Monday, March 24, 2008

ATH: Michel Platini and vision

One Grown Man: Find A Way
MIAMI, FL (Mar 4, 2008) USSoccerPlayers -- French legend Michel Platini was narrowly elected UEFA President a little over a year ago and has since made it clear that his administration was not simply going to be business as usual.

Let’s not get it twisted. Business has been good for UEFA. From the high profile leagues of England, Spain, Italy and Germany to the lucrative Champions league, European soccer has thrived because that’s where the money is. Clubs there are able to buy the best players, have resources to go and find these players wherever they may be, and negotiate lucrative television contracts - whether individually or collectively - that allow them to showcase those players.

While Platini has stated that he’s certainly not against making money, he’s concerned with the dominant role money has played. What he wants is a somewhat general concept, to return the game to what he calls its “true values.” When one looks at many of issues that Platini has been spoken about over the past year, it’s clear that he truly believes that the game and sports in general is a “bearer of values,” as he stated last week.

Platini’s comments came as he spoke out against a widely panned idea to play an additional round of Premiere League games outside of England, an idea he believes is one purely motivated by money, specifically to aid debt ridden English clubs. England has been a frequent target of his during his tenure as UEFA president. He has cited English clubs as an example of why European football needs to be exempt from the European Union rules on free movement of labor, criticizing the “foreign” influence in English football.

This is not so much of a belief that English clubs should have English players but more because of his belief that unchecked free market pushes the game further from its original aims of competition and as a “catalyst for social and cultural integration.”

It’s also not just something affecting England. The end of national bans on foreign players by some European countries, the Bosman Ruling, and the dropping of international borders for workers within the European Union didn’t just apply to the English game.

Platini has also spoken out against under-age player transfers, such as a 15 year-old Italian player being wooed by Chelsea and several of Arsenals young signees. “I’m totally against those who buy under-age lads in another country,” he told Reuters late last week.

Another issue that right fully has his attention is the continued ugliness that is racism in European football. Citing recent incidents in his native France among them a racist banner unfurled by Bastia fans directed a player from Burkino Faso. Platini said on French radio, “The fight against racism is the dossier I want to work the most on as it is something intolerable.”

At the end of January Platini suggested the formation of a European Sport Police Force to deal with issues such as match-fixing, hooliganism and racism and maintain soccer’s essential values. “Society has passed other scourges on to the world of sport: money laundering, match-fixing… racism and xenophobia, doping, child trafficking.”

I don’t know if I agree with all of Platini’s initiatives as he preaches his “money is the root of all evil” sermons. Nevertheless it’s this Grown Man’s Opinion that he appears to be working for the best interest of the game and society as a whole and that he’s using sports to do it.

This is by no means a revolutionary idea. Sports has always been one of the few things that unites a diverse nation or people. This is especially true in this country.

Baseball fans in the United States often say that the beginning of integration was when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1946. As more Black players began appearing on the rosters for professional sports teams, the incidents of racism at these events decreased to the extent that the stadium incidents of racism that occur in some European terraces are virtually non-existent here.

Nor is Platini the first in Europe to call for such initiatives. The EU was urged to take account of sport’s “inherent social, education and cultural functions” during a Council of Europe meeting in 2000 and the UK’s sports minister Richard Caborn initiated an Independent European Sport Review which recognized a need for a European Sports model “deep rooted in the civil society and important expression of culture.”

MLS is far from the financial machine that European soccer has become. Despite the ambition illustrated by the expansion plans and new soccer stadiums, it will be a long time before our league rivals anything going on in Europe and arguably other sports here in the US. Right now, that might not be a bad thing.

MLS is not poaching African countries for players for whom puberty is a novelty. We’re not recovering from any match-fixing illegal betting scandals. Despite the many complaints that people tend to have about MLS (single entity, wage scales etc.) the league has not had to undergo any of the high profile problems that make the news every other month or so in Europe. MLS is like the naïve teenager, finding his legs in the world but unaware of the problems that await.

Soccer in this country can take a page from the philosophy, if not the initiatives, that Platini is putting forth to avoid the issues that Europe seems to be facing by ensuring that the game’s caretakers never lose sight that the game (and sports in general) “is not a product, it’s a part of our life” (as he told the London Financial Tiems last year). Platini is right, the game should be a part of our culture, indeed a “bearer of values.”

We may never truly realize these aims, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to keep them in mind as the game grows in this country. I would hate to hear an MLS commissioner 20 years from now repeat Platini’s words: “I am afraid of what has happened to football. We need to come back to the game."

Then again, this is just the opinion of One Grown Man who is taking a moment to salute Emmanuel “Ti Manno” Sanon.

Miami-based soccer writer Andrew Dixon pens a weekly column for USSoccerPlayers, and hosts ‘Back of the Net,’ which you can hear Saturday nights on the Black Athlete Sports Network.

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