When UEFA announced their Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, I was happy but doubtful they would be implemented. With Manchester City refusing to accept their sanctions this week, the issue has come to its inevitable head and lovers of the game like me wait with baited breath to see what happens next. Will UEFA be able to force clubs like Manchester City to comply with FFP or will the lawyers get to tear it up in the courts? The future of the game's soul is at stake.
Football is a sport, a game, a competition. It's 11 men playing 11 men in a contest of skill, guile, tactics, mentality, guts, athelticism, passion and willpower. It's the greatest game on earth and is loved accordingly.
I detest it when I hear people tell me that football is a business. Like anything that is popular, it can be monetised with great success. That does not mean that it becomes a business. The business should always piggyback on the sport, not the other way around.
I'm not being naive, we'll always have money men in sport and to an extent they are necessary. What he have seen in football is that these men cannot be trusted to self-regulate and the situation has gotten out of hand. Huge clubs like Glasgow Rangers, Leeds United, Valencia, Liverpool, Manchester United amongst others are either facing or have recently faced huge financial trouble. It is an insane situation and as the governming body of European Football, it is UEFA's job to change things and ensure the health of the sport for the sake of the fans.
Why is FFP a good idea?
In short, FFP means that clubs have to be run within their means. It would seem spectacularly obvious that this is a good idea that would lead to a healthier sport and a fairer competition.
According to UEFA President Michel Platini, 50% of clubs are losing money each year. When FFP was being drawn up in 2009, UEFA said that 20% clubs were in actual financial peril. Many of these clubs are playing in leagues that turn over large sums of money. It is madness that the game is in such a sorry state financially.
Why does it happen? Because club owners know that their is a correlation between the money a club spends on wages and its success on the field. It sounds obvious, of course, but the correlation is more direct that you might expect. This means that owners downplay the risks of big spending, dangerously mistaking gambling for investment. Over time, the prevalence of this attitude has inflated wages and transfer fees to a point that the game cannot sustain.
In England, we saw all too recently one of the great clubs destroy itself with this thinking. In 2001 Leeds United were in the Champions League Semi-Final playing Valencia. In 2004 they were relegated to the Championship. Incidently, Valencia have also suffered from debt problems, being forced to sell the likes of David Villa, Juan Mata and David Silva. Leeds United's problems came from a gamble that the clubs success could pay for its loans. When the success dipped, the club imploded.
Glasgow Rangers are another club that spring to mind. A great institution of fooball ravaged to the point of near-oblivion by financial mismanagement.
It has to stop.
So why go after the rich clubs?
The logic is very simple. The more billionaire-backed clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain spend on players and their wages, the more normally-aspirated clubs will act irresponsibly to compete.
One of FFP's stated aims is to create a level playing field. If the regulations took the wealth of the club's owners into account then nobody could compete on the level of these clubs. That is not a level playing field, and that is not sport. Michel Platini calls it 'financial doping.' I have to say I find that pithy and apt.
Why is Manchester City being singled out?
They're not. The rules are the same for City as they are for every other club wanting to compete in UEFA competitions. They have had years to comply and have clearly failed to do so. Now that they haven't been able to pull the wool over UEFA's eyes and are discovering that UEFA is willing to back FFP, they are falling back on a questionable moral argument that the owners are being punished for their benevolence to the club.
What is beginning to annoy me about Manchester City is the disingenousness and muddying of the waters to justify their position. They cite their investment in the local area. They have expanded the stadium and set about the construction of phenomenal youth facilities. There is no doubt that the owners are good for the club and the area. That is not the point.
They know that the more noble areas of their investment are not held against them by FFP. It is not relavent to the discussion. They mention it because it makes UEFA look unreasonable. Sadly, some are buying it. They can invest all they like – spend billions and billions if they want – on youth facitilities and it will not be punished.
Nobody begrudges new owners investing in clubs. It's a great thing and to be encouraged but it must be done fairly. Huge investment in youth facilities is fantastic. Expanding the stadium lets more fans see the games. Building the brand of the club adds to the richness of the sport. These are all great things and nobody is criticising City for any of it.
FFP is not about stopping investment in clubs, it's about stopping the use of money as a sporting advantage, thereby removing a dangerous incentive to run clubs irresponsibly in order to compete. That means reigning in the billionaires as much as the irresponsible. It's not rocket science.
What about Manchester United?
Another handful of mud City's owners are throwing at FFP is that it does not punish the incredible situation Manchester United find themselves in. I agree with them wholeheartedly that UEFA ought to do something about clubs being taken over in such a way, but that is a separate argument and I am not sure what UEFA can do in that instance.
The Glazers have effectively made Manchester United buy itself on their behalf. It's truly remarkable what they have done there and I can only imagine how angry the club's fans feel about it. However, as far as FFP is concerned, they haven't gained any competitive advantage – quite the opposite.
Manchester United's problems with its owners do not appear on Manchester City's balance sheet.
A cartel of elite clubs
I've heard some journalists and fans accuse the traditionalists of simply wanting to support a status quo where the traditionally successful clubs continue to dominate. This is nonsense on two levels.
Firstly, it's short-sighted. The big clubs wax and wane over the decades. Mancester United's dominance over the past 20 years was preceded by a fallow 26 years. Liverpool haven't won a title since 1990, Arsenal a trophy since 2005. A cartel of the elite doesn't exist. The English game and UEFA competitions have never been sown up by a small group of clubs for any length of time.
Secondly, why would replacing such a group of elite clubs with another group of mega-rich clubs be any better? If the only clubs in contention for silverware were those owned by billionaires, would the game be better for it?
UEFA has it right for once
UEFA had two choices on how to deal with the financial situation of the game. It could crackdown on clubs losing money or it could make all clubs live within their means regardless of the wealth of their owners. Doing neither was not an option.
Do we really want a sport where the fans have to cross their fingers and hope a billionaire decides to choose their club as his plaything in order to dream of success?
It is no surprise to anyone that turkies don't like Christmas. Of course Manchester City fans are loving their newfound success and it's hard to begrudge them it, but they should also remember that Manchester City was itself in financial trouble before the new money came in and relieved them of Thaksin Shinawatra.
It's easy for fans to talk of club rivalries and accusations of sour grapes or jealousy but FFP is good for the game and I hope UEFA can make it stick. If they do, it will improve football in Europe immeasurably. If they fail, it could be a long time before another serious attempt to heal the game can be made. The stakes are high.
…but I digress.