Football and corporate responsability. A difficult blend. By William Gaillard

Dear friends and supporters of the Million Seater Stadium.

The topic of my presentation this evening, football and corporate social responsibility, may appear to you, at first sight, more academic than practical or action driven. But beyond what it may appear to be, it deals with one fundamental issue in the relationship between sport and society and in particular between professional sport and overall social responsibility.

When in the early 2000s I decided to raise the subject of social responsibility at a meeting of the UEFA executive committee, it immediately elicited a remark by the then President that football in itself was a deeply social endeavour and it needed to make no further efforts beyond a few additional charity contributions in order to fulfil its social obligations.

In itself, this was a classic nineteenth-century liberal remark, the company, in this case UEFA, was employing workers and was paying their wages at market rate and on top of this was organising and partly supporting, through its member associations, the grassroots game all over Europe. Therefore, no need to do more!

The only problem was that we were now 200 years later and a good forty years after the English league lifted the maximum wage rule, a rule which was in itself a most illiberal measure.

At the time of that UEFA exco meeting, UEFA’s combined annual revenues before redistribution to clubs and FA’s amounted probably to around 250 million euros, today fifteen years later it is inching up to four billion!

One could have easily argued in the early 1950s that football was indeed, in itself, a social movement powered by clubs and national associations with the modest income they could extract from stadium gate revenues.

This is obviously today no longer the case and national associations and professional leagues spend a small quantity of their income on what, indeed used, to be the main purpose and raison d’etre of national associations: the grassroots and youth game.

It was therefore entirely logical that UEFA should be asked to behave like a 21st century corporation, which it effectively had become, and spend a small portion of its revenues on social responsibility initiatives.

For those of us who were involved in building a UEFA corporate responsibility portfolio at that time, we were starting from scratch and it took the dedicated efforts of one individual, Patrick Gasser, to get the process going.

At first the obstacles were steep, the cultural prejudices strong and we faced an endless list of often self-serving false good ideas and pet projects coming from the football politicians; but in the end, almost miraculously the programme took off!

Among the projects UEFA decided to support, was, at that time, a new initiative, powered by two selfless and farsighted individuals, Mel Young, here in Edinburgh and Harald Schmidt in Graz, Austria: the Homeless World Cup.

For UEFA, that initiative had one major advantage, it involved football! It was, no doubt, a very creative and pioneering idea: to harness the power of football in order to repair the social fabric of what had become broken societies.

Because, make no mistake, homelessness is not an individual situation, it is the symptom of a society in which growing inequality has destroyed the social link that makes up the fabric of our post-industrial world. One of the great merits of the founders of the homeless World Cup was to recognise that football and sport in general could help reintegrate individuals into the mainstream of the society they lived in and that it could be done internationally.

The second great merit was to understand that homelessness was indeed a post-modern phenomenon and the Litmus test of failed social integration.

In the 19th century, in many European countries, industrialists felt compelled by the pre-industrial ethics that still prevailed in an industrial age, to provide some form of housing and social services to their employees. This paternalism, as it was called, undoubtedly implied a good measure of social and political control but it was typical of a society that still had one foot in the agrarian age and its morals and old-style community-based solidarity.

In the 20th century, the social movement and the political expression of the trade-unions imposed changes that ushered a new role for the state in providing social services, including housing, for the majority of its citizens.

Today, this is, unfortunately less and less the case. Housing has become the focal point of the dislocation of the social fabric. Homelessness is a truly post-modern phenomenon. Housing has turned into an instrument of financial speculation.

Some world cities, London is one of them, are today the focal point of a globalised financial elite that buys whole neighbourhoods of a metropolis as an speculative investment and keep their assets unused and unoccupied.

Housing has become a commodity divorced from its social
purpose.

When Mel and Harald came up with the idea of the Homeless World Cup at the end of the nineties, media and political attention was certainly little focussed on the subject of homelessness. They, however, understood that homelessness was at the very core of the new poverty, especially. But not only, in advanced societies where informal housing, quite common in developing countries, was much frowned upon and repressed by the authorities.

I attended six editions of the Homeless World Cup and the contacts I developed with the participants made me understand better the mechanics of becoming homeless. It is an inelectubable process, one loses one’s job, then one’s partner, then one’s house, one loses one’s social relations, it often leads to substance abuse, loss of all social contacts, anomie and exclusion from society.

20 years after the launching of the Homeless World Cup, homelessness is much more of a focus of attention worldwide and the plague has spread exponentially, affecting even former members of the middle-class.

It is not rare to see the top international media carry extensive coverage of homelessness and politicians vowing to help eradicate the problem.

I have no doubt that apart from significantly helping its participants the Homeless World Cup has also raised the awareness of the situation among football fans, opinion leaders worldwide and the political elite.

In this new context, the Million Seater Stadium is the logical follow up to the Homeless World Cup. While the World cup can continue to mobilise at the grassroots and
help those in need, the stadium can increase the commitment of the football community by harnessing the resources of leagues, clubs, fans and professional players.

Literally, hundreds of past and present players have created foundations in their names and so have clubs and leagues. Often these foundations lack focus and purpose and lead to a scattering of resources into very small or ill-defined projects involving a vague social use of
football.

The Million Seater Stadium can instead provide the necessary focus and economies of scale by concentrating on a well-defined, widely acknowledged problem and
aggregating private, non-governmental and public resources to mobilise and energise international public opinion. Homelessness lies at the core of all social evil where it weakens, corrodes and eventually destroys all social safety nets and fabric.

Fighting homelessness rebuilds elementary social ties and relations and allows to apprehend all related issues, such as substance abuse, violence and crime.

To do this the Million Seater Stadium proposes to organise one of the most tightly knitted, youthful and dynamic of communities, the football community. Let us all give it a hand: don’t build walls, build roofs, walls divide, roofs unite!

 

William Gaillard