IN THE ABUNDANCE OF CASH, THE GAME PERISHES

The major leagues are over, and the clubs are taking stock of their performances in the just concluded season. For me as a fan, it has been a tumultuous season for me. Liverpool’s qualification for the UEFA Champions League playoffs is like scoring 50% on the final day of the test. It’s nothing exceptional while it’s slightly lower or equal to average. To discuss the review of the past season, I picked the phone and dialed my friend, Reed in Birmingham. A South African based in the UK, Reed works as a scout for some club sides in Europe. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, we discussed all topics around football with specific reference to last season. Some of the issues addressed include the falling standard of refereeing in Europe especially in the Champions League, impact of Brexit on transfer dealings of British club sides as the realities of Brexit become clearer, the unusual scenario in the blue side of Manchester where a particular magician ended the season without winning a trophy, the impact of video technology in the current FIFA U-20 World Cup, the lackadaisical attitude of the Italian authorities to the issue of racism with specific mention of the Sulley Muntari incident, the reemergence of AS Monaco as a powerhouse in the French Championnat and the sustainability of the new approach to the cup; the monopoly of Juventus in Serie A, the surprise package of Antoine Conte etc. The list was extensive as this was the first time we would be discussing in detail after our last meeting in Dallas in the summer of 2016. At the tail end of the 32 minutes conversation, we started talking about the issue of massive cash injected into the game on a continual basis. This was brought about while discussing the new ownership in AC Milan and the early transfer deals by Manchester City. As we rounded up the discussion, it became clearer to me that the huge cash injected into the game would continue to create some monsters within the game. It became more apparent that the football family needs to tackle the negative impact of huge finances pumped into the game especially as it relates to its adverse effect on the game.

At this juncture, it is important to state that this writer has nothing against the funds being injected into the game. However, the excesses that come with these investments and the negative impact on the game are the issues of concern to me. Money in football is a good thing, however, the regulatory aspect of the game needs to be strengthened and monitored to curb the negative impact of huge finances in the game. In all sincerity, the game is thriving regarding finance, and the Europeans are expectedly leading the chase. It’s  a no brainier that the game in Europe represents the image of global football without discrediting the contribution from the other regions of the world. A recent UEFA report confirmed this assertion with European clubs making an aggregate profit of €1.5billion.

With this significant income comes the issue of poor administration characterized mainly by corruption and other associated vices. This affects the ethics and standard of the game. Amid plenty monies, the administrators put up careless attitude towards ethics of the game and rather single out the successes leading us to the words of the famous philanthropist, Bills Gates who says “Success is a lousy teacher, it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose”. The administrators are turning a blind eye to the problems, and rather than taking a decision to rectify the issues; they are busy dancing to the success tunes. For example, the recent decision of FIFA to increase the world cup slots to 48, as per this writer’s opinion, is purely based on the commercialization of the game. The game is swimming in cash, but there are a lot of sharks in the “cash water” as well.

Whenever adverse impacts of money in the game is being brought up before the handlers of the game, they handle them with kid gloves. Little wonder that the world was treated to a lot of revelations and drama during the FIFA-Gate saga that started on May 27, 2015, at the Baur Au Lac Hotel, Zurich. The movers and shakers of football then were consumed by the tsunami that swept across football’s capital cities. Names such as Nicolas Leoz, Julio Grondona, Jack Warner, Sepp Blatter, Mohammed Bin Hammam, Amos Adamu, Richard Lai, Chuck Blazer, Michel Platini and much more were suspended, banned or prosecuted for their corrupt activities within FIFA and their confederations. The aftermath of the FIFA-Gate clearly shows to all of us that the reasons for the kid gloves from the administrators of the games towards the issue of huge finances in the game and its negative impact on the game.

In the past, the essence of the game includes entertainment and recreation, and this takes precedence above any commercial reasons. The likes of former CAF boss, Ethiopian Ydnetchekhew Tessema fought the battle all their life, saving the essence of the game from the commercial benefits. They reserved the essence of the game and never allowed commercial reasons to prevail above the game’s interest. Then, players are committed to national team cause, and there is pride in wearing their national team jerseys. Today, the reverse is the game. Moneybags now dictate the game. From the Sheikhs of Manchester City and PSG; the Russian oligarchs of Chelsea, AS Monaco, FC Neuchatel Xamax, and Reading, the Yankee Capitalist in Manchester United, Liverpool and AS Roma, etc., the game is now in the hands of the financial capitalist that runs the economies of the world. The entertainment value of the game has been slaughtered at the slab of cash. Teams were bought and resold for commercial reasons, and the essence of entertainment and recreation has been destroyed. Several reports of the top leagues in about 17 leagues in Europe in 2015/16 season showed the declining nature of fan attendance at the stadium across Europe. Many club sides, especially in East Europe, are struggling to bring the fans to the stadium as TV rights and the associated revenues have taken the shine off fan attendances at these stadia. For example, league games in Armenia were being shifted to accommodate TV schedules to raise income, and this has led to the reduced attendance in some of the league venues in the country.

