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.

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So onto my favourite topic of the world’s governing bodies. Michel Platini has today announced a plan to ensure European clubs live within their means, and a method of punishing them if they don’t. All well and good, we think. Without scratching beneath the surface it seems like a good idea, as all clubs ultimately want to play in European competition.

The new idea is to monitor club’s finances over a three year period, issue warnings to clubs who are ultimately failing to keep their finances on an even keel, and if necessary, ban clubs from competing in the either the Champions League or the Europa League. There are also exceptions to this ‘break even’ clause, so wealthy owners can spend their millions on new training grounds, youth academies and stadiums. So generally, it’s a good idea then? Err, no.

Firstly, this new proposal does absolutely nothing about existing debt. So Manchester United and Liverpool are free to just live with over a billion pounds worth of debt around their collective necks. So instantly, in my eyes UEFA have failed before this even begins. But let us move on.

The Premier League are against the ‘break even’ idea because it limits ‘competitiveness’. Now there is more chance than ever of the same five or six clubs finishing in the same positions year after year because no upstart can go out, spend £200m and put themselves in the frame. However, that evens itself out because there is also no chance of another club ‘doing a Portsmouth’. Let’s face it here, the Premier League don’t care a jot about individual clubs going out of business, all they are interested in is their ‘product’, the self proclaimed ‘best league in the world’. As a result, despite the Premier League having a valid point, it is “spoken with a forked tongue”.

No, it WILL still be possible for a club to spend a lot more money than they have, and hence still compete with the bigger clubs. How? Quite simply by charging the supporters more money than they do already, both through TV deals and at the gate. Then of course there’s club merchandise, and match day food, so either way, John Terry won’t miss out on his Champions League football or his £180,000 a week wages. Don’t worry about poor little Mr Terry.

Quite simply the only losers here are the supporters, and the culture of ridiculous wages for average footballers continues. Instead, UEFA should have dealt with the biggest issue at hand. So as much as I agree with Platini’s principle, I’d have taken it further with the below:

  • Introduce a wage cap, provisionally set at £100,000 a week starting in the next two years
  • Force clubs to use the money saved on wages to reduce ticket prices, thus attracting a more genuine supporter base, and less of the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. I’d go further by forcing a sliding scale of prices across all domestic leagues.
  • Introduce a new law ensuring that at least three of the match day squad came through the ranks of the club, thus giving the youngsters more of a chance
  • Force clubs to have at least three players from their home nation in their match day squad, thus ending the era of an entire squad of foreigners, and home grown players having to move down the leagues to progress
  • Bar all clubs from European competition with a debt greater than the overall value of the club until the debt has been reduced.

If you’re reading Mr Platini, I’m coming for your job.

As always, I’d appreciate your comments.

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…

Apologies in advance, I feel a rant coming on as my nerves have been jangling for weeks now over the future of Notts County, and the facade of the Munto Finance era. Fortunately, it looks like the club has been rescued after Ray Trew’s investment, although our grand plan has to be culled.

Whilst some of us feel disappointed, angry or just plain broken-hearted over the whole affair, most of us are at least relieved that the club will live on. But Notts are by no way unique in their plight, and it is only a matter of time before one of the 92 clubs is officially wound up. But just how has it got so bad?

Well, the birth of the Premier League brought about a new era, with a bold ambition of becoming the ‘greatest league in the world’. Some would argue the aim was achieved (coincidentally, I wouldn’t. La Liga all day for me, but I can see the merits of both arguments) but at what price? The Premier League was to have more television coverage than ever before, more cameras, and ultimately, more money. And with it, the game officially moved from a sport into a business.

Now I’ve argued with people for years that football is more than a business. Indeed, I truly believe in the romance of the game. The idea that a tiny club can climb the leagues and survive with the big boys, or maybe sneak a cup win here or there, that fans of every club will one day have their day in the sun. Fortunately, there are some that agree with me. Others call me naïve or an idealist at best, or something I’ll not publish in a family friendly blog at worst.

