WHAT does £1.2 billion buy you these days? British Steel for a start (that’s the amount Chinese firm Jingye have agreed to inject into the ailing business), maybe five episodes of Disney+’s new Marvel TV shows, or a government spending plan for Scotland as promised by the Chancellor Sajid Javid in the last budget.

Oh yes, and it will also just about get you the exclusive broadcast rights to the Champions League. BT has recently paid £1.2bn to retain the Champions League games until 2024. It’s a measure of the worth of the sport these days.

The game has never been more popular.

“In the last two decades it has finally conquered the sporting cultures of the world’s three most populous countries,” author and academic David Goldblatt says. “China, where football is now the No.1 sport and its development is an official marker of social progress; India, where the game is just beginning to challenge the long hegemony of cricket, and the United States, where it has become the game of choice for the urban youth, the rising Latino population and, of course, amongst women.”

Goldblatt has been measuring the sport’s growth for some time now. His latest book, The Age of Football, is a global survey of football. It is eye-opening, at times sobering. Talk to him and it is clear Goldblatt (a Spurs fan) clearly loves the game. But in The Age of Football he wants to explore the global consequences of its popularity.

Because these days the people’s game belongs to the rich and powerful. It’s a plaything for oligarchs and politicians from Silvio Berlusconi to Viktor Orban, the authoritarian Hungarian President who built a stadium in his home village with the superstructure constructed from mahogany. It is also a sport where political and social tensions – from the Arab Spring to narco economics – are played out.

Goldblatt has travelled the world to take the temperature of the game. Reading his account of the state of things, it can feel like the game is running a fever. Football is home to unimaginable wealth, hideous corruption and failing football clubs.

And yet still we watch.

Here, Goldblatt talks to Herald on Sunday Sport about the contemporary state of the game and his hopes and fears for the future...

Teddy Jamieson In The Age of Football, you suggest that the 1986 World Cup final in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City was the last before commerce truly took over football. What was different then and what has changed since?

David Goldblatt On the one hand, the beginnings of today’s hyper-commercialisation can be seen at the 1986 World Cup. The tournament was sponsored by many multinational corporations and the television feed was live, global and in colour. On the other hand, if you look at the crowd at the final you will not see a single replica shirt and there are very few VIP boxes. In fact, the stadium is virtually unchanged from the time in 1970 when it hosted its first World Cup final.

However, what separates that moment from our own is the behaviour of the crowd and the security forces in the stadium on the final whistle. The 1986 World Cup final was the last to experience a benign pitch invasion and for the security to be relaxed enough to allow it to happen, the last at which the people could symbolically take possession of the game and hold their heroes aloft.

TJ What is striking about The Age of Football is the game’s reach in contemporary affairs. For example, you explain the importance of football ultras during the Arab Spring.

DG In the years before the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egyptian football ultras were perhaps the last organised social group that the regime had not been able to close down and who on regular occasions would fight the security services in the stadiums and even the streets. When the occupation of Tahir Square began, many ultras made their way to the demonstration and, once there, the skills and camaraderie established in previous years were a vital component of the alliance fighting Mubarak’s thugs. In the years since they have been actively repressed by the military regime and again under the notionally civilian presidency of General Sisi.

TJ The human cost of the World Cup in 2022 has already been immense. Can you outline it for us?

DG In The Age of Football, I argue that, depending on how much extra time is played at the next World Cup and how many people die on construction sites in Qatar, by the time the tournament begins there will have been approximately one fatality for every minute played.

TJ Should we be thinking about a boycott then?

DG No, I don’t think we should be thinking about a boycott. First, because were we to do so we would be aligning ourselves with the boycott currently underway led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and then we enter a regional political quagmire. Second, because if we boycott Qatar then we’re looking at boycotting innumerable sports mega events whose hosts and labour laws are problematic, including the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

That is not to say that we should not be piling on as much political and moral pressure as we can, and there does seem to be a shift in Qatar and an attempt to reform the worst abuses of the Khalifa system [used to monitor migrant labourers heavily criticised by human rights groups]. That said, in football as we know, it is the hope that kills you.

TJ In South America you point out that the links between drugs and football stretch rather further than the odd failed urine test.

DG Over the last two decades, despite the relentless US-led war on drugs, the drugs trade has become even bigger more geographically dispersed and socially and economically powerful in Latin America. This touches on football in a number of ways. First, there is widespread money laundering through football clubs especially in Columbia, Mexico, and Central America.

Second, the Barra Bravas, the organised fan groups on the continent, have become involved in the trade, selling drugs inside the stadiums, and organising the movement of drugs to Europe and North America under the control of the big cartels. Consequently, the level of violence at Latin American football has significantly increased, and the number of homicides is simply extraordinary.

TJ Closer to home, do you think the recent UEFA sanctions placed on Rangers will force Scotland to begin to properly tackle sectarianism in the sport?

DG UEFA have handed out sanctions before and here we still are. Sectarianism is so deeply entrenched in Scottish society, not merely at Rangers Football Club, that it is going to take a much bigger programme of change inside and outside of football to really do anything about it.

TJ Of course, in Scotland football exists beside a huge, noisy neighbour. It can feel like the Scottish game is permanently stuck with its face looking through the glass at the party on the other side. But you suggest there remains a strong and rich football culture north of the border.

DG Cyprus aside, Scotland still has the highest rate of match attendance of any European nation, and it remains an essential element of the national conversation. The demotion of Rangers to the lower leagues for a few years revealed the strength of football beyond the Old Firm, while the presence of a Scottish team at the women’s World Cup attracted record audiences and interest. I wonder whether it would be more helpful in Scotland to look west towards Iceland rather than south towards England for footballing inspiration.

TJ And what does it say about the game in England when despite all the riches involved at the top level, clubs like Bury and Bolton Wanderers can find themselves in a precarious position?

DG It says the globalisation of football, as with the wider economy, produces a small number of winners and a large number of losers, and there are no mechanisms available to divert some of the gargantuan wealth in the game from the former to the latter. It also demonstrates that the capacity of public and voluntary agencies, from national government to football associations, to regulate the game has been greatly diminished.

TJ Where do you see the rays of hope in the game?

DG The last 20 years has seen the emergence of a fragile archipelago of resistance in global football. There have been widespread protests and experiments in anti-commercialism and social ownership, we have seen the emergence of anti-racism and anti-sexism campaigns, clubs and movements. There has been some progress in tracking down and punishing the corrupt and there is a global movement of football and social development projects.

Perhaps most important of all, after 150 years in which the game has been dominated by men and its image suffused with masculinity, the rise of women’s football and the football fever that is now beginning to grow amongst girls and women is the most welcome and powerful challenge to the ruling order.

The Age of Football, by David Goldblatt is published by Macmillan, priced £25