Will the UEFA fair-play regulations do what they are supposed to - clean up the financial side of football?
On the face of it to most true football fans the UEFA fair-play regulations are a step in the right direction, something has to be done to safeguard the future of football clubs around Europe and to stop teams being able to buy titles. By buy titles I don't mean in the same way that Marseille bought the 1992/93 French championship but instead the way that in the past ten or so years clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, PSG and Malaga have lured stars from other clubs with obscene wage offers and astonishing transfer fees to rival clubs. Going back a few years the idea of Arsenal selling the likes of Gael Clichy and Kolo Toure to Manchester City, division rivals would be unimaginable, the idea of European heavyweight AC Milan selling star players Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to anybody inconsiderable. That changed when billionaire's like Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Qatar Investment Authority became interested in a new way of spending the billions of pounds they have acquired over the years: trophies.
With the rich history football has it was inevitable that with such weak UEFA control over what constitutes a fair owner (if you have the money to run the club you would be considered right and proper) it is easy to see why people like Roman Abramovich could see the appeal of owning a large football club. They have had so much success in the business world that they no longer need to make money, instead they need a new hunger, a new challenge: winning championships. With Abramovich came names like Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu, Arjen Robben and Claude Makelele, in his first year in charge of the club over £150 Million was spent on new signings. At the time many fans saw this as a good thing for the premier league, the highest quality players were entering it and so the standard would increase, on reflection I don't think the fans share the same opinion now. Chelsea effectively destroyed the transfer market. The same year Abramovich's billions entered the premier league so did a highly rated young attacker viewed by many as a world star of the future, his name was Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo cost Manchester United around £12 Million, Chelsea played £5 Million more for that for Damien Duff, a player who would go on to be one of many expensive Chelsea flops.
While Abramovich set a precedent Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City took it to a whole new level. When Robinho, once labelled the next Pele and the next major world star left Real Madrid for Manchester City (who had finished 9th in the league the previous season) on the final day of the transfer window preceding the 2008/09 Premier League season in a £32.5 Million deal I knew football had gone mad. To pick two examples since the takeover Nigel De Jong and Emmanuel Adebayor cost City a combined total of almost to £43M, these same players left the club for a combined total of £10M a loss of a figure which would once be considered staggering - £33M, nowadays gives this a second thought.
Thankfully UEFA have realised that something must be done. This week they withheld payments from twenty-three clubs including Athletico Madrid, Sporting Lisbon, Fenerbahçe and Malaga for failing to pay certain bills. Radamel Falcao cost Athletico Madrid €47 Million, is it really any surprise they are now struggling to pay expenses?
The idea is for clubs to live within their means, in simple terms this means clubs will not be able to spend any more money than they bring in. The likes of Dortmund already obey these rules but for clubs like PSG and Manchester City the quest to find a way around these rules is on. Many have voiced fears of clubs simply being sponsored by their own owners in extremely over-priced deals, this would mean officially they have that money coming in from sponsors and so can spend it on massive wage bills. Most fans believe this shouldn't happen - it is clearly a exploitation of the system, some call for clubs to no longer be sponsored by their owners, a simple way around this potential loophole in the eyes of many. The problem with this would be, however, that clubs like Anzhi Makhachkala and Paris Saint-Germain would simply become bankrupt - they are contractually obliged to pay their players certain amounts of money and they simply could not cancel the contract (something Portsmouth found out recently) when the money begins to dry up.
So UEFA have a problem. Do they investigate sponsorship deals with billionaire clubs and introduce a ban on deals which see companies owned by or linked with a clubs owner paying obscene amounts of money to sponsor shirts or stadiums of the clubs in question or do they do what many predict they will and turn a blind eye to the goings on claiming they have done a good job in preserving the future of football? One way or another football finances must change, even with the modern day lucrative TV deals in action the amounts of money Manchester City, Anzhi Makhachkala, Malaga, PSG, Zenit and others pay players is unmanageable and unsustainable.
No easy answer exists. If I was in a position of power within UEFA and had the job of cleaning up the mess that is the modern day transfer market and modern day wage bills of clubs I would do something somewhat extreme, the longest contract a player can have from this moment would be 3-years, deals like Kompany's much publicised six-year contract at Manchester City would automatically be lowered to three years, each year clubs must show that they are making significant strides towards a breakeven without massive sponsorship deals from owners. At the end of the three years all clubs would have to be operating at breakeven or better, failure to do so would see a three year ban from European competitions and relegation from whichever league they are in. Players would be forced to accept lower wages as no clubs could offer the hundreds of thousands some reportedly earn per week. Gradually the sport would become more and more like it used to be, transfer fees would go down and the market would re-establish itself with something like a ten million fee being considered a very large deal. The game would be more fair and no longer could championships be bought by a man who wants a new pass time to entertain his ego. None of this will happen, of course - the thing most likely to happen in my eyes is UEFA insisting a sponsorship deal is a sponsorship deal and deals like the one Manchester City have with Etihad will be allowed to go on despite it being several times higher than any other company without links to the owner would consider paying to sponsor a football team.
This debate rages on. Good luck UEFA, if you truly want to make football fair again you have a big job ahead of you.