Are the high salaries of footballers like Luis Suárez justified?
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who you know as Pelé, had the nickname ‘O Rei do Futebol’. He will forever be associated with one particular piece of skill at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. From the halfway line, the Brazilian fired the ball over the Czech keeper, who was way off his line and turned to see the ball dip just in time. Nothing like it had ever been seen before during a World Cup match. Unfortunately I was not allowed to watch it on TV as a child in 1970 because the match was broadcast late at night. So I was very pleased when footage from the game was recently shown on TV. And it was worth watching. The keeper was not even that far out of his goal, and the trajectory of the ball was even more impressive than I had imagined. Pelé even had a surprise in store for me: the ball went just wide.
These days you see the occasional lob like Pelé’s, and now and then one even goes in. In 2014, Wayne Rooney scored a fantastic goal like that against West Ham United. Does that make him better than ‘O Rei do Futebol’? Sadly, no. What made Pelé’s lob so special was that he was the first who dared to try a lob in an important match. It may well be that the Pelé of old would have struggled in today’s football. Today’s players are physically and tactically stronger. No matter. Pelé gave people pleasure because he was better than his contemporaries.
What would have happened if the hundred best players of all time had never been born? Other players would have taken their places as superstars. Someone else would have been the first to lob the keeper from the halfway line. Of course we would have had to do without a few delightful pieces of skill, such as Robin Van Persie’s beautiful header against Spain during the present World Cup. Still, the pleasure had by all the fans put together would not have been much less as a result. Because football’s main attraction is the excitement and the contest against the opposition.
What does this mean for the debate about players’ wages? Are Messi’s millions justified because he entertains so many people and because, partly as a result, people are prepared to pay so much to watch Barcelona on TV and buy club merchandise? From the individual perspectives of Barcelona and Messi, there is something to be said for that view. But you can also take a broader view. Without Messi, someone else would be the world’s best payer, and that player would also be much loved. The ultimate reason fans spend a lot of money on football is that the sport is so popular. And that is largely due to the volunteers, supporters and rather poorly paid players of a previous era who made football what it is today.
So in my opinion, the salaries of present-day players are too high. It’s not the stars that make football. It’s football that makes the stars.
Without Luis Suárez, Liverpool would not have finished second last season. They might not even have qualified for the lucrative Champions League; Everton could have qualified instead. So from Liverpool’s perspective, it is quite justified that Suárez earns many millions a year. And for the fans of the club, Suárez is really worth his salary as he has given them so much joy. Moreover, he did a lot to brighten up the lives of his fellow countrymen by helping Uruguay beat England last week. No-one in Uruguay will be begrudging him his salary now. But to the world as a whole, his value is far more limited. For instance, Uruguay’s joy after the two Suárez goals stands in contrast to the pain of the losing country – and Suárez is responsible for that too. Perhaps all the suffering he has caused should be docked from his wages …
Dutchman Tsjalle van der Burg is an economist and Robin Van Persie fan