The reality in the game today is that there is a huge gap between the have and have-nots in the game and UEFA acknowledged this much. In their annual club football report for the 2015/16 season, UEFA mentioned the huge financial gap between a “widening financial gap between the global superpowers and other large clubs” and some countries are increasingly being left behind as interest in the club game dwindles.
Look at the world, and you will undoubtedly agree with me that the dominant teams in each league are the ones with the bucks. In England, the home of the “Good is Greed League” (apology to Brian Glanville), there was a traditional four with huge cash to spend, but now, the moneybags from the Persian Gulf now rule with their blue half of Manchester. Then there are Spurs from North London that are also splashing the cash. If you doubt why Manchester United won three trophies last season, check how much they spent on their major signings during last summer including their wages. In Spain, it’s a two-horse way fight between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Last season, it was a 12-point difference between them and the third-placed team, Atletico Madrid and I can tell you that this can be translated to over 210million pounds, the difference in their bank accounts. In Scotland, it has always been Celtic and the rest. The massive budget figures between Celtic and the other teams can only confirm the reason for one league winner since 2011. In Portugal, it’s a fight between Benfica and Porto. Sporting Lisbon can’t put up any fight for the title recently because their bank account can’t buy the players required though their academy is giving them some glimpse of hope. In Germany, it’s Bayern Munich and the rest. Though Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg won the league recently while RB Leipzig put up a good fight this season, their finances can’t be compared to Bayern Munich. Check the Bundesliga table and see this difference. In France, it used to be Olympique Lyon for the better part of the last decade. The reason is that of the cash from Jean Aulas. As soon as he closed his purse, the title stopped. Today, PSG usually claimed all four trophies on offer in the country until AS Monaco with their youngsters blew some life to the competition this season by winning the league. Their ability to sustain the challenge next season is yet to be seen.

There seems no problem for these clubs to be sold to the moneybags. On the surface, there is no issue, after all, it would empower the clubs to challenge for honors and titles in areas that their fans would have never imagine. An example is Manchester City that won two league titles in the last six seasons. These are dreams that Man City fans were not envisaging some seven years ago. However, the coming of the investors brought about significant issues that are affecting the game’s interest. As in many cases, most of these investors did not have any connection with the club history and at the time, nothing with the game at all. Then, one needs to ask the question, what is their primary objective of buying these clubs? Is it for commercial purposes or what? This is a million-dollar question that requires instant answers. Another problem is the sincerity of their investment and their ability to sustain the euphoria that their purchase usually brought to the club history. To buttress this point, let’s recalled the issue with Real Betis, Rangers FC, Neuchatel Xamax and even Manchester City under the former Prime Minister; Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand. These investors came to these clubs without a clear plan, and after some time they left these clubs in a worse state than they met. Except for Manchester City that was rescued by the Oil Sheikhs, others are currently facing serious financial issues that can lead to these clubs going to extinction.

Another problem that comes with these investments from “strangers” in these clubs is that dearth of young talents from these clubs. Coming with these investments is the quest for quick success. The search creates pressure on the coaches and leads them to purchase “ready-made” players. Though, some of these investors come with the usual solemn of “developing homegrown talents,” the realities differ. Young talents are not given enough chance, and rather they are sent on loan to clubs where they must adapt to a different style. In most cases, they come out worse, and the rest would be history. For example, Scott Sinclair was one of the bright lights in Swansea some few years back but had forgotten his experiences as one of the many loanees in Chelsea; he decided to join Manchester City. After struggling for game time and was sent on loans, as usual, he was rescued by Celtic recently. Other youngsters with such experiences with Manchester City include John Guidetti (currently with Celta Vigo); Jack Rodwell (relegated with Sunderland), Adam Johnson (currently in jail after joining Sunderland from City). These numbers are expected to increase this season with the rumors of the club trying to sell Kelechi Ihenacho and Engel Ural, two of the brightest youngsters on the fringes of the first team. Today, Chelsea FC currently has over 30 youngsters on loans, and these include Bernard Traore (AFC Ajax), Christen Andreasen (Borussia Monchengladbach), etc. The future for these youngsters in the main squad appears slim as the manager needs to deliver the success unless their sugar daddies would fire them.

For every club, the fan is an integral part of their existence. But with the coming of these new owners, nothing of such has been accorded these fans. The owners treat them like any other tool that can be used in making money. With the coming to these owners, comes an astronomical increase in ticket price. Fans pay dearly to watch their team to allow the investors to recoup their investment in record time. To believe this, you need to ask a loyal Manchester United fan the difference between their season ticket price in 2001 pre-Glazier era and now. On a final note, the introduction of the financial fair play brought some sanity into the finances of these clubs. The idea was brilliant at the initial stage, and the implementation of the rule brought some respite to the game until these clubs “understood” the interpretation of the rules. The implication of this is that these clubs created mechanisms to circumvent the law with a different model such as the parent company having different clubs across the globe or some “sponsorship” deals that undermined the objectives of the law.

The governing bodies of the game need to review these issues and regulate the impact of these huge funds introduced to football. Cash is good no doubt, but too much cash can be dangerous to the game. New legislation and regulations should be adopted to address the dynamic nature of the game and help bring back some sanity to the game. We, the fans are tired of hearing the names Bayern, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, Juventus, etc. dominating the transfer markets with the huge sum paid for players worthless while the smaller clubs struggle for the crumbs. There is a need for competition in the game, and until the financial ground is made level or being seen to be level, we might not witness such any time soon. This is important at all levels of the game so that the founding fathers of the game such as Ydnetchekhew Tessema can look back and smile in their grave.

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