“C’est bien facile d’être bon, le malaisé c’est d’être juste.” Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Financial Fair Play has posed football’s regulators with a quandary that Victor Hugo would no doubt quickly have recognised. When making the law it’s dead easy to be good; the hard part is being fair.
The question of whether FFP rules really are fair is one that elicits many responses among fans and administrators, all of them coloured by subjective experience. Take for instance the English and French champions, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, who both received €60 million fines (of which €40 million was suspended) for grossly exceeding the P&L-deficit limits set by UEFA under FFP and club licensing. For PSG’s president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, this punishment was akin to Hugo’s Jean Valjean spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.
“We want to respect UEFA’s rules,” said Al-Khelaifi. “But we must talk about it with them again in October to try to change the rules. This is very important because Financial Fair Play is not fair. It is sometimes difficult to understand, but in the end, the big clubs are big clubs and small clubs remain small. This not only represents the interests of PSG. If new investors cannot invest in football, they will invest in Formula One.”
As president of Qatar-owned PSG Al-Khelaifi’s words carry the force of one who knows the mind of the super-rich. It seems reasonable to assume that such people will not buy a club if it means their subsequent flexibility to invest in the asset is restricted by FFP. Jose Mourinho, whose Chelsea sold David Luiz to PSG in a staggering €50 million deal, continued the refrain.
“When UEFA decided for Financial Fair Play they were trying to do this to make every team [have] equal possibilities,” Mourinho said. “But the reality is that the big teams, the big clubs, the clubs with more years at the top with more fan base around the world, with more income, are the players that keep being the big spenders.
“So Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, Manchester [United] – all these huge teams, I think they have an advantage.”
He added: “In the winter we sold [Juan] Mata; in the summer one we sold David Luiz and [Romelu] Lukaku. So Chelsea in this moment is not a spender – Chelsea in this moment is making more money in transfers than the money we spend.
“But at Chelsea we are so happy with the way we are doing things, with this great balance between the income and the money we can spend.”
So Chelsea have become a selling club. But what is so unfair about that? Chelsea seem to be thriving by selling assets they no longer value (Mata, Lukaku, Luiz and Fernando Torres for instance) for sums that permit them to invest in more suitable players (Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa et al) while receiving a net transfer income. This is profit, not profligacy. If after more than £1 billion of investment from the owner, Roman Abramovich, Chelsea can achieve it – while topping the Premier League to boot – why should other clubs also not be able to shrink to fit?
The thing is, more than half the Premier League clubs have been for sale for years, since long before the FFP environment arose, yet their owners were unable to locate the “new investors” Al-Khelaifi refers to. UEFA’s head of club licensing, Andrea Traverso, put it better than I can when he responded: “Unfair? We don’t share that view. We like investors and the system doesn’t stop them coming into football.
“They can invest unlimited amounts in infrastructure, youth development, in community projects. We’re putting the accent on a better ability to manage and grow the club. More investment means more revenue over the long term. All the investment PSG are making in the Parc des Prince are great and will bear fruit for the club. We can only encourage these kinds of steps.”
Quite. It is when the sovereign-wealth-fund owners deploy their nations’ savings in a football arms race that the game changes unrecognisably for everyone else. Al-Khelaifi and others might consider them unfair, but let’s consider why FFP rules might be necessary – if not necessarily ‘good’.
If I am in charge of an enterprise I have a primary obligation to its shareholders. In a business as competitive as football, the key metric is not generally profitability but success in all the competitions the club enters. When unfettered by regulation, this leads me to invest beyond the normal capacity of the enterprise to withstand losses. If as a club executive I am the representative of a sovereign-wealth-fund this capacity is limitless. This is inflationary.
But inflationary activities at the top end of the game tear at the financial fabric of a deeply interconnected football ecosystem. If a player at an elite club is to earn €10 million or £10 million a year net then, for the agents negotiating player contracts, that becomes the benchmark for an entire industry – irrespective of disparities in income further down football’s food chain. Finances become stretched throughout the pyramid.
The recidivism of some sides for overspending, despite the abundant riches on offer to top clubs in the world’s most popular sport, means some form of enforced financial restraint is probably necessary. It is required to protect the interests (and finances) of those less able to afford the investment than those at the top, Les Misérables, if you will.
Even among the have-nots of the Football League there has been the use of FFP measures to restrict overspending. The League’s chief executive, Shaun Harvey, this week alluded to the hypothetical possibility that in the event of relegation in their first season following promotion to the Premier League, Queen’s Park Rangers may have to pay a fine commensurate to their promotion-season losses. That might amount to £40 million. His decision to discuss such hypotheticals naturally caused annoyance at QPR but that aside, the purpose of the restraint measures is sound. It is not about the freedom to invest. Clubs who rocket-fuel their ascent to the top of the football pyramid render others’ more measured efforts futile. Where is their freedom in that event? After all, the very essence of any just legal system is to support the interests of the bulk of civil society against the excesses of those who do not act in its interest.
Where Hugo’s moral compass might have found it harder to navigate is in considering what to do with the money once the regulator has harvested it through sanctions. UEFA has chosen to redistribute the fines levied on City and PSG among Champions League and Europa League clubs, a fact that was naturally applauded by European Clubs Association members this week.
Yet this might only increase the divide between the ‘haves’ in those competitions and the ‘have nots’ who make up the bulk of the domestic leagues. UEFA’s intention to create a more level playing field among clubs is not well served by such a measure. But then pragmatically it is probably necessary to reward those clubs who go to the effort of compliance of FFP diktats in the first place by denying themselves the indulgence of extravagant investment.
The Football League cannot copy this UEFA redistribution because the Premier League, as part of its solidarity agreement with the Football League, overruled sharing out the fines among Championship clubs. Top-division clubs did not want to see the money they have earned being siphoned off by the division below as a result of rules the Championship clubs alone had designed. Again, pragmatically, this is probably fair enough.
So what to do? The Premier League has dictated that its less-monied brethren must pay the receipts from the fines to charity, and they duly will. To my mind the best use of the money raised from FFP measures would be to ring-fence it for investment in infrastructure for youth development, so as to stimulate that activity among all clubs, not just those who currently over-invest in transfer fees and wages.
The fact is, in football as in life, there will always be some who are Les Misérables. The aim cannot be to make life good for everyone, but simply to make it fair.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.