent Jorge Mendes. No great surprise there, because Football Leaks has its origins in Portugal and a lot of its previous whistleblowing has targeted third party ownership (TPO), which also has Portuguese roots.

Super-agent Jorge Mendes and his company GestiFute have been prime targets in this campaign, which has a particular relevance in Ireland, as the company and some of its offshoots are based in Dublin. Obviously, Ireland’s low corporate tax rate makes it an attractive place to register this sort of business.

The suggestion in the latest series of documents is that large payments for image rights have been channelled through shell companies and thence to tax havens, such as the British Virgin Isles. The sums involved run into tens of millions of euro and possibly a lot more.

GestiFute have been swift to deny any wrongdoing.

“Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho are fully compliant with their tax obligations with the Spanish and British tax authorities,” said the company.

Real Madrid, one of the clubs most obviously potentially implicated, have refused to comment. Further documents are due to be published over the next three weeks.

For the Italian magazine L’Espresso — one of 12 European publications that have agreed to share the Football Leaks information — this is a damning exposure of football’s “greed and recklessness”. And it may only be the tip of an iceberg. These leaked documents go a lot wider than GestiFute and its clients. All the top Italian clubs appear. Among the players cited are Gonzalo Higuain and Alex Sandro, both now at Juventus.

For football fans and the general public alike, this is bound to cause even greater cynicism about the sport.

However, it is also light years away from the experience of most players.

FIFPro, the international players’ union, has just published the results of its biggest-ever survey of employment conditions, covering over 15,000 individuals, and it shows that almost half of them earn less than €950 a month. Around 2% are part of a super elite, who take home €700,000 a year or more.

Even in the top European leagues, there are some less than stratospheric salaries: In France, around a quarter of players are on less than €14,000 a month. Elsewhere in Europe, in countries such as Croatia and Greece, there are players without employment protection who can go for months without being paid. Further afield, for example in Brazil, there are players living close to the breadline.

So football is not simply divided into the haves and have-nots, but into the super-rich and the rest. It may be commercially justifiable that a few extremely gifted individuals receive extravagant rewards, but football is a team game, and there are a lot of losers.

In a way, that’s also the story of that chartered aircraft, which plunged from the sky because it was flying close to its limits with an inadequate fuel reserve.


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