Money, Debt and Stupid Fans

February 22, 2011

Picture the scene.

Somewhere in Nyon, deep in UEFA’s headquarters, a throaty laugh erupts from a non-descript office. You open the door to find Michel Platini, chuckling down the phone, tears rolling down his jowly face. After he’s composed himself, he utters;

“Mon Dieu, I cannot believe zis stupid people. I jerst peek a numberre out of my derriere, and zis people, zey pay it!”

I rather imagine that at this point Platini peels off his mask to reveal a reptilian face, because he’s surely not of this planet if he believes £150 is a decent price for a ticket.

The problem is of course, that they can charge £150 for a ticket, in the same way that they can also charge £300 for a ticket. Why can they do this? Simple, because football fans are truly the cash cows of the sporting world.

Football fans, never has there been a more deluded bunch that has ever walked this planet. For years you’ve been shelling out for football kits at the rate of three every two seasons, and enjoying it. Grinning and bearing the continual season ticket price until it gets to the point where a season ticket at Arsenal can cost you the business end of £2000. Liverpool currently fans going mad for the fact that their club has shelled out over £30 million pounds for a player who isn’t even an England regular. Manchester City fans not even remotely bothered about the fact that their club has effectively become the plaything of the UAE royal family. Wages going up past £200k a week, A WEEK!! When Fabrizio Ravanelli joined Middlesbrough, he was pilloried for the fact he earn’t £52k a week, nowadays a player of his quality could easily expect to triple that.

And debt, so much debt.

Over half of all the debt in European football is owned by the Premiership, with the majority of Premiership clubs now being subsidised directly by their owners, it’s almost like they’ve forgotten how to be proper businesses. Spending cash they don’t have, chasing success that’ll never be theirs,  because ultimately, it’s the same few clubs that win everything. Manchester City will never have the same long term success that Manchester United has enjoyed. Why is this? Because money can only go so far, Manchester United have succeeded because they had a core of players and a manager who were (are) solely dedicated to the club, money is a factor, but how much did Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and David Beckham cost?

I don’t have any sympathy for football fans who now complain about the price of tickets, you’ve only yourselves to blame. Personally I think you should stop demanding your club spends money it doesn’t have and start demanding some fiscal responsibility.

Quite rare I delve into the world of Serie A or La Liga on this blog, but the news of one major transfer between the two leagues this week has me relishing the prospect of watching AC Milan this season. Of course, the player in question is none other than the enigmatic figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. If you haven’t seen the news, he’s been allowed to leave on a season-long loan, with a transfer fee arranged for next summer of €24m. And just because I like videos, here’s one for you to enjoy.

He is the ultimate opinion divider, is “Ibra”. On his day the big Swede is utterly unplayable, scoring goals from anywhere, and at 6 foot 5 with hugely deceptive pace, he is a handful for any defender in the world. Couple that with his undoubted technical ability, it is easy to see why some rate him as the best centre forward in the game.

Unfortunately, he also has his days where I swear he’s actually a hybrid of Delroy Facey and Vinny Arkins in disguise. A very questionable temperament and a complete lack of work ethic don’t do him any favours, and it is these character flaws which have let him down in Spain. As a result, his €69m transfer from Inter Milan to Barcelona hasn’t quite worked out, despite scoring 21 goals for the Spanish champions last season.

There are a few facets of this story though that really interest me. The first is just how Barcelona can allow themselves to simply brush off a loss of €45m without a care in the world. This is the club who recently reported a post-tax yearly loss of €77.1m simply allowing the player  to leave the club for next to nothing, only recouping part of the frankly ridiculous fee for him next summer. That is the same player who officially commanded the second largest transfer fee ever paid only 12 months ago. Granted, they will be relieving their wage bill of a reported £200,000 a week, but the signing of David Villa and Javier Mascherano hardly represents a club attempting to downsize. Indeed, the rumours are still there that they want to add Manchester City’s Robinho to their squad (who ironically is also interesting AC Milan) which is a serious increase in their wage bill.

