Development of one kind or another was on the agenda for much of the second day at the Dead Sea, before the arrival of a very special guest.
“The Premier League is a young league,” said former Arsenal vice chairman and David Dein, kicking off day two of the Soccerex Asian Forum in his guise as ambassador for world’s soccer’s biggest commercial success story.
Dein was giving a presentation on an opening panel that looked at the building of domestic leagues. Much of the story was familiar but what also emerged was a sense that even the strongest leagues are still learning. What has not changed in England, however, is a revenue distribution model that is among the fairest in the sport, and has helped the league to ever more astronomical earnings. “We launched the rocket,” Dein said, “and it’s flown to the moon.”
A league very much at the other end of its development is the Saudi Arabia Pro League, which was relaunched under the aegis of title sponsor Abdul Latif Jameel (ALJ) in 2013. ALJ’s managing director of marketing Adel Ezzat was on hand to explain how it had been rethinking the branding and delivery of the leading product in what is the kingdom’s only mainstream entertainment forum for young people. Ideas have ranged from a league mascot to greater digital engagement and pre-match entertainment, to job creation – 1,700 licensed freelance snack vendors now operate at every game, which also helps cover weaker concessions facilities at some grounds. The numbers are encouraging for ALJ: there is a US$1.1 billion, ten-year TV deal in place; 1.5 million fans have passed through the turnstiles; US$102 million has been spent on transfers.
"We launched the rocket and it's flown to the moon."
Far more has been lavished on players in Spain’s top flight but until recently, La Liga had only been the number four league internationally. That is rapidly changing as the league’s organising body, the LFP, takes a more joined-up approach to its international marketing. That has culminated in the creation of La Liga International Marketing: a joint venture between the league and its international rights partner, Mediapro, and incorporating the rebranding of the LFP as ‘La Liga’ to reflect its popular name.
La Liga was sponsoring the VIP room at the Asian Forum but its development efforts run to the grassroots – it is operating soccer schools in several territories - as well as the boardroom. With a royal decree now insisting on a more equitable system of distributing broadcast revenues - albeit subject to the intervention of Spain’s FA, RFEF, which has suspended league matches from 16th May in protest at ‘government intervention’ - it may be that the Premier League’s lead is challenged soon enough.
A new formula
Dein had begun the opening session with a brief interlude, producing and then demonstrating the use of a can of 9.15 Fairplay - the referees' 'vanishing spray' that has become highly visible across several of the world's top competitions - and introducing its creator, Heine Allemagne, to receive the applause of the audience. It was while working for the England 2018 World Cup bid back in 2010 that Dein met Allemagne and the well-connected Englishman became a cheerleader for the product whenever the opportunity arose. Dein said that Allemagne, in coming forward with his creation, had lived by the "motto of the turtle: if you don't stick your neck out, you won't get anywhere".
Also living by that maxim on day two were Leandro Shara and Itay Ingber, respectively the founder/chief executive and chief operating officer of MatchVision. The Chilean company owns the intellectual property rights to Shara's prized creation: a mathematically derived formula for building fairer sporting competitions.
At the core of MatchVision's solution, which Shara believes can help the Fifa World Cup expand fairly to 36 or even 40 teams, is a first round which assigns teams to seeded pots instead of groups. Every team plays one game against one team from each of the other pots, and those who proceeded to the knock-out stages are chosen from a general classification table, with further weighting built in where necessary to decide between sides level on points.
Shara and Ingber argue that the system, inspired in part by the failed attempt to grow the 2006 World Cup to 36 teams, not only allows for greater flexibility in terms of numbers but also significantly reduces the number of dead rubbers, and games vulnerable to manipulation.
They also claim their methods could be used for major championships in ten of the world's 11 sports, and have already begun consultations with several bodies as well as putting a new model in place for Peru's national cup competition. Theirs is the kind of innovation that could change world sport forever, or could come to absolutely nothing. But Dein, and many others, would doubtless approve of their moxie.
Much of the middle of the day was devoted to workshops for grassroots activity, whether for the purposes of social change or player development. The Premier League's Jim Weeks discussed its international work, and there was a presentation from the Vietnam Football for All Project, initially developed in cooperation with the Norwegian Football Federation, which takes structured soccer coaching into schools in a manner which recalls English cricket's Chance to Shine charity.
