How football can save post-Brexit Britain

As British trade negotiators arrive in Delhi for talks, what’s on the agenda? Football. Sam Forsdick finds out how the beautiful game has become the latest industry being harnessed to transform post-Brexit global Britain

When officials from the Department for International Trade (DIT) sit alongside their Indian counterparts for talks in Delhi this week, what’s on the agenda? Football. Now, while positive relations with the world’s sixth largest economy in the wake of Brexit are of utmost importance, you would still be within your rights to be slightly surprised.

A spokeswoman from the DIT tells Spear’s that the mission has ‘an opportunity to export UK expertise in the football and sports sector’ and capitalise on the rapidly expanding football industry in India.

Which sounds like a good idea: India’s national team has gone from 166th in the FIFA world rankings to 102nd in just three years, and its nationwide football super league, founded in 2013, is already attracting viewing figures of over 216 million. The average match attendance is also impressive and at 20,000 it is comparable to that of the English Championship.

However, the Indian league is still far behind its European counterparts in other regards. ‘The supporting infrastructure needs further development,’ notes the DIT spokeswoman, pointing out that Indian football is looking to the major European leagues for advice. ‘The infrastructure that supports the Premier League is world-class and we want these companies to export this expertise overseas, including India.’

Attending the event will be a host of British representatives from the sport who, it is hoped, will share their knowledge in developing safe, innovative and sustainable stadia; state-of-the-art training facilities; pioneering technology to increase fan engagement; security and stewarding; marketing; branding; sponsorship and training programmes.

The football trade mission is part of a wider drive to encourage trade and investment in overseas markets, especially in Asia – and more specifically India. Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, recently appointed a new Trade Commissioner for South Asia; last year Chancellor Philip Hammond visited India and pledged to invest £120 million into their National Investment and Infrastructure Fund; and in January the DIT led a group of UK food companies to India in the hope of capitalising on a predicted £200 billion growth in the food market there.

So far so good, but does this adequately explain the focus on football?

Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University and a previous advisor to Chelsea, Barcelona and Tottenham, believes the reason is rather simple. ‘It’s a global game, with a global language that unites us all,’ says Chadwick. ‘Everyone plays football; no other sport is quite such a powerful vehicle.’ Now countries and investors are hijacking football’s potential to exert influence abroad. Chadwick states: ‘In terms of exerting soft power only Star Wars and McDonald’s are comparable.’

‘Soft power is all about improving the reputation of your country abroad. The British Government uses the internationally recognised Premier League as a means for opening negotiations with other countries.’ In this case, British expertise in building a global football brand is being exported in the hope it will curry favour in future trade agreements.

And the British are not alone. The Arab world have been particularly proficient in exploiting the European popularity of soccer. ‘Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are looking towards their post oil and gas future,’ states Chadwick. ‘Although football clubs may be a vanity project they can be the catalyst for creating global industrial ventures and provide an easy route into European economies.’

A prominent example is the Emirates football sponsorship programme, which has made Dubai a top destination for European tourists and encouraged more people to use their airline. Another is Qatar, which owns Paris Saint Germain and made a statement when they made a record bid for Neymar and won the 2022 World Cup bid. Finally Russia is also hoping to improve its international reputation through this year’s World Cup.

Moreover Saudi Arabia took an interesting approach when they financed a deal for nine Saudi Arabian players to play in La Liga. In what appeared to be a curious deal, Saudi Arabia’s general sports authority will pay the players wages in the hope that they will act as Saudi football ambassadors in Spain and  gain more attention for their country in the build-up to the World Cup – elevating the status of the nation on the international stage.

As always it’s the bucks that count – the Deloitte Football Money League revealed the top 20 clubs made revenues of £7 billion last year. However, the amount of spending required to build a top club often goes some way to negating it – the £777 million in fees paid for the current Manchester City squad is the same as that of the Netherland’s national defence budget.

So when civil servants sit across the table in Delhi it’s not a game: the importance of football lies in its potential to create influence and soft power. The Arab States have already proven this; the DIT will be hoping the India mission can do the same for the UK.

Sam Forsdick writes for Spear’s