I’ve had rants before about football ‘no longer being the game of the people’. Ticket prices in this country are getting to the point where they are simply disgusting, but that’s true in most sports. Indeed, I was quoted £120 for a Six Nations ticket recently, so it isn’t football alone. But now, the clubs themselves are truly suffering, and the recent court cases truly illustrate that.

Now the big issue here is that clubs are riddled with debt. Indeed, Manchester United, the biggest club on Earth, have a total debt of £716m. This is quite simply because when the Glazers bought United, they were able to buy them with borrowed money, which was financed against the club. As a result, the most profitable club of them all is hemorrhaging money. It is little wonder that United fans are so unhappy.

And then there is Liverpool. A club like United, purchased by American owners. Greedy American owners, at that. Another great institution of the English game, saddled with horrendous debt. Clubs like these though will never go under because there will always be somebody who wants to own them. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case with the less fashionable clubs.

Indeed, as well as Notts, Portsmouth, Southend and Cardiff are all finding themselves going through her majesty’s courts at the moment, and Crystal Palace may find themselves heading that way in the not-too-distant future. Now I hope that these clubs are rescued, I really do, as the last thing I want is for any club to go out of business. But we need to stand back and look at the game, and take off the rose-tinted specs Sky have so kindly given us.

I know this next sentence will get pelters but I really don’t care, so here goes. Platini is right. There, I said it. (Although if Platini was consistent then I think all of us would have more respect for him. What about Real Madrid’s debt, for example? But that’s for another time, let’s worry about English football for now.) I would actually support sanctions against clubs who spend too much of their annual turnover. Platini has suggested an idea that clubs should be banned from European football if they overspend. It is certainly worth considering if applied consistently.

I’d also suggest that the Football League and Premier League work together to drive debts down. It is fair to say that now the only way clubs can succeed is if they have a ‘sugar daddy’, especially if you think about small clubs. Gone are the days when clubs could work their way up the leagues on footballing ability alone. And this in itself is sad.

Indeed, we have managers in today’s game who would rather finish 3rd or 4th than win the FA Cup. I find this preposterous, but it is of course the entry into the Champions League and all it’s riches. But the ownership here has to be questioned. The Football League, Premier League and the FA need to ask potential owners what their intentions are when they come into the game. Are they there to make money (the Glazers) or do they wish to stabilise clubs and win trophies? Owners who come in with the intention of making cash, and without any real interest in the game should not be able to buy football clubs. Indeed, had there been a better ownership system, Manchester United would never have been bought. I do like to contrast United and Liverpool with Aston Villa, who have a fabulous owner. But I digress.

In summary, this ultra-capitalist era of English football will undoubtedly have casualties, but the powers-that-be need to act to minimise these casualties. It is time for a change in ethos, a time to ensure the future of the game, and a time for football to become a sport again, and not solely a cash-cow. In the process, they might attract the working man back to the ground, and stop the steady switch of the man in the street to becoming an ‘egg chaser’.

I never want to see my club in court again. I’m sure fans of Pompey, Cardiff, Southend and Palace feel the same way. We need action to ensure that’s the case.

As always, I’d appreciate your feedback.

Now regular readers will know one of my major bug-bears is the people who run this great sport of ours. From UEFA’s climbdown on diving (and an acknowledgment that cheaters DO prosper) to FIFA’s absolute refusal to move into the 21st Century and embrace goal-line technology, the game’s governing bodies seem to make mistakes left, right and centre.

However, nothing compares to the latest move by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). These geniuses have decided that the decision of Togo’s Football Association, backed by their government,  to withdraw the squad from this year’s African Cup of Nations was unacceptable. This is despite the team being attacked by rebels with machine guns on the way to the tournament. The attack left two team officials dead, as well as wounding goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale, yet CAF have announced that Togo will be banned from the next two African Nations competitions. They will also have to pay a fine of $50,000.

This decision, coming the day before the final of the competition, is quite simply staggering, not to mention callous in the extreme. The football community as a whole perfectly understood the decision taken by Togo to pull out, and anybody who saw the pictures of Emmanuel Adebayor in the aftermath of the attack would vociferously defend the actions of the Togolese. Indeed, I’d expect many of the squad to end up in a psychiatrist’s office in the not-too-distant future.