There was also a talk from the Saudi school sports scheme, which is confronting a problem familiar throughout the world. The most popular activity among young people in Saudi Arabia, as in many other countries, is video gaming. No harm in that, especially, but inactivity is causing devastating problems in a country where 37 per cent of school-age children are overweight and, more troublingly, ten per cent have type two diabetes. It was explained that the notion of sport for sport's sake, for the sake of good health, is one that must still be fostered in Saudi culture.
Culture was very much at issue for four men who have travelled much in their soccer careers, and spoke in an absorbing penultimate session: former England international Peter Reid, Argentinian World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles, Gaizka Mendieta of Spain and Australia's Lucas Neill.
The quartet spoke at some length about the soon to be curtailed practice of third-party ownership, which they agreed was a matter of culture. For Mendieta, it had often been part of professional life. Reid recalled being put off by it when travelling to Argentina as manager of Premier League club Sunderland, seeking recruits. Lucas Neill played at West Ham United in 2006 when Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, whose rights were then partly held by agent Kia Joorabchian. Tevez would go on to save the Hammers from relegation that season - and cost the club a US$6.5 million fine - but of Mascherano, Neill remembers training with a player who "never gave the ball away, no one could touch him, no one could get near him, and then they said he wasn't good enough and they were going to sell him".
In Mascherano's case, the interests of the agent were working against those of the player - or at least of the club. The panel generally agreed with the concept of TPO but as Reid added: "It's a problem when money goes missing."
All four men were agreed on the benefits of sharing and learning from different cultures. Reid, who spoke of the “refreshing and great experience” of managing Mumbai City FC in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League, characterised a cycle of shared knowledge. He recalled the effect Arsene Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal had on the Premier League, and revealed that he had taken many of those ideas with him to Thailand when he became national team coach there – educating the local players about the unsuitability of the local diet for athletes.
Lucas Neill - who warned of Australia fostering a “culture of mediocrity” if its best players settled for staying in a commercially successful A-League rather than testing themselves abroad – also noted that footballers open to new experiences were at the mercy of the market. “I might want to go to England [when] no one wants me,” he said.
As far as Asia’s developing soccer cultures are concerned, Neill and Ardiles both stressed the importance of patience and perserverance. Neill pointed to the success of Japan’s efforts across all levels of the sport and suggested that his Jordanian hosts were on the same path, albeit on an earlier step. “It’s like Japan,” he said. “The phases keep coming and coming and coming.”
The final panel of the day was preceded by a minor commotion, as members of the local media followed Prince Ali to his seat – from a respectful distance, it must be said. What followed was a major commotion.
Down the years, Soccerex has been attended by many of soccer’s leading figures and some of the greatest players ever to play the game. It is fair to say that none has produced quite the same reaction as Diego Armando Maradona.
The Argentinian may or may not be the best footballer of all time but he has a mystique and magnetism like few others in any walk of life, and that was in full evidence as he arrived for his set-piece interview at the Dead Sea. The conference hall was filled to cosy capacity, with delegates and press happy to earmark any available square of space, before Maradona’s entrance and meeting with the prince drew every camera into a helpless swarm. Even as that broke apart, camera flashes and camera-phones lent the impression of an electrical storm. This is the effect Maradona has on people. His interviewer, the hugely experienced and respected Guillem Balague, wore the look of a man who had just discovered Santa was real after all.
The interview itself, conducted in Spanish, was warm rather than explosive as Maradona recounted tales from his career: recalling brutal on-field treatment that often left him playing through injury, once injecting himself with a pain-killing jab after the doctor had warned his ankle was too swollen, his enjoyment of life at Napoli and the mild chaos of his personal life at the height of his success. There was an amusing interlude, too, as Peter Reid took to the stage again to recall the unwitting role he and his England team mates played at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico in one of the greatest goals ever scored. (The first goal got a mention, too.)
From there, Maradona ventured on to the exhibition floor, encased within a Roman tortoise of staff and surrounded again by photographers and camera crews. He happily signed balls and shirts for the Jordan FA, the AFDP and the team organising next year’s Fifa U17 Women’s World Cup. Then he was off for another interview with Balague – this time about Sepp Blatter and Fifa, syndicated for television, and with a little more of his customary punch. Blatter had sowed "anarchy" at the governing body and was "chasing champagne", said Maradona, who gave Prince Ali his full support. “If I didn’t believe that he would be a good president," he said of the Jordan FA president, "I wouldn’t be here." The comments were soon picked up around the world.
“I’m an ordinary person,” he had said on stage, a little unconvincingly. But he also gave a brief insight into an authentic, raw appeal which has endured controversy, retirement and worse.
“The ball itself had a distinguished relationship with me,” he said, “and this relationship will never die.”