Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata traveled to Mumbai, India this summer as he launched the Common Goal project, an initiative in which players pledge 1% of their salaries to a fund that supports football charaties around the world. (Photo by Jamie Spencer)

Prior to the 2017-18 season, Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata announced that he would be donating one percent of his salary to a collective fund managed by Streetfootballworld (SFW) as part of their recently launched #Commongoal movement. The initial plan for #Commongoal is to recruit a roster of 11 footballers willing to match Mata’s generosity by donating a portion of their salary to the collective fund that will then go toward supporting the more than 100 organizations that are part of SFW’s global network. Mats Hummels from Bayern Munich later announced that he would be the second player to join #Commongoal. The response to these announcements has been mostly positive with some cynical responses about a millionaire only donating one percent of his salary. However, the announcement of #Commongoal also provides an opportunity to examine what organizations like SFW hope to accomplish.

The organizations that are part of SFW use football for the purpose of addressing development and social issues, primarily relating to health and education, within their respective communities. If Mata and SFW manage to recruit a roster of players to contribute to the #Commongoal fund, and assuming these other players earn salaries similar to that of Mata, the total amount raised would be around $1 million USD. This would amount to less than $10,000 per year for each of the more than 100 organizations that SFW supports, but Juergen Griesbeck, the CEO of SFW, stated:

This is the first step of a giant global endeavour. Imagine the entire industry uniting in the name of social change. Together we can usher in a new era for football and forge a deeper sense of purpose at the heart of the game.

Essentially then, SFW is advocating for a percentage of all revenue in the football industry be redistributed to organizations that are “changing the world through football”. The timing of this announcement coincided with the Brazilian player Neymar completing the most expensive transfer to date from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for $263 million. In an article that Griesbeck wrote for the World Economic Forum, he asks us to “imagine, for a moment, a world in which a portion of the money from Neymar Jr’s record-breaking deal is injected into something of deeper value to football fans and their communities.” To a degree, this already happens, as Barcelona FC presumably pays taxes within Spain, and Neymar, or more likely PSG, will have to pay tax on his income in France. These taxes, both personal and corporate, come out to substantially more than one percent. However, there are a number of cases of clubs, players, and managers engaging in tax fraud, evasion, and exploiting loopholes to pay less tax. Mata’s own club, Manchester United, has gone from a club formed by local railway workers to a global organization registered in the Cayman Islands that pays out millions of dollars in dividends to its American owners and other shareholders.

Additionally, Mata’s own manager at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho, is being sued by Spanish authorities for defrauding the government of taxes during his time at Real Madrid, while Mata’s former teammate, Wayne Rooney, has been highlighted as one of many Premier League stars that have taken advantage of tax loopholes. One could argue, then, that Mata and SFW should perhaps develop a campaign to try and convince football players and clubs to pay the taxes they are obliged to pay. While taxes are not the major concern we should have about the #Commongoal campaign, it does highlight a more important issue. Mata and SFW are part of an industry with serious systemic problems, and the #Commongoal campaign does nothing to engage with these issues.

Yes, Mata and SFW are raising money for organizations working around the world, and these efforts should be applauded. It is rare for athletes to use their platform to recognize and critique the obscene money that floats around professional sport – Mata does this and seems genuinely interested in trying to do something that addresses this issue. However, the uncritical way in which the announcement of #Commongoal is being applauded by the sporting (social)media requires interrogation. Seeing people congratulate Mata for his one percent contribution to charity is reminiscent of what French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote about the iconography of charity in Mythologies: We should be “worried about a society which consumes with such avidity the display of charity that it forgets to ask itself questions about its consequences, its uses and its limits.” He further argues that this provides an “alibi which a sizeable part of the nation uses in order, once more, to substitute with impunity the signs of charity for the reality of justice.”

Perhaps most troubling in this case is the fact that the #Commongoal initiative was framed by language relating to changing the football industry and changing the world. However, announcements about #Commongoal have made little if any mention of FIFA, the world’s football governing body—also an organization famous for tax avoidance—or SFW’s connections to FIFA. Based on FIFA’s dubious reputation, it is understandable that an organization like SFW would not want to appear to associate with them for the purposes of changing the football industry and the world. But FIFA is indeed a partner of SFW.

What is more surprising is that FIFA previously promised to donate 0.7% of its revenues to “football-for-development” activities, which is bizarrely based on the target that a number of countries set for themselves with regard to foreign aid/assistance. Based on its financial reports, FIFA has in fact gone slightly above this commitment by spending $40 million on its Football for Hope (FFH) Movement from 2011–2014 and $27 million from 2015–2017. In this way, it seems odd that SFW would not mention FIFA as already essentially contributing to a different version of the #Commongoal fund. If they are talking about redirecting one percent of football revenue, then FIFA seems to be doing this already.

Importantly, almost all of the organizations that are part of FIFA’s FFH Movement are also part of SFW’s network. So, the organizations that are benefiting from FIFA’s roughly $10 million per year will also benefit from the newly established #Commongoal fund. I have had the fortune of meeting and speaking with a number of people and organizations that are connected to the FFH Movement, and while I respect the work they do, I continue to come back to Barthes’ warnings about a society that so avidly consumes the iconography of charity that it is not willing to question its uses and consequences. In this regard, the consequences of SFW partnering with FIFA have been ignored.

SFW has been in partnership with FIFA since 2005, a timeframe during which the men’s World Cup has been held in Germany, South Africa and Brazil and was awarded to Russia and Qatar. In each of these locations there has been myriad examples of displacements, labor and human rights abuses, financial corruption, as well as increased surveillance and policing of citizens. In many ways FIFA is responsible for, or contributes to, many of the issues that SFW organizations attempt to address through their programming, yet SFW has rarely if ever come out publically against FIFA’s practices that contribute to these issues. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek refers to this kind of philanthropy as fixing with the left hand what you do with the right hand.

Of course, arguments can be made in favor of seeking change from the inside, yet we should think critically about the degree to which SFW can change the football industry and the world while partnering with an organization like FIFA. In this case, the #Commongoal initiative may be a largely superficial attempt at putting a beautiful face on an increasingly ugly game.

Shawn Forde is a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on how various groups mobilize sport for the purposes of social change. He has published articles in the Sociology of Sport Journal, the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Qualitative Research in Sport Exercise and Health, Sport in Society, and Sport Management Review. You can find him on Twitter @shawnforde.