The second is the fact that Ibrahimovic won nearly everything there is to win in Italy with Milan’s city rivals, yet like many ex Inter players before him, he now finds himself in the red and black of the Roseneri. I fully expect Ibrahimovic to deal with the abuse that comes his way, but again it is another test of his temperament, one which many others will expect him to fail.

I have read many opinions already on this matter, calling Ibrahimovic a “bigger flop than Shevchenko” but is that really accurate? I’d argue it’s wide of the mark, certainly. As a centre forward, your first job is to put the ball in the net. As already stated, he did that 21 times last season. Ah, you might say, surely these 21 goals came against the smaller clubs? Well, no. He scored both goals against Arsenal at the Emirates in the Champions League Quarter Final, and the winner against Real Madrid in the ‘Classico’ at the Camp Nou. Put that next to ‘Sheva’s’ nine goals in two seasons, and it’s clear to see who was a bigger disaster.

Thirdly, you have to wonder if Milan’s new coach Massimiliano Allegri knows exactly what he’s getting, and if he can motivate Ibrahimovic the way that Mancini and Jose Mourinho managed at Inter. Allegri was a strange appointment by Milan, another young manager following on from Leonardo and as a result, no  real experience at a top club. Mancini was also a young manager, but he was also a top quality player, which I suspect will have helped him to manage Ibrahimovic. Of course, after Mancini came Mourinho, who I think could turn Emile Heskey into a winner, let alone ‘Ibra’.

Just how Allegri builds his side will also be paramount. Whilst Milan have an ageing squad, they also have a few egos, not least Ronaldhino. With the rumours of Robinho also arriving at Milan, and the certainty of Pato starting every week (note the transfer window is still open as I type this!) you have to wonder exactly what Allegri has in mind. If he makes Ibrahimovic his ‘main man’, I’d expect to see him flourish once again, but if he’s playing second fiddle to ANYBODY, he may struggle.

So the time has come then to nail my colours to the mast and answer the title of this post. I am absolutely in the flawed genius camp, and I really hope he is a massive success back at the San Siro. As good as Barcelona are, I found his signing to be a strange one as they clearly don’t play with a target man. David Villa, who they have since purchased, was more of a Barcelona-type player, as was Luis Fabiano or even Robin Van Persie, but something about Ibrahimovic didn’t quite seem to be a natural fit.

Indeed, he might have been better off at Real Madrid alongside Higuain and Ronaldo (imagine that!) but I expect to see him scoring blinding goals once again this season. However, if he fails back in Italy, we may see him gradually slip away from Europe’s elite clubs and end up as just another mercenary at an Aston Villa or similar.

I’m sure I won’t be alone in hoping against hope that’s not the case, and that Ibrahimovic finishes his career at a club worthy of his brilliance. Or that he flops massively in Milan and arrives at Celtic Park for nothing next summer. One can hope…

Apologies, I feel a rant coming on, but before I start, can anybody tell me if they watched any UEFA Cup…I mean Europa League matches last night? No? I thought not. And I don’t think British fans are alone in shunning the competition, which is rapidly becoming irrelevant.

For too long now, the UEFA Cup has been like the retarded brother who lives in the loft. (OK, perhaps a touch too far, but you get my drift.) Nobody talks about it, nobody does anything about the problem. And the plans UEFA released to ‘revamp’ this year’s tournament seem to have made it even more unpopular.

Of course, the primary reason why the Europa League is unpopular is very simple: it is not the Champions League. Indeed, UEFA have allowed that many sides into the Champions League, there aren’t really any glamour ties left in the secondary competition. UEFA themselves acknowledged this when they started to allow sides who finished third in their Champions League groups into the UEFA Cup (something else I don’t agree with, but I can understand their view-point.)

This truly is to the detriment of UEFA and to us, the viewing public, as well as undermining the premier competition. I’ve said before of my feelings about allowing 4 teams from one country into the Champions League, especially when that involves league champions of smaller nations missing out. But now this is causing considerable problems to the integrity of this competition.