For those unaware of African history, conflict in Angola is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the Angolan Civil War only finished in 2002, 27 years after it began. Perhaps the question of why CAF chose Angola to hold it’s largest tournament should be raised by FIFA. It seems churlish then to criticise Togo after they were attacked in a country that is almost synonymous with war.

Perhaps naïvely, I hold out faith that FIFA will overturn this decision from CAF. The African body have argued that they simply had to ban Togo, as their regulations stipulate that no country can pull out just before the competition in order to uphold the Cup’s integrity. Be that as it may, it must also understand the special circumstances behind Togo’s decision. And if it does not, it must be made to do so by Blatter and Co.

Indeed, with this being the year of the first ever African World Cup, it may even be worth the rest of the game’s governing bodies using their power to force CAF to back down. Imagine Platini’s UEFA refusing to allow the European qualifiers to travel to South Africa and fill CAF’s coffers. This would almost certainly see CAF’s decision overturned.

However, if Togo’s ban is allowed to stand, a possible solution is an invite to the Copa America, who normally invite Japan. This would allow Togo to take part in competitive football, and be a massive source of embarrassment to CAF at the same time. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.

Sepp Blatter always stated his ambition was to hold a World Cup in Africa. Before that, he should ensure the idiots who came up with this ban are sacked, and replaced by people with a degree of compassion.

This one promises to run and run, and I’ll be following it with a great deal of interest.

I had hoped I’d be able to discuss another topic in today’s blog, but the Ireland-France row seems to have taken another turn. I guess it’s only right for me to give my two penneth.

It would seem the Irish FA are not prepared to let the dust settle following Henry’s handball, and even the Irish government are getting involved in the argument. Now as much as I sympathise with them over the incident, and I agree that losing in that manner is a travesty, I think calling for a replay is somewhat ridiculous.

If FIFA were to agree to this request, the sport of football would be thrown into chaos, and that is something which cannot be allowed to happen. I also believe it is dangerous for politicians to start meddling in sport, which I’ll come on to later.

First thing for me to say here is I don’t blame the Irish FA for being angry. I can certainly understand them questioning the referee’s ability to officiate the game, but calling for a replay is taking things too far. And surely they know what the ramifications would be if their request is granted by FIFA. We’d have replays every week! Manchester United would never lose another game, as every time they do Fergie criticises the referee. Imagine if they had the power to call for a replay?

World football would go into meltdown if this precedent was set by FIFA, and it is naive in the extreme of the FAI to think FIFA will not consider the future if they agree to this request. And how many times has another nation been cheated out of a world cup, or European Championship spot? Indeed, England won the tournament in 1966 with a very fortuitous award from a certain Russian linesman. Then on the flip side, there was the ‘hand of God’ in 1986. If FIFA agree to the replay, how far back do we go? Do we just think of games this season, or do we look to replay every game since 1865? And what happens if the incident occurs in a match that is won 5-0? Does the right to request replays still stand? I appreciate I’m being facetious here, but quite frankly, I think the FAI are mentalists!

While the game is in the current state, the FAI should instead be taking this on the chin. Yes, call for increased technology, call for actions to be taken against the referee if they must, but the replay request MUST be denied. Incidentally, I thought the referee had a fantastic game, barring this one incident. The game was allowed to flow, he didn’t go overboard with yellow cards, and he saw through Anelka’s blatant attempt at diving. I think the real rage here should be towards the linesman, who had a clear view of Henry’s handball as well as the fact there were two French players offside when the ball was played.

I also can’t let the fact the Irish government joined in the call for a replay slide. As much as I can understand the frustration they may have felt as fans, the cynic in me believes there is only one true motivation for them adding their voice to the request: money. I truly believe that government should stay out of sport unless they are considering supporter well-being. This well-being can be either physical safety or financial well-being, ensuring sport remains affordable. However, this does not include heartbreak, like the way many irish fans will be feeling now.

