Messi, Suarez and Neymar do more for the world's economy than any banker

And if you think the beautiful game is big now, just wait until the sleeping giants awake

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The beautiful game is also the biggest game. But notwithstanding the wall-to-wall coverage, even football is not that big an industry in global terms – leading to the tantalising possibility that the world is still in the early stages of the football revolution. If you think the World Cup is big, wait a decade and it will be much bigger.

For many people, it might be almost sacrilegious to talk of football in purely financial terms. But for those us more interested in watching the world economy than watching sport, what is happening right now is a fascinating story.

Some numbers. According to a study by management consultants A T Kearney, football is the biggest sport with about 43 per cent of the world market. Nothing else is anywhere near. American football and baseball have 13 and 12 per cent respectively, Formula One and basketball 7 and 6 per cent. Hockey, tennis and golf are all less than 5 per cent. Cricket and rugby barely register.

Revenue for actual sporting events, from ticketing, media and marketing, is about $80bn (£47bn), but if you take the total sports market, counting everything from building stadiums to sports clothing, that comes in at about $600bn. That is a huge number, bigger by far than the film industry at about $100bn, and nearly 1 per cent of global GDP, which is $70,000bn.

The extraordinary achievement of football is to reach this global stature while being relatively small in the world's three largest economies, the United States, China and Japan – and barely registering in what will soon become the world's most populous nation, India. It is, of course, huge in Europe, but Europe is and will remain a slow-growing region. It is huge and rather wonderful in Latin America. (Brazil and Argentina are number one and two favourites in a survey of economists carried out by Bloomberg.) But Latin America is a relatively small part of the world economy. To get to where it has in global market share, football has played a geographically weak hand stunningly well.

That leads to a string of questions that are easier to pose than to answer. The obvious one is: can football crack the US, Chinese and Indian markets? Football may be the nearest thing there is to a global sport, but it won't continue to be if it cannot make headway in what will, in another 20 years, be the three biggest economies.

People will have their own views on the impact of David Beckham in the US, but as an outsider I find it pretty impressive. But people are slow adopters of a "new" sport – much slower than they are of new products. So the parallel of the foreign invasion of the US car market over the past 30 years does not really hold. Football is growing faster worldwide than any of the US domestic sports (about 8 per cent a year vs 6 per cent for American football and 5 per cent for baseball) but the tipping point in North America still feels some way off.

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For China, I suspect the advance of football will be top-down. If this is seen by the authorities as a way of channelling energy – and dissent – then what is latently big could become huge. At the moment there seems to be so much that is wrong with Chinese football, starting with match-rigging, that changing both the image and the practice of the sport will take a generation. But as the rest of the world ponders quite how a massively competitive country can manage to be so bad at this particular aspect of global endeavour, I suggest that it would be unwise to assume that China will be unable to lift its game.

If it does, expect India to follow, but maybe by a quite different route. It will be bottom-up. Apparently India (population 1.29 billion) ranks alongside Liechtenstein (population 37,000) in the Fifa rankings. It is, as Sepp Blatter once said, a sleeping giant. The point about football in India is that, insofar as it exists, it is a game of the poor. So if football could become a path to wealth for poor boys, as it is in Brazil, then it could take off. But while there are stirrings of movement – an equivalent of the Premier League and the usual clutch of British and European coaches – not a lot is happening yet. The questions are easy, the answers impossible.

Does any of this matter? I suggest it does. We are moving to a multi-polar world. The dominance of the West is waning. Managing a world where power is much more diffuse requires common cultural themes that cross national boundaries as well as common-sense leadership. Football is our best shot. Of course, the fact that people can play games against each other does not stop conflict. That football match on Christmas Eve 1914 in no-man's-land between German and British troops did not stop the resumption of the fighting. But you see the point.

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