Football's Pepe problem

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game.

        The financial firepower of modern football was front and centre this weekend. We had the Champions League final, the pinnacle of the European club game, as well as a selection of playoff finals at Wembley with massive stakes (including the infamous 'richest game in the world' - the Championship play-off final). But even as the game flexed its financial muscles, the Champions League final revealed that football still has a serious problem holding back its complete global domination.

The Madrid derby/Champions League final was a fine game if not a brilliant one. Tense if not spectacular. But there was plenty of emotion, and it ticked several of the boxes of a European final. However, what stuck out most from the game for me and I’m sure many fans wasn’t a footballing performance, but the theatrical one from Pepe. It was a display that could have set back the growth of the game for years to come.

As Pepe was rolling around in a despicable display of play acting, the sheer distain on the face of referee Mark Clattenburg summed up the general sentiment of football fans. These ludicrous amateur dramatics are appreciated by no-one, and yet while the Portuguese defender is one of the worst offenders, he is by no means the only one. The Spanish league has a reputation as being the home of diving, and that may be the case, but equally pretty much every Premier League game has at least one example of a player throwing themselves to the ground in search of a penalty. It’s behaviour that it is pretty universally agreed has no place in the game, and yet continues to be common practice, and here lies the chink in the armour of modern football.

North America is widely considered the final unconquered territory for football’s global domination. It is here that the diving epidemic has potentially the biggest negative impact. The Champions League was widely covered in the US, so the market was fully exposed to Pepe and his antics. A sporting culture raised on the violence of the NFL and gentility of Baseball, ‘flopping’ (as American’s call diving), has always been a cause of great derision. The tiny amount they get in the NBA is roundly criticised and when soccer appears in US pop culture, diving is always referenced and derided, just look at this clip from Simpsons for a prime example.

While this remains a perception about football, the sport will always struggle to make the final leap to being a truly mainstream sport in the states. So when Pepe puts on a painful performance in one of the most watched matches of the year, it has genuine consequences for the sport. Until football can solve its Pepe problem, football will continue to lag behind in the market it so wants to conquer.

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search