The esteemed Jonathan Wilson, in the foreword of this quarter’s Blizzard (find it at http://www.blizzard.co.uk) discusses how football has entered a new age, with the super-rich clubs hovering up the talent and forming a new group of teams who are all-powerful within the game.
I can’t disagree with what he says, but it seems to me that there’s more to it than just that. One thing that sticks out is that the current teams in those positions are all in Europe; as football’s traditional power-base continues to remain there even if its most desirable players are often from South America or Africa.
I foresee a change in that in the future – how long is it before we get a truly global club competition; a Champions League that allows either the ‘big’ names of a Boca Juniors or a Santos, or the financial clout of a nation like China (whose Guangzhou Evergrande are rampant within their domestic scene) or Japan? Addition of those clubs to the current mix would change the look of the competition entirely, but also increase revenue possibilities greatly as well.
Each continent does have its own equivalent competition (that’s how they choose the teams in the Intercontinental Cup that the Europeans laugh about) but could you tell me the winners of any of the recent editions outside the Copa Libertadores?
If that competition does become a reality, why shouldn’t the non-European oligarchs who flock to fund European club sides to excellence control clubs in their local area; the clubs they will have grown up with?
That’s an aside, though.
The more pertinent point is that of the super-rich and the mega-rich and how the two are divided. Currently, in France, Monaco and Paris St Germain seem to be involved in a little bit of dick-waving.
One signs Edinson Cavani, the other Radamel Falcao. As it stands, Monaco are playing catch-up, but it won’t take long before those two are as unassailable in France (indeed, maybe they already are) as Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. What, then, if a third French club received similar investment?
Imagine if St Etienne were suddenly bought by an oil sheikh. Which players would they purchase? If Cavani and Falcao were on the market; who was the third blue riband striker of the summer? Was it Higuain? Was it Neymar? Their ability to bring that player in would have repercussions to (in this case) either Barcelona or Napoli.
This is the issue. The new money’s pocket, as Wilson explains, is bottomless. If Monaco had been quoted €80m for Falcao, they would have paid it, no difference to €20m or €150m. If Arsenal had experienced the same fate with Mesut Özil, they would not have been able to stretch to that figure.
In the end there is, at the end of the day, only so many elite-level footballers to go round. When we reach a point of auctioning them off the best to the highest bidder, there will, undoubtedly be teams who are left behind, leaving less good (albeit very good, just 9/10 rather than 10/10) players for those who pockets are not bottomless. In that company, the likes of Arsenal can perform miracles only for so long. They can maximise revenue streams all they want, perhaps able to swing things with the benefit of history and glamour on their side, but if a Paris Saint Germain wants to take over, they not only have access to the money to buy players, but they can maximise their own revenue streams, too, to bring their income closer to Arsenal’s but their bankroll is well beyond.
Even Manchester Utd’s deals with Aeroflot, Casillero del Diablo and their official noodle supplier will only take them so far.
It will result in a situation, the more and more infinitely bankrolled teams there is, that established clubs begin to fall away (look at Liverpool, struggling to get back into the elite, but grimly aware that they no long have the same financial power as their rivals) leaving previously proud clubs, clinging on to respectability – sort of a rich man’s Wigan; digging their fingernails into the tablecloth in order to stay at the top table, but doomed to fail as more and more mega-rich clubs come in and take their pick of players from that top-level pool of talent leaving the Arsenals further and further behind; afterthoughts in the fantasy football leagues.
I’ll try to put it another way. Arsenal’s board were boasting at the beginning of this summer about having £70m to spend. They ended up using £40 and more on Mesut Özil and then stopping, constrained by the limits of their balance remaining – and the closure of the transfer window. If Manchester City had bought Mesut Özil, they would have been able to follow that purchase up with others, to further improve their side, and take the further ahead of Arsenal.
In the end, Arsenal, (I’m not picking on them, its just that they are a useful example from this summer – I could equally use Marseille, or Borussia Dortmund, or Atletico Madrid) after buying what is left by the mega-rich clubs – a talent pool that necessarily diminishes in quality the more and more mega-rich clubs there is – stop being as good as they were, meaning they’ve got less pulling power for players in the future. A vicious cycle of diminishing returns.
If there is a limit to the price your team can pay, they will, eventually, be left behind. The only way they can ‘succeed’ is by re-evaluating what their target is – aiming for fourth place, maybe. Once again, Liverpool players no longer begin with aiming to win the Premier League, but simply compete for the Champions League places. Can it be avoided? What about the ‘Moneyball’ strategy of buy young, sell high? Well, if you do that, your team is full of promising players who aren’t at their best. When teams who can afford buy them – at whatever cost – play them when they’re at their best, they’ll be better than you, even if your bank manager is happy they’ve done it.
We are, as Wilson explains, a long way away from the days that good management or coaching will bring about success. It might bring a surprisingly good one-off performance (hello, Catania!), but only in that it alerts bigger clubs to players, so they can hoover them up and lesser teams can start again.
What has happened over the last couple of seasons in France will gradually happen across Europe as a whole. The richest will end up out-paying the rest, leaving their sides trailing in their wake. In Germany, which seems far more even at first glance, money still talks.
The best way of getting World Class players to the Bundesliga may be to develop them (as both Dortmund and Bayern do) but the wealth of the latter outweighs the former, evidence by their cherry-picking of both Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski, meaning Dortmund will have to work twice as hard to keep up with them. I may be a romantic at heart, but there’s no way that can continue forever.
That’s why teams without bottomless pockets are so keen on a concept of financial fair play that ensures their positions, and doesn’t allow easy access to clubs with new money. It did lead me to wonder, as often people did when Roman Abramovich took over at Chelsea, what would happen when the sugar-daddies move out – but the scenario has played out to a degree at Anzhi Makachkala this season already. It’s a simple process involving a fire sale of players to highest bidder while the club descends to previous level with (perhaps) a bigger fanbase.
The point that has long been lost in football is that the best competition comes from a level playing field. There was only so many times my Wolves team won 6-0 before I moved up a level on FIFA12. Victory only really feels like victory when defeat was a possibility. Increasingly, the level playing field is found away from the top level.
The margins at the top might be small to look at, but they’re huge in practise.