Soccerex Global Convention 2017: Notes from day two

6 September 2017 |
With the international break taking some of the focus away from on-pitch matters for the week, the Soccerex Global Convention becomes the perfect time to focus on the business of soccer.

On the second day, much of the emphasis was on soccer’s place in society and the community. Discussions about doping, the position of soccer stars as role models, improving working conditions for female players, and the charitable efforts of the Common Goal initiative took place on a day of varied and fascinating soccer industry discussion.

The war on supplements

The first panel of the day saw moderator Sean Cotrell, chief executive and founder of LawInSport, pose the question: “Is doping a problem in football?”

Straight off the bat, Emilio García, director of integrity at Uefa, had a simple, if unsatisfactory, answer to that question. 

“Looking at the official figures from Uefa, Wada, Fifa, we have to say that the problem is limited,” he said. “We are dealing with three to five cases per year, usually to do with recreational, social drugs, not people attempting to cheat. Of course we have the programme in place and we need to fight this continually, and it is not to say that it is not a problem, but it is limited.”

Dr Matthew Brown, club doctor at Manchester City, agreed with García’s assessment. He stated that the number of players actively trying to cheat by taking prohibited substances “look good”, adding that in 2015, “just 0.02 per cent of Fifa tests came back with a problem”. 

He turned his attention, however, to dietary supplements that a lot of players will take without a full understanding of what is in them - pointing to the case last year in which Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho was suspended but then subsequently cleared of wrongdoing by Uefa after testing positive for a banned substance, which he claimed had come from a supplement. 

“Supplements are unregulated, and the reluctance of governments to deal with it is causing real problems,” said Michele Verroken, founding director of Sporting Integrity. “I don't understand why governments don't deal with it and regulate the sector because then there would be a strict liability and. even if you didn't intend to cheat, even if you didn't realise it was in a supplement - because they're unregulated they can contain things, they can be contaminated - you could be punished for not adequately researching what you were taking.” 

Part of the problem, Verroken said, lies in the “mystique around supplementing your diet”. 

“The truth is for elite footballers,” she explained, “if they eat the correct diet - and the clubs will give them guidance on this with dieticians and nutritional experts - they don’t need to take supplements.” Clearer regulation of the sector would prevent the situation where someone like Sakho has his reputation damaged.

“A player who is just trying to get good nutrition is not trying to cheat,” she said. “Players who are doping are lumped in with players who are just stupid or poorly advised. We still have a problem where cheating by doping is getting really mixed up and reputations are being damaged.”

A whole new Concacaf

The corruption scandal that rocked the entire world of soccer in 2015 arguably hit nowhere harder than Concacaf, the continental confederation for the sport in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. When Victor Montagliani - the Canadian who was appointed president of the body in May 2016 - arrived, it was as the successor to three previous presidents - Jack Warner, Alfredo Hawit and Jeffrey Webb -  who had all been named as co-conspirators in the US Department of Justice corruption case which saw powerful figures across the global game toppled from their lofty positions. 

Steadying the ship was priority number one for Montagliani and his team but, as it worked out, a year on they were already harbouring higher ambitions. 

“Concacaf has gone through a very strong reform process,” said Philippe Moggio, secretary general for the body, during his one-on-one interview with Ben Grossman, co-owner of Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise Minnesota United. “We had an external council help us through that and put in new regulations and better practice in place through Concacaf. Victor Montigliano made sure we are focused on football first and and focused on service. He made the case that leadership is based on service, not on power.”

Moggio and Montagliani now have their sights set firmly on the 2026 Fifa World Cup, for which three of Concacaf’s member associations - the US, Mexico and Canada - have put forward a joint bid. 

“Concacaf is playing a supporting role helping put the bid together,” Moggio explained. “It's the first time three federations have put together a joint bid. It will have been 32 years since Concacaf last hosted the World Cup, since when there has been three in Europe, two in Asia, one each in Africa and South America.

“It's a great opportunity for three countries,” Moggio told the Soccerex crowd.  “Each of them could host a World Cup on its own. Together we can put a better overall bid and a diversified fanbase which truly represents Concacaf.”

