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Soccerex Global Convention 2015: Notes from day three

By SportsPro staff writer Eoin Connolly 11 Sep 2015

(By Getty Image)

The shorter third day at the Soccerex Global Convention was dominated by developments in three major soccer nations.

With the exhibition space still in operation, there were two sites running talks on the third and final day of the 2015 Soccerex Global Convention at Manchester Central. In the smaller room, The Academy, delegates were treated to sponsorship insights from the likes of Heineken global sponsorship manager Tim Ellerton and Tony Hester, the director of the European Sponsorship Association. 

In the main room, The Studio, discussions centred on the footballing fate of three different nations, with contributions from a couple of the convention's real headliners. 

England expects

First up was Martin Glenn, who was installed as chief executive of England's Football Association (FA) in May. Glenn was appearing at Soccerex on the morning after the night before, and admitted a late finish and early start had followed Wayne Rooney's confirmation as England's record goalscorer in a 2-0 win over Switzerland at Wembley Stadium. 

Rooney's achievement is a matter of discrete statistical fact but the reactions to it said much about English soccer’s tortured relationship with its past, its present and its future. The original seat of the world game has been the scene of expectations which have been raised, and dashed, and raised again in cycle after cycle. 

Several men have taken the role of FA chief executive – or, in its prior incarnation, general secretary – since the turn of the century, including, on an interim basis, Glenn’s interviewer, David Davies. But when Davies asked his audience how many would enjoy the job themselves very few hands were raised. Glenn’s is a daunting task and one he may not have too long to set himself about, if recent patterns at the FA are any guide, but he said the most important thing was to develop a culture where the goals of the organisation would outlast the people within it. “Thriving organisations have similar characteristics,” he said.  

Staff turnover will be a central theme for the next few months at the FA as Glenn leads a major restructure. That will mean redundancies – but Glenn insisted cutbacks in some areas would be used to pay for elite coaching and playing infrastructure. “It's a back room versus front of house discussion,” he said. He compared the 900 administrative staff currently at work at the FA – admittedly including Wembley – to the 300 employed by Germany’s DFB. At some point soon, he suggested, the FA would have more staff at its “R&D facility” – the St George’s Park national training base – than at the national stadium and headquarters. “And I think that’s right,” he said. 

The goals those staff will be working towards include an ambition to win the 2022 Fifa World Cup, an aim Glenn compared to US president John F Kennedy’s 1960 statement about putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. “Without ambition,” he added, “every road looks the same.” That said, he also borrowed from the economist John Maynard Keynes when he noted, “In the long term, we are all dead.” In the short term, England will still expect to compete well at next year’s Uefa European Championship in France, particularly after qualifying “with aplomb” and with lessons to learn from the women’s team about “tournament management” after their strong showing at the Women’s World Cup. The contractual fate of head coach Roy Hodgson will also be decided after the tournament; talks on a new deal have been held off to avoid the “unsavoury situation” that occurred with predecessor Fabio Capello, tied to a lengthy and expensive agreement no party really wanted to honour. 

The FA’s relationship with the Premier League was also discussed, with Glenn quipping that national body and national league had been at loggerheads “in about 1886”. Glenn argues that a strong England team is in the Premier League’s best interests “for commercial reasons”, and that “enlightened self-interest” would lead to the development of more, better young players. 

Recalling a trip to the Fifa congress very early in his tenure, Glenn also spoke about the FA’s place in the international game. While he harboured hopes for a global body less vulnerable to corruption, he also conceded that the FA needed to consider its perception by other nations. Add ‘England’ to that somewhat provocative title was mooted, but more consistent engagement was deemed vital. 

Backstage at Uefa Euro 2016

Glenn suggested that the FA would back Uefa president Michel Platini’s bid for the Fifa presidency but while one Frenchman may yet rule world soccer, back home the domestic game is struggling to make its international profile felt. The LFP, the organisation which runs league soccer in the country, has a partnership with Qatar’s BeIN Media Group to market its television rights and polish its content, but the quality on the field needs to be addressed as far as the day’s second panel was concerned. 

LFP chief commercial officer Matthieu Ficot said investment in French clubs would be welcome if it could bring new stars into the game, driving up rights fees in the process. Last season, champions Paris Saint-Germain made more from participation in the Uefa Champions League than national competitions, a phenomenon Ficot is keen to address. 

At present, Ligue 1 is blighted by a safety-first approach due to the heavy financial costs of relegation. That not only means heavy investment in the first team at the expense of marketing and other operations but, as the LFP’s Alain Belsoeur added, it leads to conservative soccer. “I don’t think [entertaining our public] is a priority, but it should be,” he said. “There are too many dull games.” 

Ligue 1 did pass Italy’s Serie A last year in terms of attendance, however, and the nine new or renovated stadiums that will host games at Euro 2016 should deliver a legacy that the 1998 World Cup could not, even if the expense of renting locally owned new grounds is a fresh headache for the likes of Lille. Belsoeur is hoping that government intervention can help further modernise the French matchday experience, with the league and French Football Federation (FFF) allowed to enforce pitch-quality regulations and permit fans to buy alcohol inside stadiums, rather than getting drunk outside. 

MLS at 20

Ficot looked admiringly at one point to Major League Soccer (MLS), saying that while the improving play was not yet at European levels, “the show is there”. 

Following the French panel and closing the global convention was MLS commissioner Don Garber. MLS, like Soccerex, has now been in operation for two decades, and the shape of American soccer has changed dramatically in that time. 

Garber was moved to say that soccer – as well as being “100 per cent” clean in the country in the face of FBI investigations into Concacaf – “couldn’t be more American”. As a professional exercise, the sport is now “in its college years”, with MLS having invested in infrastructure and learned which players to target as it seeks further growth into adulthood. MLS’s expansion will take it to 24 teams by the end of the decade, where a decade ago the league was threatened with contraction. Garber – who suggested that “sometimes you’ve gotta take a little pain” when remembering the losses of teams in Miami, Tampa Bay and elsewhere – said the league was now operating in a “seller’s market” when it came to franchises. Investors, even if they faced short-term losses, could envisage being part of a league which “could be around for 100 years”. 

Garber’s aim is for MLS to become a major international league in due course, even if matching the playing quality of the Premier League could take “a generation”. But MLS will exist on its own terms, with no plans for promotion or relegation, nor for a shift to a European-style calendar. There will be room for innovation – MLS, like the Netherlands’ KNVB, is running video refereeing trials, while Garber also recounted a conversation with a veteran British journalist who, on a recent trip to LA, was invited into a team’s changing room for the first time in his career. 

Garber accepts that the US is “not even remotely close” to producing players of the calibre of Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo, but that the cultural shift in the country was bringing that prospect closer. 

“I think we’ve proved that [pro soccer] can succeed,” he said. “The question is what it can be.”

By Sports Pro staff writer Eoin Connolly. Taken from Soccerex.

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