I was reading a message board lately where a fan said the Champions League is better as it is, with 4 English sides rather than the likes of (and these are his words, not mine) “FC Drakula”. I’m sorry, I entirely disagree. The competition is called the Champions League after all, so what right do a fourth placed team have to take the place of a side who have won their own domestic championship?

Now a proposal to go back to ‘just’ league champions is probably never going to happen, as UEFA shot themselves in the foot when they started to allow second-placed clubs into the competition in 1997. But why should one country be allowed four representatives when the champions of other nations do not qualify? The obvious answer is money, and the belief that Arsenal and the like are more profitable than the likes of the Hungarian champions, for example. True enough, but is this primarily a football tournament or a business enterprise?

Platini has said himself that he would like to see more league champions qualifying for the Champions League. There’s a simple proposal: take some of the additional spots off the bigger leagues. After all, is coming FOURTH really worth a place in the CHAMPIONS League? OK, these sides only get into the qualifying rounds, but they are always seeded to ensure the bigger sides qualify. Without these big clubs, the smaller sides have a realistic chance of earning what they should achieve anyway due to their championship trophy.

This would in turn push some of the bigger clubs back into the UEFA Cup (this year’s competition would have included Arsenal, Fiorentina, Athletico Madrid, Stuttgart, Lyon and Zenit St Petersburg, to name just a few) which would breathe a new lease of life into the competition.

I’d then ensure the UEFA Cup (I’m tired of calling it the Europa League already) goes back to a knockout competition, with unseeded draws. Club managers are almost disappointed to qualify for the UEFA Cup because of the sheer number of games involved. However, a straight knockout would make it more appealing to managers, who would have less matches to play, and to supporters, who would enjoy the excitement of a knockout competition.

And voila, just like that, the UEFA Cup is restored. Now to find Platini’s email address…

Scottish Failures.

November 6, 2009

While life is largely constructed of a series of unpredictable events, we all need our certainties. We need to know, for example, that Monday is always preceded by Sunday and that the TV on Saturday night will be crap. Another one of life’s necessary certainties is that the Scottish clubs will perform dismally in Europe.

Rangers are currently propping up Group G, behind such Euro-powerhouses like Unirea Urziceni (no, me neither) and Celtic are languishing at the wrong end of Group C of the Europa League, let’s be honest, results are what matter, not performances.

Elsewhere in this rather fantastic blog, Mike McKenna eloquently discusses Hamburg and their investment of £12 million on the young forward Marcus Berg, for the apparent purpose of warming their bench. Mike then bemoans the lack of comparative investment in Celtic’s own squad, to a degree, Mike is absolutely correct in this. According to American money magazine, Forbes, Celtics’ revenue for 2009, so far, stands at $145 million (£87 million). Not a small amount of money, but Hamburg’s revenue currently stands at $202 million (£122 Million). 

However, to point the finger at a lack of investment is slightly avoiding the real reason why Scottish clubs fail to perform at the highest levels. The real reason that Scottish clubs bomb in Europe is because of the lack of competition in their domestic league.  Maybe it’s the case that us Sassenachs were spoiled down here with a “Big Four”, at least it’s twice as good as a “Big Two”, and with the mega-bucks of Manchester City, we may even see a “Big Five” down here, great stuff.

Of course, there’s none of that kind of drama up in Haggis-land. Our Scottish friends happily watch the likes of Georgios Samaras and Kenny Miller (12 Premiership goals between them) and they tolerate the bizarre Glasgow “cartel” that has seen the Scottish title dominated by the Glasgow clubs for the last 23 years. Sadly, as they play in Europe and get smashed most seasons, they’ll fail to attract the best players and they’ll continue to get beaten. It’s a vicious circle that’ll see the “Old Firm” clubs move down to the Premiership eventually.

It’s the best thing for them, they can compete on a genuine world stage in a genuinely competitive league. And who knows, maybe Celtic fans might be able to stop dining out on 1967 and Rangers fans might be able to celebrate winning something other than another Mickey Mouse league title.

