Financial Fair Play is an absolute failure. Even before Arsene Wenger said as much in his pre-match press conference on Thursday, this was not much of an arguable statement. The richest clubs in the world just keep getting richer. This is an exclusive collection, owned by wealthy American businessmen, Oligarchs with…under-documented pasts, Far East investment groups, royalty whose assets include large chunks of the world’s natural resources and of course, those whose club’s name alone generates the kind of revenue streams that most can only dream of.
Despite the good intentions of Financial Fair Play, the best way to join this group is still to buy in. The restrictions on spending, which were supposed to prevent owners with enough money to back their ambitions from simply buying trophies have instead just forced those clubs to get creative in their pursuit of dominance on the pitch. Would City Football Group, the holding company behind Manchester City’s bottomless financial clout, have arrived at the idea of purchasing and linking several clubs without the looming threat of restricted spending? Would they perhaps have not bothered to a new youth facility that simply dwarfs any other of its kind if they had simply been able to buy whomever they wanted, as was the case for Chelsea when Roman Abramovich first arrived in the Premier League?
The new avenues of investment found by some of these financially powerful clubs are, if anything, more open to limitless investment than simply purchasing players. When building a super squad of players to take on all challenges, clubs are still limited by how many senior players can be registered, particularly from foreign nations. Now, for those who can afford to simply purchase a network of teams, that limit expands to however many clubs are now under the control of they one entity, a huge advantage for those teams that like to use loans to other clubs to help their talented youth gain experience. A team before that may have merely struggled to land a squad full of top quality players can only watch as the richer clubs continue to expand their advantage.
One major factor that has prevented true parity from sweeping across Europe’s major leagues is the new and unfathomable levels that League television contracts are reaching. The massive windfall that comes from these deals has not only given a larger advantage (in financial allocation) to teams that appear most often and in the biggest matches, but also has ceded an advantage to the teams in those leagues with the most lucrative television deals.
Over the last couple of summer transfer windows, the Premier League has seen record amounts of money spent on players. As the owner of far and away the richest television contract of any league, the Premier League is a financial windfall for those teams good or lucky enough to stay up in England’s top flight, not to mention the players themselves. Every season that passes, the football world is closer to a reality in which the poorest team in the Premier League could compete with the biggest spenders of any other league in Europe.
Over that same time period, the Premier League’s richest 8-10 clubs have seen an astronomical increase in the prices paid for players. The players at the very top of the game have always commanded prices prohibitive to many clubs, that is not a new phenomenon. However, for the first time, these teams are seeing an enormous increase in the cost of ALL players. Average players are now costing big clubs more than a world class star might have gone for just over a decade ago while supremely talented youths are beginning to fetch the same transfer fees as the very best players in the world.
Last summer, Arsene Wenger was likely infuriated by the inflation of the price on nearly any player in which a Premier League team registered interest. When Wenger first bid for defender Shkodran Mustafi, his offer came in well below the eventual sale price, but at a level that was likely more on par with his value. As a result of Wenger’s dismay and Valencia’s stubbornness, the negotiation stalled for most of the summer while the Frenchman looked for better valued options. Finding that much the same was happening to many player prices all around Europe, Wenger eventually returned for Mustafi, but at a price, £35 million, that brought with it the weight of fan expectations of a world class signing. After all, when had £35 million not been enough for a team to buy a world class defender?
This summer, Arsenal hit the same situation again, in which their perceived value of a player was just a fraction of what his club wanted for him with Thomas Lemar. A negotiation that opened at ~£30 million eventually ended with an excepted bid of £92 million, and would have resulted in the club’s most expensive ever player purchase. Around the Premier League it is much the same story for the richer clubs: £40 million for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with just 1 year left on his deal, £45 million for Gylfi Sigurdsson, £75 million for Romelu Lukaku. All good players who would have cost much less just 2 short years ago.
Elsewhere in Europe, one of the few non-EPL clubs forced into paying these premiums (and for many, humorously so) is Barcelona. After an unexpected €220 million injection of cash into team coffers from the Neymar deal, team executives may have been forgiven for running their hands together in anticipation: nearly 3 times the amount of money that it cost for last season’s most expensive player should buy some incredible talent. However, everywhere the Catalan club turned, the prices they were quoted for some of their targets where almost off the scale, much to their alarm. Barcelona’s plans were foiled by the uncharted new top end of the transfer market that they themselves helped bring about. Eventually, Barcelona were able to land one of the brightest young talents in Europe, 20 year old Ousmane Dembele, for a staggering €105 million from Borussia Dortmund, but the club and its fans were likely hoping for more than that after raising so much money from the sale of such an important player to their success.
So what has these prices to go up so much quicker than they had in the past? The answer is actually quite simple: teams of all sizes are much more aware than ever of the value of their players (particularly to those inquiring teams with massive amounts of money to spend) and are better than ever at negotiating with that leverage. Thomas Lemar was not a £100 million player until Monaco decided that he was one and neither was Philippe Coutinho a £160 million player until Barcelona decided that they must have him. Almost all teams now possess quality scouting departments with more resources than ever before. Gems are harder to find than ever and nearly impossible to get for a steal.
This willingness to exercise whatever leverage one might have has also affected the sale of squad players from these big clubs as well. The days of players like Radamel Falcao going for a massive transfer fee simply because he had done the previous season, regardless of form or performances may be coming to a close. Rich clubs with large squads are finding it harder than ever to offload their out of favour squad players for fair market prices as others have caught on to where the leverage exists in that situation. In the past, a club might have convinced the buyer that they don’t need to sell unless it is worth their time, but now it seems that the smaller clubs have caught on. A talented player on bloated wages and without an important role to his club is not seen as nearly as valuable as it once was. Arsenal sold several players this summer for below their value on the open market, sometimes even at a loss, and they were far from the only big club to do so.
So what does this mean for the future of football? Sadly, it doesn’t mean that small clubs will suddenly level the competitive playing field, but it does give some hope to the well managed ones. As the current television deals expire in Europe’s major leagues, they will undoubtedly be renewed at a considerable premium, perhaps leading to even more inflation on the player transfer market and more teams able to pay the heavy price. Ultimately, it won’t be the players and their ever increasing pay packets who suffer the mega money world that football has become and will continue to build on, but rather the fans, who have watched in dismay as ticket prices have skyrocketed in recent years to help finance this crazy global market. If football becomes too expensive for the average fan, FIFA and UEFA can look at the implementation of FFP not as something that has actually helped in this regard, but rather as something that merely papered over the cracks until they were too big to repair