JUNE 3, 2002

Soccer and motor racing

You would have to be something of a hermit to have missed the fact that the World Cup soccer competition has recently begin in Japan and South Korea.

YOU would have to be something of a hermit to have missed the fact that the World Cup soccer competition has recently begin in Japan and South Korea. Already there have been upsets with the previous World Champions, France, having been beaten by Senegal. It is an amusing aside that in much the same way as Ferrari has become a very "English" team in recent years, Senegal actually has more players who play in French club football than the French national team can claim.

FIFA, the world's football federation, says that 33.4bn watched the 1998 World Cup. This figure is startling in that it is the equivalent of five times the population of the world but such is the way that TV viewing figures are calculated.

In fact it is not that impressive because Formula 1 claims around 53bn spectators a year - and in 1999 that figure went up to nearly 58bn. Motor racing benefits in this respect because there is a Grand Prix every two weeks from March to October every year. In other words it is a much better investment for sponsors than an involvement in the World Cup.

Except that there are not 53 billion people in the world and a large percentage of the six and a half billion that there are like football. It is a game that can be played by everyone, even in the shanty towns of Africa and South America. You do not need to be rich to play football. It has the added value that, unlike motor racing, it is a game between nations, rather than between teams and so there is the opportunity for people to cheer their own nation. One only has to have seen the reaction in Senegal to the victory over France to see this kind of nationalism. If you look back to 1998 it is reckoned that half a million took to the streets in Paris on the night France won the Cup.

Like motor racing, soccer is biggest in the Europe and Latin America although the World Cup competition now taking place has a wider spread of teams than ever before. Soccer is growing but then so too is motor racing. More and more there are racing facilities being developed in Asia. The list of permanent racing circuits is growing all the time, as is the list of countries of dreaming of holding a Grand Prix, often as a way to solve specific local problems. Malaysia wanted a race to show the world's its technological capabilities; Beirut wants one so it can cast off the image of being a war-torn city in ruins. In some respects motor racing is much better organized than football with the FIA being a rather more neat and tidy organization than FIFA, which has been embroiled in a huge fight over corruption and mismanagement in recent months.

And, both sports currently face big challenges. Football is suffering from the recession to a far greater extent than is the case with motor racing. Even some of the biggest clubs are in trouble and those that are publicly listed have been losing value dramatically as their share prices have tumbled. Pay scales are going to be cut back - just as they will be cut back in F1 in the months ahead.

Right now, soccer is in the spotlight and motor racing has to live for a while in the shadows. This is no bad thing and an opportunity for the sport to do some of its dirty washing (like renegotiating the Concorde Agreement) while the world is looking the other way.