But don’t count on that happening soon

Part of the reason we all support our teams is the ride they take us on. Whether that ride is to league championships and European triumphs, promotions and play-off dramas, mid-table security, or relegation heartache, we go through an emotional grinder.

As I follow both Celtic and Notts County, I’ve simultaneously felt highs and lows, but the best football year of my life was 1997/98, where Celtic denied Rangers the 10 in a row by winning the championship on the final day and the mighty Magpies secured the Third Division title in March. What a year that was!

However, even in the days of the barren trophy cabinet at Celtic, and Notts fighting against relegation from the football league, I still have some sympathy for another group of fans. I’m imagining most of you think I’m talking about Newcastle, and their newly named sportsdirect.com@St James’ Park stadium. No, not this time. I’m talking about the farce that is Athletico Madrid.

It must be hard to follow Athletico. Your great city rivals are the most successful team in Europe, with 9 European Cups and 31 Spanish championships, and yet Athletico are a mess.

I would argue Athletico are quite possibly the most bizarre club on the face of the Earth. In 1987, they were acquired by Spanish politician Jesus Gil, a man who made his money from the building trade. Gil had been sent to jail in 1967 after one of his buildings collapsed, killing 58 people. It was alleged he was only released after a substantial payment to General Franco. Gil was a controversial figure, and he took some strange steps as the club’s owner. This included closing the club’s youth academy which featured the mercurial Raul, who would go on to become the top scorer in Real Madrid’s history, and even the appointment of Ron Atkinson as manager in 1988!

The shadow of General Franco also hovers over the club’s current leadership pair. Owner Gil Marin and club president Enrique Cerezo were both guilty of a fraudulent purchase of Athletico on the stock exchange in 1992. However, under Franco’s laws, the two escaped a prison sentence, and the farce of Athletico has continued ever since.

As a club, they have had some momentously talented players. Right now they have one of the best forward pairs in the world in Forlan and Aguero, and they are also the club that gave the world Fernando Torres. However, the businessmen at the club have itchy trigger fingers, not least because they are unable to co-exist for the benefit of Athletico.

The club have had a massive nine managers in the past 6 seasons, and most of these appointments have been a direct attempt by one power to anger the other. It is clear then we don’t know who the Super Power is, and I’d be surprised if anybody could answer who is actually in charge.

Indeed, the life expectancy of a snowman in Florida is probably greater than the average managerial appointment on the Red, White and Blue side of the city.

The most recent dismissal was Abel Ressino, who was sacked following Athletico’s Stamford Bridge massacre a couple of weeks ago. What was to follow was typical of the club. In a 24 hour period, nine coaches were announced as club manager, before eventually the role was given to Quique Flores.

Yet the story doesn’t finish there. Flores’ first training session was finished with a group of ultras from the extreme-right Frente Atlético watching, as the group had been allowed in to offer their “encouragement”. A terrifying prospect, I think you’ll agree.

However, with the club now sat in the relegation zone and out of the Champions League, the fans have finally had enough. A campaign is well and truly underway to rid the Vicente Calderon Stadium of the two most hated men in the club’s recent history, and it appears to be gathering some pace.

Perhaps when they’ve finally left, they might fancy buying Mike Ashley out of St James’ Park?

Fabio Capello recently told the world of his ‘sadness’ at the rule of Ultras in Italian football.

Now I’ve often aired my concerns at the state of the English game. I get very frustrated at ticket prices and ridiculous wages, but one major positive since the Premier League era came around is safer grounds.

Football violence, at least inside stadiums, has greatly diminished. Because it is now so rare, the media make a massive deal out of any trouble, which is why the recent West Ham-Millwall violence received thousands of column inches. Of course, the increase in ticket prices (my great hate) is partly responsible for this, as clubs have reached out to a very different, “family-friendly” (how it can be family friendly when it costs so much to take kids to grounds is beyond me!) clientele in order to force the hooligans out. This is not to say that hooliganism has vanished from the English game, as that would be very naive of me. ‘Firms’ still exist, and probably always will, but they exist outside of grounds.

However, Italy is a very different animal.

