Was it just a matter of striking coincidence or was there something more in the timing of a story in the Daily Mail which stated confidently that “Rivals” are “ganging up to ban City” with a challenge over the blue half of Manchester’s attempts to comply with regulations meant to limit the extent to which sheikhs, oligarchs and other ne’er do wells have started to pour money into some football clubs? After all, as these words are being written, the expensively assembled teams of Manchester City and Chelsea are preparing to take to the pitch at The City of Manchester Stadium for yet another testosterone-soaked Premier League “showdown.” The eyes of the world will be watching this evening – aren’t they always nowadays? – but the eyes of some will be focusing on annual accounts of Manchester City and how these tie in with UEFA’s much-vaunted (but seldom so far tested) Financial Fair Play Regulations.
On Saturday evening, Jose Mourinho added his voice to a powerful – if not necessarily particularly numerous – choir of voices within the game of the opinion that UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules aren’t treated with the respect that they deserve. We have to remember, of course, that this is Jose Mourinho we’re talking about here, and that there is probably no level of eyeball-rolling irony that the Chelsea manager wouldn’t apply in the name of gamesmanship in the run-up to the most important Premier League match of the weekend. Even so, back of a cigarette packet ecomonics put Mourinho’s comments into some context. It has, after all, been calculated that Roman Abramovich has poured around £2bn into Chelsea since taking ownership of the club in 2003, money that has been rewarded, if that’s the right word, with unprecedented success for the club, both domestically and in Europe.
UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules will be applied for the first time next season with the governing bodies having stated that they intend to prevent clubs playing in the Champions League should they lose more than £37m over two years. Manchester City recently posted losses of £51m, but it is generally acknowledged the enough leeway would be given for the club to continue to play in the Champions League having posted this sort of loss. Where the complexity falls in the case of Manchester City – and others – comes in terms of other financial arrangements that have been agreed which seem to offset other losses incurred. The club’s losses would have increased by a further £47m had it not been for two opaque transactions – selling ‘image rights’ to an unnamed company and their own ‘intellectual property’ to a related company – and it has been suggested that such transactions are little more than fig leaves designed to keep the club within UEFA’s rules.
The governing body has rules in place to ensure that clubs aren’t able to do this, of course, but these rules have not been significantly tested yet and it may well be at the end of this season that they are. It has been reported that other clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have been explicitly named, though it seems difficult to believe that Manchester United would not also be watching this situation with interest, especially should their form in the Premier League continue to be as uninspiring as it has been over the course of this season so far – will take advantage of recent amendments to the rules which allow for clubs to “plea bargain” punishments for overspending, and for other clubs to able to challenge those plea bargains should they believe that the outcome of these negotitations will negatively impact upon them.
So far, we might assume, so good. There are rules in place, but if those rules are broken there will be an arbitration process in place with others allowed input into it. Let’s not, however, assume for a single second that the clubs that will get through UEFA’s tests without any difficulties would be protesting against Manchester City reasons that are to do with anything but their own self-interest, and in order to get this into context we have to look back to what happened when FFP was introduced in the first place, because there was very little protest against them from any of the big clubs when they were first announced several years ago. If anything, it might be reasonably be postulated that one of the biggest reasons why there was so little complaining from the biggest clubs in Europe was because Financial Fair Play suited them down to the ground.
Two decades of perpetual – or near-perpetual – Champions League football have suited Europe’s most powerful football clubs down to the ground, have created a financial imbalance within the European club game that makes breaking into that gilded few incredibly difficult, even if only for one season. On top of this, of course, breaking these hegemonies on anything like a regular basis is a whole other challenge again. Indeed, such is the financial gulf between the biggest and the rest that it might even be argued that the only chance of breaking into this grouping now is to somehow – as Chelsea and Manchester City have done, and as Paris St Germain and Monaco have done in France – is to attract the interest of individuals or groups with the sort of money that they are prepared to lose in order to compete.
And here is the big problem with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative: it isn’t worth anything in terms of improving competition unless it were to be accompanied by a level of financial redistribution within football that certainly would get many clubs howling. The clubs that are currently studying UEFA’s rulebooks through a magnifying glass might get a little more sympathy from elsewhere if they were to put forward a case for greater financial equality across the board. It can be done. The relatively recent distribution of Premier League television money within the division is said to be in place because of the positive effect that it has on competition in the division. It may be effectively two divisions in one these days, but the extent to which there is a level playing surface in the Premier League can be seen in its bottom half, where no-one has a significant advantage through extra television money and six points separate Stoke City in eleventh place in the table from bottom club Fulham. On the whole, though, there are so many fault lines of financial inequality in England alone – Champions League Money vs No Champions League Money, Premier League vs Not Premier League, Championship vs Not Championship – that believing that there will be more changes made seems fanciful, to say the least.
Football supporters are, one the whole, relaxed about the financial imbalance in football. We understand that some clubs are “bigger” than others, and there has been very little open protest at the near-impossibility for all but a very select few to challenge at the very top of the game. Our siggestions with regard financial redistribution in professional football could go further. We could suggest the reintroduction of revenue-sharing from gate receipts, for a Champions League place to go to the FA Cup winners, or for a more sizeable proportion of Champions League and/or Premier League television money to be invested in the perennially near-bankrupt grass roots of the game and subsidise the cost of tickets for supporters, for example. None of these things will happen, though, because no-one is really interested in the redistribution of the vast amounts of money that now sluice through football unless it directly benefits them.
As such, it will be difficult to feel too much sympathy for UEFA should the governing body find itself in all manner of tricky situations concerning the matter of its Financial Fair Play regulations at the end of this season. They control the distribution of Champions League television money, so they are ultimately responsible for all of this imbalance at the fact they any club has to bend rules to breaking point or complain about clubs bending the rules to breaking point. Until that imbalance changes, the desperation to sit at the very top table will continue, in each of its manifestations. The most important imbalance of all isn’t going to be addressed at any point in the near future, and rounding on the likes of Manchester City isn’t going to change that.
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