A new game plan and avoiding trouble|Hari Kumar

2021.05.08

When the incoming call showed it was from England, I was surprised. I hardly knew anyone there. I heard some people from Hong Kong had recently migrated there, but none of them would know my number.

After a moment of hesitation, I answered the call. It was a friend who had gone abroad a while back and became a successful investment banker.

“Hello, haven’t heard from you for a long time,” I said. “I thought you were in the US. Moved to UK?” I asked.

“Yeah, I have switched to an investment firm in London. But I have been busy as we in finance can never even sleep properly as one market opens when another closes. So very little time to make calls like this,” he said.

“I understand,” I said, wondering how he found time now and why.

“Listen, I am tapping some people in Hong Kong who can spare a few millions and looking for a good project to invest,” he explained the reason.

“Millions? You are calling the wrong person,” I replied.

“I am not asking you to invest. I wanted to know if you knew some rich people who can,” he said with all the humility of a banker.

“I will ask around then,” I replied with the curtness of a bank teller. “First you will have to tell me what kind of project this is, though.” I added.

“It is a new football league, with top teams in Europe. But don’t publicize it. Tell only investors who show interest,” he cautioned.

“I thought they dropped the idea of that crazy Super League,” I was startled to learn that plan is still afoot.

“That is gone. But this is a new one, much better than Super League, which was not a well-thought-out idea. This is a sure-fire success. Slam Dunk,” he said.

I wanted to tell him it is a bit difficult to do Slam Dunk in football, but I bit my tongue and asked: “Will the fans accept it? Didn’t they revolt against the idea last time?”

“That was the problem with the Super League. Fans. So, this time, the plan is to avoid them,” the investment expert said.

“How is that?” I asked.

“We plan to exclude fans from this league. It will be played in empty stadiums and only those who pledge allegiance to this new league will be allowed in,” he explained. “It will be like those forms you sign when you buy an iPhone.”

“Don’t you think most fans will stay away?” I asked.

“We anticipate that. But after a couple of seasons, they will get used to it. Or else they can switch to following tennis or golf,” he sneered.

“Will the players be happy to play in empty stadiums like that? Wouldn’t they want fans to support them?” I was still seeing problems.

“Nah, it is okay. Offer them enough money; most will sign up. Those who refuse to will be barred from joining the league in the future. These are powerful investors you know, the players who object may have other problems too,” he sounded like a mafia boss now.

“Moreover, we plan to make the format of the game more exciting and challenging for the players. That will be a game-changer, not for this league, but for the game itself,” he added.

“Is that so?” I was getting worried about the Beautiful Game now. In the hands of moneybags, football could become just another business.

“The owners, he said, planned to take control of the tactics from the managers, who get paid millions and then often mess up things.”

“The owners will be the managers too? That will be a radical change,” I was getting really apprehensive now. “So, the owners will be at the dugout?”

“No, they are too busy. And, in any case, they don’t know much about the game anyway. Moreover, they don’t want to reveal their identity. They will set the guideline and leave the micromanagement like game tactics to a group employed by them.”

I felt a bankers’ vision of football management was unfolding.

“The only thing owners would insist is complete obedience by the team and management. They also want reshuffle in positions of players and changes to rules like offside and yellow cards, which they feel hinders the flow of the game.”

“These they feel will make the game better. It could also be a challenge for all these current superstars as they have to prove they are versatile enough to stay in the team.”

“Do you think you can still call it football, then? Sounds like a new game to me,” I replied.

“As long as there are 22 players, a ball, and goal posts, it is football. Other changes are irrelevant,” he was dismissive of my doubts.

“What about the revenue without fans?” I asked.

“Television rights. All leagues ultimately make money from that. Right? So, whether fans turn up at the stadium or not is not a big deal as long as we can beam it on the channels. We can always mix in the sound of the crowd to add excitement,” the investment adviser said.

“Really? Is that why they add it?” I exclaimed.

I said I have seen cricket channels in India doing that; but thought it was to drown out the sound from outside, like the wails of ambulances.

“No, it is to add the atmosphere,” he corrected me. “That is the beauty of televised matches,” he went on. “No one will know there are no actual fans there, but the overall picture gives an impression it is game as usual.”

“The problem with current leagues,” he went on, “was the fans. “No owner can control them. So, get rid of them, and we can have a lucrative venture going.”

“You think sponsors will be happy if fans stay away?” I asked.

“Look, the bottom line for all these sponsors is profit. Fans don’t matter to them. As long as there is money to be made, they will support us,” he explained. “That is why I am looking for investors who are not worried about such things.”

“I am sure there are people like that here. I will look around,” I said as he ended the call.

I felt the final whistle was about to be sounded for the Beautiful Game soon.

(A fictional satire written by Hari Kumar, who is a journalist based in Hong Kong.)

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