Moggio also revealed that the organisation is looking into overhauling its World Cup qualification system, which at the moment sees “too many teams sitting idle for two years” due to the process of eliminating smaller nations earlier on before going to a final six format. Concacaf has also looked at the Uefa Nations League - a competitive year-long tournament which will replace international friendlies from 2018 onwards - as a model of ensuring more regular top-level fixtures for all member nations. 

“Many of our members don't even play friendlies because they don't have the resources, and friendlies don't generate the revenue,” he explained. “So we need to look at ways to involve teams in competition. We’ve had a look at what Uefa has done, and we’ll see if we can make that work for our members.“

Setting the trend

Eddie Jones, the England rugby union head coach, mainly spoke about his career running XVs teams during his interview with Spanish soccer journalist Guillem Balague, but his leadership advice should resonate across the sports industry and beyond. 

“Talking to people in America, what’s been lost there is the innate competitive desire of players,” said Jones. “They don’t want to compete, they just want to be famous. The ability to get the desire out of players has become hugely important. 

“Deep down there’s a desire in everyone, but getting people to do what they don’t want to do is the most important part of being a leader. Players now have different motivations, different values. You can’t just tell them what to do, you’ve got to guide them to discover it.”

The most important lesson Jones said he learned early in his career was “to set trends, not follow them. If you’re following trends you’re already too late. You have to have the courage to do things differently, because you can’t get ahead if you’re just doing what everyone else is doing.”

Finally, he left the audience with a bit of wisdom that may have been taken on board by employees more than managers: “In the England team, we never have a meeting longer than 15 minutes, and we never have a meeting that has more than three points.”

Joining the one per cent

In early August, Manchester United and Spain forward Juan Mata became the first player to join the Common Goal movement, an initiative set up by Streetfootballworld to encourage professional soccer players to donate one per cent of their earnings to charitable causes.

The goal, says Streetfootballworld founder Jürgen Griesbeck, on stage with Balague and Mata, was to build a ‘first XI’ of players signed up to the scheme before the World Cup in Russia next summer. That goal was met within weeks, with Bayern Munich defender Mats Hummels the first name to join Mata, and another 11 players due to be confirmed over the coming months - with another two, the first female players, set to be announced next week, Griesbeck promised.

“Before I’m a footballer I am a human,” said Mata of his decision to join Griesbeck’s cause. “When you realise what being a professional footballer means to you and how lucky you are you want to give something back. I thought about starting my own foundation as many players have, and then I met Jürgen, and instead of my own foundation I wanted to do something more global.”

“There wasn’t much convincing to do,” said Griesbeck of his initial meeting with Mata. “We had the same visions and it was easy to click. We come across a number of amazing individuals in the football world who have already decided to join Common Goal. Juan is Juan but they are all amazing in their own right. Initially it was an XI but we now have people on the bench as well. We got there after two weeks.”

Mata spoke of soccer as a “massive force” in the world, with “a power that nothing else has”. Earlier in the summer he made a trip to Mumbai, India, where he recalls “good memories but also shocking memories” of seeing “kids living in not great conditions, but they’re playing football in the streets, and this is happiness”.

“If you don’t do it with passion, nothing in life can work,” said Mata. “I said to Jürgen, ‘I believe in what you are doing and I want to be a part of it.’ I need to do that in order to be happy with what we are doing. I will be part of it forever in some way or another."

While the goal is simple - to raise as much money as possible by signing up as many players as possible - Griesbeck said that “we don’t yet have all the answers” about how far it can ultimately do good. “We have a concrete vision of what we want to achieve,” he said, adding with a smile: “There are 65,000 professional footballers.”

“Similar to financial fair play, we are thinking of ‘social fair play’,” he concluded. “It should be part of the sport. It didn’t used to be the case that there was a separation between the social side of football and football as a business. We want to go back to that. It will need a critical mass of players joining and then the industry to, but it’s a players-led movement. We have pledges from journalists, from events, from agents. It’s encouraging to know that everyone feels like this is something we can get behind.”

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