In the 1990s, Italian football was the benchmark for the rest of the world. All the world’s greatest players (and Ian Rush) aimed for Serie A, in much the same way they now aim for the Premier League or La Liga. However, despite the fact the Italian game was swimming in Lira, the clubs failed to invest in infrastructure and crowd trouble was a weekly occurence. It could certainly be argued that the Italian authorities did not do enough to combat these Ultra groups.

Eventually, ordinary fans stopped going to games, which were then played in half empty grounds. This apparent lack-of-interest led to billionaire owners pulling out of their clubs and the TV deals collapsed. As a result, Serie A became an inferior ‘product’ and lost its place at the top of the European game. It now lags behind both the Premier League and La Liga, while the Bundesliga is in its slip-stream, ready to pass. Even now, Italian authorities still do not seem to be taking enough action against Ultras, and riots inside the outdated Italian stadia are commonplace. Indeed, I fear for every Fulham fan travelling to Rome for Thursday’s Europa League game.

Politically, Italy is a frightening place. Silvio Berlusconi is perhaps the most corrupt man in the Western World, and Fascism bubbles very close to the surface in Italian culture. This is taken into football, and Lazio in particular have a scary bunch of fans.

But what is needed in Italian football? For a start, massive investment. Stadia needs to be brought up to the standard of the rest of the top leagues in Europe, and the Italian Police need to take more action in dealing with Ultra groups. That doesn’t mean continue beating them to a pulp, as we regularly witness on European nights, but by making arrests and working with clubs to issue bans.

It is also vital that FIFA and UEFA get involved in the process of rebuilding Serie A. However, their levels of hypocrisy know no bounds, and the threat of an Italian ban from European competition will never happen, no matter how many riots, or deaths, occur.

FIFA and UEFA demonstrate capitalism at its worst, clearly demonstrating money matters more than safety. Indeed, Platini is a Juventus man through-and-through, and the prospect of European football without his beloved Serie A sides is incomprehensible, even if they are falling apart.

Until he loses the election and UEFA act against the Italian clubs, we can only watch in horror as the ‘fans’ tear each other apart. And as a lover of the beautiful game, that will always bring a tear to my eye.

It’s been a tough old season so far over at the San Siro, Their President is an international laughing stock, they’ve got a starring role in the David Beckham circus, their key players have been largely anonymous all season, their manager is clearly not up to the job, and more pressingly, they’re too damn old on the field.

Any team would struggle after losing a player of Kaka’s calibre, but it seems to have hit AC particularly badly. It must be even more galling for the fans when you consider that Huntelaar, signed from Real (of all places), has been fairly poor this season.

As ever, the problems are down to money, while Perez over at Real has been doing his best impression of Bill Gates and Roman Abramovich combined, Berlusconi has been comparatively tight. It’s thought that the sale of Kaka to Real has been more about balancing the books rather than investing in new players.

And the financial problems don’t just affect the team, it also effects what goes on at a management level. Great player that he was, It’s fairly obvious to anybody who isn’t Stevie Wonder that Leonardo is struggling at this level. So why was he appointed? Easy, he’s a cheaper option than getting somebody in. Milan have attempted to present his appointment as an attempt at injecting new impetus into the club, but that only works if the results and performances back him up, which they clearly haven’t.

But what about the players themselves? There have certainly been some rather poor displays emanating from the Home dressing room this season. We’ve already mentioned Huntelaar, but surely the biggest fingers are pointing at former Brazilian golden boy Ronaldinho. Ah Yes, twice FIFA World Player of the year, but now fighting for form amidst fluctuating weight, a team in the doldrums and insistent insinuation that he’d rather be out carousing the hostelries of Milan. On top of all this he’s no longer even recognised as the best player at AC, let alone in The World. Who should Leonardo play these days, the aging Seedorf or the enigmatic Ronaldinho? Difficult to say, but it shows just how far Ronaldinho has slumped if this is treated as a serious question.

And to top it all off and make me look like a fool, they go and win in Madrid, as somebody far wiser than I once said “It’s a funny old game”.