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Football's most influential ultimately get their power from fans

Influence and power derive from money and authority. Football is not that different from real life. So it should not be particularly surprising that so many of the folks on ESPN FC's Top 50 Most Influential List are linked to one or the other or, perhaps most often, both.

On the money side, some are suppliers, either injecting their own funds or acting as gatekeepers for other people's cash. Others are redistributors: They decide which way it should flow and how quickly to keep the giant machine of global football functioning efficiently.

And on the authority side you have folks who are more or less elected to serve their constituents and their interests. What they lack in money they make up for in their ability to either make rules and set agendas or corral their base.

That's the bulk of influencers. There are also the rare ones who wield power through moral suasion, through their words and opinions. They're the Fourth Estate and they're not just members of the media, but folks who form opinions and whose views carry weight.

Two factors have perhaps changed the power landscape -- and those who occupy any influential list -- over the past decade.

The first is the sheer commercial growth of the sport, particularly at the top end, coupled with changes in the way we make our entertainment choices. Advertisers need to put their ads somewhere and, with the growth of on-demand and online options, folks increasingly skip through commercials.

With live sports you can't do that. Few types of programming guarantee a captive audience the way football does, while also providing the opportunity for sponsorship and advertising. Certainly a movie that gets DVR'd or "House of Cards" on Netflix won't allow you to do that.

The other factor is globalization, which has meant that audiences multiply exponentially. Domestic leagues find themselves jockeying for interest with the Premier League, Champions League, La Liga and others. The interest isn't equally spread out, either: It gravitates disproportionately to the super clubs and, with it, the commercial revenues.

That's why clubs now have a seat at the big boys' table with FIFA and UEFA: the top-down approach was becoming unsustainable, the potential threat of a massive breakaway loomed and as a result there are many more stakeholders in the tent.

One side effect is that ideas spread quickly. Differences in style and culture between nations erode rapidly, the lines and philosophies become blurred. Know-how -- whether in training techniques, tactical preparation or more prosaically, maximizing stadium revenues or commercial opportunities -- is shared and copied. Those who have ideas worth copying quickly become immensely influential.

Power can be exercised horizontally, influencing many people across the world in incremental amounts, or vertically, influencing a single set of stakeholders to a great degree. In today's football world, "vertical influencers" are seeing their power eroded precisely because of how interconnected the game is, particularly at the higher echelons.

Ultimately, power derives from you, the fans. It's a business and you're the customers. But that's where football differs from other forms of music and entertainment. You may have adored "Breaking Bad," but once it ended, that was it. If Kanye West stops making music, you'll simply listen to his old stuff over and over again. TV and music will need to find new ways of hooking you and keeping you plugged in.

But football? You're hooked for life. The actors change but the colors don't, and that's what matters. And if the footballing equivalent of Kanye -- say, Lionel Messi -- hangs up his boots, it's not as though you'll retreat to watching old Messi highlight compilations. You'll still be there. Still watching. And still giving power and influence to the people on ESPN FC's list. Because you care. And you wouldn't have it any other way.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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