The UEFA Financial Fair Play proposals were scrutinised by the British press this week. Mark Murphy thumbs through it, takes a look at the press reaction to it and concludes that, unless there is a fundamental shift in the attitudes of football clubs or the loopholes are great enough for them to be able to squirm through, the game’s civil war – a war against regulation – may be just around the corner.
It wasn’t up on the Times newspaper’s web-site for very long. But UEFA’s “Club licensing discussion paper” (version 0.98) was the sort of information for which some may pay when the Times and Sunday Times start charging people to read their websites this summer. Not that the 62-page document would top any best-sellers list or win any literary prizes – certainly not the Booker Prize for Fiction, as I’m sure UEFA’s staunchest critics would have you believe. It’s a dry document, as these things always are. The minutia of financial regulation always is. But it is chock-full of common sense, practical solutions to practical current problems, mechanisms for preventing those problems in the future… in fact, all round, the “right thing.” “Something has to be done,” increasing numbers of English club owners have been saying. And it has been. For the moment, the proposals only apply within UEFA’s remit, specifically clubs’ participation in UEFA’s club competitions. So UEFA can only recommend “that each member association should consider… implementing” the proposals “at a national level.”
It says enough about modern football, however, that they will be met with a mixture of fear (what will happen to Chelsea if they have to be self-financing?) , loathing (that Platini, poking his nose into Premier League affairs) and xenophobia (that bloody Frenchman and all his European mates, poking their noses etc…). Even among the few privileged hacks at the Times who have had sight of the document, there is already division; a general view that the proposals are sensible, but a quite rabid denunciation from their ‘Industrial Editor’ Robert Lea, who wrote as if he’d picked up a draft of an old article which dropped from Martin Samuel’s papers as he upped-sticks to the Mail last year. That Lea has “had articles published in the Mail”, according to his journalisted.com profile, comes as no great surprise.
The more sensible questions and doubts, and there should obviously be many about what are still draft proposals, have come from fans. Amid the “what’s to stop owners sponsoring the shirts for £200m?” throwaways, there are some detailed concerns, most notably about how an imaginative but debt-laden project like Arsenal’s move to the Emirates would have fared under the proposals. The headline-grabber, as these proposals started to take shape last year, was how billionaire club benefactors would be barred from splashing their cash (or at least lending it). Yet, the proposals do not “prevent clubs benefiting from contributions from an owner/related party.”
They refer to the Abramovichs and, ulp, Fayeds of this world as “equity participants” and basically say they can give £millions to “their” clubs if they like, merely stating that said contributions are “encouraged…to be more directed towards spending on facilities and activities for the long-term benefit of the club”, i.e. causes more worthy than John Terry’s bank balance. “Sustainability” is a key phrase, to the delight, you would think, of a Premier League which has made great play of the importance of debt sustainability, almost to the point where “sustainability not size” has become a mantra.
The proposals are designed to “introduce more discipline and rationality in club finances.” In other words, you might think, “some” discipline and rationality. They also strive to “decrease pressure on players’ salaries and transfer fees (to) limit inflationary effect.” They “encourage” (not, you’ll notice, “oblige”) clubs “to compete with their revenues,” a statement of intent tailor-made for the “bleedin’ obvious” column, yet – football being as it is – a source of widespread question and controversy. And, in paragraphs which could have been written with Portsmouth in mind, much emphasis is placed upon there being “no overdue payables”, i.e. that a club isn’t behind in payments to “employees and social/tax authorities.”
Much of what is in the proposals already exists in the “UEFA Club Licensing Regulations (Edition 2008).” Many of the terms and definitions are lifted straight from this two-year-old document. Indeed Portsmouth themselves had to comply with them prior to their UEFA Cup sojourn two seasons ago. But they were, of course, paying people regularly on-time in those halcyon days. The document divides proposals into “existing club licensing criteria” and “new club monitoring arrangements”, although the latter are often referred to as “enhancements” of existing rules. And it outlines, in each case, in mind-exercising detail, the principles behind and purposes of each proposal.
The “new” proposals are the “break-even requirements” which have caught the eye of Chelsea and Manchester City fans in particular, of course. “Viability and sustainability” are the buzzwords here, alongside “image and credibility” to which UEFA attach an unsurprising interest. But “there is no obligation imposed on clubs to be profitable”, the proposals re-assure anxious Americans up and down the north-west coast. The requirement will “utilise information already prepared and disclosed by clubs in their audited annual financial statements”, which, although the proposals don’t list this as a principle or purpose, will “encourage” clubs to be a little more punctual in filing their accounts.