It’s no coincidence that the Irish government would call for a replay in a time the world is in recession. After all, world cup qualification offers economies all over the world a boost, but when your nation is involved the boost is substantial. I really belive the Irish government have opened themselves up to criticism with this comment.

However, the French government commenting is more favourable. Indeed, French MP Christine Lagarde has offered her support to the replay call, which is commendable. Indeed, it would appear that 80% of the French population support the replay request. If the French Federation feel similar, the replay is feasible, but the approval will not come from FIFA themselves.

Indeed, I fully expect the French to move on and look forward to the World Cup. I’m sad to say this, but I hope the Irish can too.

There was never going to be another blog topic today. After a fantastic example of international football in Paris, the ‘Hand of Henry’ broke Irish hearts and once again opened up the technology debate. As for Henry himself, I’ll come to that later.

Technology in football is very divisive amongst fans, players and managers. Indeed, my good friend Mr Mantle wrote just last week that he didn’t want to see video technology in the game as the drama of wrong decisions is part-and-parcel of this sport we love so much.

He makes a good point. Football is all about drama. Each match seems to contain a bucket load of the stuff, and none of us want to see that dwindle down. However, there comes a point where we have to act. As many people are so keen to point out now, football is a business these days, no longer just a game. It seems like every match played is worth ‘millions’ but last night was worth more than money; last night was about playing on the biggest stage in world sport.

For a match worth so much to be decided on a blatant act of cheating leaves a really bad taste in the mouth, and once again FIFA will be asked to assess the options open to them. There are a couple available.

The first is to introduce a video ref. The video ref could have the role of watching off-the-ball incidents, as well as being able to tell the referee when a player has dived or the ball has crossed the line. The positives of this are that there will now be no excuse for a referee to get a decision wrong. However, it will come at a cost to the flow of the game, and the drama will be gradually squeezed out.

The second option would be more referees. Now we’ve already seen the Europa League scenario, with an additional linesman behind each goal. However, the problem here is people don’t seem to be exactly sure what they’re meant to be doing. On top of this, we’ve seen some decisions slide in the competition, so it would seem that their vantage point may not be ideal. Perhaps standing behind the goal might make the job a little easier? However, I think the game may benefit more by having 2 linesman in each half. The three-dimensional view the officials will then have would certainly make a few decisions easier.

I have to say I agree with Ross, and I’m not really behind the call for a video ref. I think it will be too detrimental on the pace of the game, as what we want to see most of all is a game that’s allowed to flow. However, that does not mean I don’t want to embrace technology. As I stated on an earlier blog, I believe we should add a microchip to the ball, and a light behind the goal that turns on when the ball crosses the line. That is one decision referees clearly need taking out their hands, and I’m certain that is help they would appreciate. However, it also keeps the drama in the rest of the game.

I would also then introduce two more linesmen.

But the second part of this blog is reserved for cheating, and today it is Thierry Henry who deserves a special mention.

I don’t know about you, but that is about as blatant a handball as I’ve ever seen. After the match, he even had the audacity to say it wasn’t deliberate. I’m sorry, if that wasn’t deliberate I’m an Argentine and my name is ‘Juan’. And once again, the referee is getting abuse for not spotting it. Henry’s ‘I’m not the referee, it is not my job to spot it’ attitude really sticks in the throat. No Thierry, it’s not your job to referee the game, but it’s also not your job to handle the ball and score from it, but you did that OK didn’t you?

Of course, we may very well have been having another debate today. ‘Le Sulk’ Anelka could also have been responsible for cheating the Irish out of a World Cup spot if his blatant dive had been interpreted differently by the referee. Now this was even worse than Henry in my opinion. At least handball is ‘instinctual’, rather than a pre-meditated attempt at cheating. However, Anelka should be held-to-rights over his Tom Daley impression.

And just to finish this off, I wonder what devoted Frenchman and UEFA President Michel Platini made of last night’s action? After all, he’s been as quiet as it gets today. I wonder if the same would be said had a similar incident occurred against the French yesterday?

Just a thought…