France and England have a complex relationship. Both are considerably more like each other than either would like to admit and, even after thirty-five years of European integration, any attempts by the French to dictate European political policy are likely to be greeted with honks of derision in the British press. This is exactly what has happened with (what now seems likely to be) a failed attempted by EU sports ministers to inject a little control and regulation into the way that European football legislates itself. As France began its presidency of the EU, French ministers called for a Europe-wide regulator of football finances. They would also like to see a ban on the transfer of players under the age of eighteen, to try and counter a trade in young African players which they regard as bordering on child employment trafficking.
In France, an organisation called La Direction Nationale de Contrôle de Gestion (DNCG) oversees the financial running of football clubs. It places strict rules on the ability of French clubs to get into debt. French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his ministers are of the opinion that clubs getting massively into debt in order to sustain massive wage bills is a form of cheating, and UEFA’s Michel Platini is inclined to agree, although he has stopped short of offering support for the French plans to introduce a version of DNCG to cover the whole of European football. As is always likely when discussing anything relating to Anglo-French relations, the debate has already been dragged into the gutter by sections of the British press, who are describing any attempt to regulate English football’s financial excesses with peculiarly aggressive attacks on France and the French in general. With depressing familiarity, any attempt at rational debate on the subject is being drowned out by the foghorn sound of the media getting itself wound up over those dastardly French:
“They will be suckered into a Gallic plan to ruin English football”
“Good news – the French are about to get a bit of a kicking in international sport”
These phrases didn’t come from the remote corners of the blogosphere or the BBC’s notorious “Have Your Say” website (which seems to attract every right-wing, reactionary loony in the world), but from articles written for The Times and Sky Sports. Why bother trying to engage with the notion that perhaps the financial activities of English football clubs is immoral when you can just stick the boot into the French instead, after all. Martin Samuel of The Times should hang his head in shame over this heap of nonsense, in which he tries to prove a point about the financing of football transfers using the transfer of Eric Cantona to Montpellier twenty years ago as an example and asks the deliberately provocative question of “Do you want English football to be controlled from Europe?”, when no such proposal has been put forward in the first place, whilst somehow managing to miss addressing the matter that it is not only immoral but also irresponsible for clubs to load themselves with so much debt. For Samuel, it seems to be considerably easier to disregard this sort of difficult question and mask it with thinkly veiled implications that the French are somehow “jealous” of English success in the Champions League. He even manages to say that it is somehow okay for English clubs to run up masses of debt because they own their own grounds, as if they can just up and sell their stadium if things get too bad.
The creation of a Europe-wide DNCG is almost certainly not going to happen (Michel Platini has not thus far lent his support to the plans, doubtlessly being fearful of ceding control from UEFA to governmental organisations), but English football needs to look long and hard in the mirror before it starts criticising anyone over financial management. As things stand, the EU has no power to control sport, and is limited only to controlling employment and company law, but it is the application of company law in English football that urgently needs to be reviewed. The Premier League clubs between them owe over £2bn, and this figure is rising year on year. It is a small miracle that no English league clubs have gone to the wall in over fifteen years, but many have sailed alarmingly close to the wind. A large part of the problem seems to be the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude towards anything outside of the Premier League itself. For clubs that get into financial trouble, existing problems start to accelerate with relegation from the Premier League itself – Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town are all former Premier League clubs that have come close to complete collapse after losing their place in the top division.
One would imagine that the financial travails of the last few months or so might have taught us a thing or two about the dangers of unchecked borrowing and allowing the “market” to dictate the financial rules under which we live, but football seems to be intent on continuing to march down its chosen path, with its fingers in its ears, singing loudly to blot out any inconvenient truths that it needs to hear. The Premier League is thrilled to be managing to shield itself from the worst effects of the global financial downturn through managing to sell itself as the newest billionaire plaything, for the time being. Whether this is a desirable state of affairs is something that we probably won’t know until it’s too late. In the meantime, however, the timebomb continues to tick, and with club debts continuing to spiral out of all control, the only thing that we can be certain of is that those that have made the most or had the most fun from it all will be nowhere near it when the bomb goes off.