And, in an unwelcome but almost inevitable lurch into jargon, we are told that UEFA will take a multi-year, risk-based approach. But it won’t be a rigid one. As well as the concession over the implementation timetable already won by the European Clubs Association, there will be “acceptable deviations” from “break-even, ranging between a few million to quite a few million euros over time. The acceptability margins will be narrowed over time and the requirement even “allows for contributions from equity participants and related parties to cover a limited amount of deficit over time.” However, just in case readers had forgotten that debt is a four-letter word, the requirements “do not allow debt-funding to cover a deficit.”
So far, so refreshingly clear-cut. And, frankly, unarguable, if you regard the good of the European game as a whole as the important factor in any legislation. But inevitably, there are grey areas. And a lot of responsibility and decision-making will fall on the currently-existing “Club Financial Control Panel” and its new buddy, the “Organs for the Administration of Justice.” It probably took about six seconds for the latter title to be called “Orwellian” (although for some reason, it more brings to mind the Reeves and Mortimer’s “That’s Justice” sketches). And there isn’t even the excuse that it sounds nice in French. But the panel assesses the information on which judgements on clubs are made, while the OAJ determines the sanctions which, as has been long-trailed, can include a ban from UEFA club competitions – possibly shattering Wigan fans’ dreams of Inter Toto Cup glory if they don’t become less reliant on owner Dave Whelan’s largesse.
One complex judgment that such proposals would have had to address a few years back is Arsenal’s “debt.” Early opinions are divided as to whether they would have allowed Arsenal to fund the Emirates project on a debt-based model. They state: “If a club has finance costs directly attributable to the construction of tangible fixed assets (up to the time when the asset is ready for use), then such costs can be excluded from the calculation of relevant expenses,” relevant expenses being the comprehensively-defined ones used in the proposals’ key break-even calculations.
The doubt lies as to whether the money-making Highbury Square Development would fall under the definition “tangible fixed assets,” as they appear in Arsenal Holdings plc’s accounts as “current assets” not “tangible fixed” ones. This is an issue for, alarmingly for Arsenal fans, the “CFC” Panel to decide. The success or failure of the proposals may depend on how many such thorny issues a continent’s worth of audited annual statements of accounts will provide.
The “bureaucratic nightmare” angle has already appeared in print. The afore-mentioned Robert Lea’s vitriol not only got “Orwellian chilliness” into his first 100 words but managed to squeeze in “the sort of proscriptive Brussels-type over-regulation that typically gets up the pipe of every red-blooded Englishman.” Al Murray’s Pub Landlord with a dictionary. For Lea, the huge work that has gone into these proposals in recent months is all about banning English and Spanish clubs from “cranking up the bank borrowings” to become “far more successful than the French and German clubs.” This is, of course, a stunning admission that the successes of the Premier League and La Liga are all on tick. But you sense Lea hasn’t realised this. His complaints are that “Monsieur” Platini wants a “level playing field” which will lead to “eye-watering bureaucracy” and a “regulatory minefield.”
Clubs will worm their way round the regulations using expensive accountants and, “if the accountants fail, you can bet that a £10,000-per-hour m’learned friend will head to UEFA” to do the necessary. Quite how they will do this, when all UEFA’s financial judgments are based on audited accounts already approved by shareholders, isn’t made clear. But according to Lea, “going concern…is a notorious minefield in accounting theory,” as if an accountants concerns about whether a club is a “going concern” can be washed away by a court.
Lea’s Times colleague, chief sports correspondent Matt Dickinson is reading from the same Martin Samuel out-take. “There are already expectations of drawn-out legal battles,” he says, without evidence that those expectations are anybody’s other than his…or Lea’s. “Will sanctions be enforced at Manchester City?” he continues, treating the question as rhetorical. He says Fulham have been “propped up to moderate levels without distorting the competition”, about which their former Football League Divisions 3, 2 and 1 opponents will have a view. He cites Wigan as “undeserved victims”, without detailing how a ban from UEFA club competitions would victimise a club where 17th is an ambition. (Indeed, the disdain with which some Premier League clubs have treated the UEFA Cup/Europa League in recent seasons suggests that they wouldn’t feel victimised at all by being banned from it). And having cited almost no detail in making those points, he says the “devil will be in the detail” of the proposals. He gets all forensic on us, just a few paragraphs after noting that club owners would not want “to be told by Platini what they can…spend in the quest for success,” thereby demonstrating that he has completely misunderstood at least one detail…or, more likely, not read it.
Samuel, meanwhile, has kept his pen dry for now, possibly because he hasn’t read the proposals – although you fear that wouldn’t stop him commenting. But, with a default position of “Platini is a ******” it can only be a matter of time before he blames the Champions League for it, whatever “it” might be. He’d better be quick. The proposals’ first draft (version 0.93) came out in January and “UEFA is working towards the approval of the proposed club monitoring regulations at its (Executive Committee) meeting in May.” So, I hope all those English club owners who wanted “something” to be “done,” are happy. I’ll bet they’re not.