FIFA's head of professional football: "Clubs have historically relied on TV rights, owner financing and overspending, but it's time to rethink the way the overall football system is functioning"

2 February 2021

FIFA
Photo: FIFA "You have to focus on the long-term strategy and not the short-term vision of winning a title or a match," says FIFA's head of professional football, Ornella D. Bellia.

The international governing body aims to tackle football's growing imbalance with a new diploma in club management primarily for executives outside elite teams.

Ornella D. Bellia, FIFA's head of professional football, says finding new ways to control clubs' own revenue streams is key to achieve sustainability.

Though financial prudence and commercial know-how are important skills, emotional intelligence is crucial – especially in times like these.

Emil Gjerding Nielson nielson@offthepitch.com

Though football is the most popular sport worldwide, few would argue the sport is truly global when it comes to professionalisation.

Power and wealth are increasingly concentrated, boosting the capabilities of a few clubs to attract the most skilled executives who in turn are able to take them to new heights, creating an endless cycle of centralisation. 

As part of FIFA's Vision 2023, the international governing body aims to tackle this growing imbalance with the launch of a new diploma in club management, among other projects, aiming to democratise the leadership skills needed in football today.

It's really important to promote a more sustainable ecosystem

"Right now, in the football industry we have a situation where some elite clubs have taken the lead with all others being unable to compete at the same level. FIFA's vision is to create a more balanced system where at least 50 clubs from every region of the world are able to reach that level," says Ornella D. Bellia, FIFA's head of professional football and one of the directors of the programme. 

Democratising football

In the 2018/19 season, Europe's big five leagues accounted for 75 per cent of the revenue generated by clubs in Europe. And in that season alone, turnover from top 30 clubs for the first time ever accounted for more than half of all top division club revenue on the continent. 

Globally, the top 20 clubs – of course all from Europe – generated combined revenue of €9.3 billion. No clubs outside Europe are ranked top 30 across the world. The evidence of imbalance is striking, and the issue has been well-covered. 

"FIFA is aiming to create a wider base of top clubs," Bellia says.

Catering to executives primarily outside the elite, FIFA's diploma in club management, consisting of lectures and knowledge sharing, aims to increase the accessibility to the key skills needed to run a club today, in a media landscape where the sport faces threats from the overflow of offers available to consumers.

"Besides lectures it's all about knowledge-sharing, and every participant has to develop a strategic plan for his own club and the expectations for the next 3-4 years," Bellia says.

Promoting sustainability

One of the key aspects of the diploma is sustainability. Ultimately, the topics FIFA's diploma aims to teach – club operations, stadium management, marketing etc. – all speak to creating a business whose primary income streams depend on as little outside variables as possible.

"Clubs have historically relied on TV rights, owner financing and overspending, but it's time to rethink the way the overall football system is functioning," Bellia says. 

And while UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, in addition to other economic controls, help deal with financial mismanagement, there is "still a lot of work to be done," according to Bellia. 

Thinking outside the box is another key element to managing through crisis

"It's really important to promote a more sustainable ecosystem with clubs that are able to generate revenues at a level so they can invest in sporting activities, be it on players, youth systems etc. You have to focus on the long-term strategy and not the short-term vision of winning a title or a match," she says.

"That's also FIFA's responsibility as the world governing body, because if clubs are sustainable it is to the benefit of all stakeholders in the football landscape." 

Emotional intelligence in tough times

The coronavirus pandemic has made it all the more relevant to take a hard look at the skills needed not only to manage the club of today, but also the club of tomorrow.

"Thinking outside the box is another key element to managing through crisis such as that of the past year. What's needed right now is leaders with creativity, people who are able to reinvent the way of doings things, " she says.

"The crisis is an opportunity to change a lot of things. Football is amazing but there are some aspects that need to be improved, including the flexibility to adapt to a fast-changing world in particular." 

Some skills are hard to teach in an executive course, however, especially in a period where peoples personal lives are affected to the extent that they are currently.

"In general, emotional intelligence is currently more important than ever. You need leaders who are emphatic and know how to speak to their players, staff and fan bases in such a difficult moment."