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Report: New FIFA secretary general sparks interest at the 2016 Soccerex Global Convention

The first public appearace of FIFA’s new Secretary General built the intrigue at this year’s event, as Manchester welcomed the football world for a few short days. Matthew Campelli reports

by Matthew Campelli | Published in Sports Management Nov Dec 2016 issue 128
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The Manchester Central Convention Complex was home to the Soccerex event
The Manchester Central Convention Complex was home to the Soccerex event

Manchester felt like the centre of the football universe when the Soccerex Global Convention rolled into town. Some of the industry’s biggest names were in attendance, projecting a positive vision for the sport.

However, on the second day, a Daily Telegraph sting revealed that then England manager Sam Allardyce had been caught discussing ways to get around Football Association (FA) rules, with undercover journalists posing as businessmen. Several hours later he had been sacked.

The shocking turn of events threatened to overshadow the conference somewhat, although the timing of the FA’s swift decision to remove Allardyce ironically coincided with a wide-ranging panel session about the importance of good governance in football.

FIFA’s new LEADER
Governance, of course, has been a focus in football over the last 18 months, since the FIFA corruption scandal, which still looms over the beleaguered organisation, despite extensive personnel changes at the top.

In something of a coup for Soccerex, FIFA’s new secretary general, Fatma Samoura, opened the conference with her first speech since her appointment earlier this year. She delivered an address packed with assurances of good governance, and the abolition of the ‘old boys club’ culture which ultimately brought the body close to the abyss just over 18 months ago.

While there was palpable goodwill towards Samoura – who spent 21 years working for the United Nations – the general feeling was one of cautious optimism, tinged by scepticism when it emerged that FIFA was going to disband its anti-racism taskforce hours before her talk.

Samoura, to her credit, stood her ground when questioned about the decision, explaining that the taskforce had “fulfilled its mandate” of discovering the problems with racism in football. FIFA is now in a position to tackle those issues, she added. Time will tell.

A substantial section of Samoura’s speech was devoted to the development of grassroots football – an area that has been neglected due to bad “cultural and institutional behaviours”, and a focus on the lucrative elite game.

A focus on the development of women’s football was also a key part of her address, and FIFA has since crystalised the ambition by unveiling a plan to impose mandatory funding for the growth of women’s grassroots football for its member associations. FIFA wants 60m women to be involved in football by the year 2026.

Social cohesion
Samoura returned to the stage later in the day to present the first FIFA Diversity Awards, alongside former Netherlands international Clarence Seedorf and ex-Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay shortly after retiring from professional football.

The inaugural award was won by Slum Soccer, the Indian NGO which uses football to improve the lives of marginalised groups in Indian society.

Football for social cohesion and equality was a much-discussed topic at the conference, and the impression was that the organisers rightly wanted to demonstrate the healing effects of football, to stem the avalanche of negative press the sport has experienced in the recent past. A number of companies that operate in this space were represented, including Football for Peace, Football Beyond Borders and Street Child United.

The latter brought along its patron, the former Arsenal and Brazil midfielder Gilberto Silva, to tell delegates about its mission to bring attention to the lives of children who live on the streets, with no identity, no means of getting an identity and, as a result, no future. The organisation creates campaigns based around large international sporting events, like the FIFA World Cup, to increase awareness and attention around the plight of street children worldwide.

Street Child’s co-founder John Wroe revealed that the organisation was launching a Street Child World Cup, to be held in Moscow in 2018 in order to coincide with the FIFA World Cup. It will be the third event of its kind after previous editions were held in Brazil and South Africa.

International feel
Manchester’s Convention Centre was awash with exhibitors throughout the three days, and the general themes emerging were fan engagement, technology and analytics, although the diversity of firms showing off their products and services demonstrated the numerous corners of society that football touches.

Bespoke tailors, cuddly toy makers and even a wine company established by Spain and Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta were in attendance, drumming up business.

Exhibitors came from far and wide; Spain’s top professional association football division La Liga was set up with an interactive pod, while Italy’s Serie A was represented as well. A delegation from China was in attendance, which gave a presentation on the growing importance of football in the nation, as well as detailing the numerous opportunities that exist there for businesses involved in football infrastructure and development.

The international feel of the convention was emphasised by the presence of the Department of International Trade – formerly UK Trade and Investment – which still has its £1tn export target by 2020 intact despite Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

To hit the ambitious target, the departmental body will be hopeful that British companies can successfully capitalise on the thirst of countries such as China, India and Qatar to develop the football infrastructure they need to achieve their desired outcomes.

Stadium architects featured prominently at the event, including Idom – the Spanish architects of Athletic Bilbao’s new San Mames Stadium – and Hamilton Sports Design – which redesigned Northern Ireland’s The National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.

Soccerex also provided Atletico Madrid the chance to show off its plans for a new stadium. Javier Martinez, the club’s managing director of global business development, gave a virtual tour of the 66,000-capacity stadium, which is due to be open in time for the 2017/18 season. The venue, designed by Spanish firm Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos, will have a fanzone, museum and videomapping facade, said Martinez.

Money, money, money
Despite all the talk of corruption, the vast amounts of money that make the sport so ripe for unscrupulous behaviour also served to demonstrate its health.

While the England manager was being brought down for his perceived greed, the Soccerex Convention presented the ways in which money was benefitting the game, such as improved infrastructure, social inclusion schemes and small business prosperity.

The atmosphere at the event was one of opportunity – of football turning a corner following a turbulent period. And while many in attendance will remain cynical, the organisers of Soccerex will surely be pleased with the image that football projected inside the convention centre, in spite of what was happening outside it.

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