Financial Fair Play is dead so what comes next?

It is hard to believe that anyone is oblivious to the world-record €220 million fee forked out by Paris Saint-Germain for Neymar.

The New Statesman has noted the shameless politicising of the transfer from all sides. The Deputy Leader of the Green Party highlighted the Brazilian’s new salary as an instance of the gender pay gap.

Even in America, (a footballing cultural wasteland, in the mind of many Europeans) the size of the fee involved provoked shockwaves so great that Time felt compelled to offer a helpful list of what else you might buy in case you have a spare €222 million to blow.

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Neymar was feted before Les Parisiens and afforded a triumph befitting a Roman Emperor, to which he dutifully responded with all the necessary clichés.

Unimpressed by overly loud DJ music (why are there no words?), fast cars (have you seen what the insurance is on a Ferrari?) and all the modern symbolism associated with less of a footballer than a superstar, I opted instead to confine myself to the corner and mutter darkly: “Financial Fair Play is dead”.

The real person to feel sorry for here is, I feel, Roma president James Pallotta.

Having last month branded Financial Fair Play “a complete s**tshow”, Pallotta has really left himself with little room to escalate this response in light of Neymar’s transfer.

Already irked by AC Milan’s non-stop summer spending – someone might wish to suggest quality over quantity to the boys in Milan – it is hard to imagine that Neymar has especially brightened up Pallotta’s summer. Poor man.

And so, it is left to the unlikeliest of pairings to lead the people’s revolution against reckless finance.

It is hard to think of much upon which the cultured and intelligently spoken Jurgen Klopp would make common cause with Steve Bruce – a man whose culinary analogue is likely something predominantly constituted of potato – yet it is between Liverpool and Birmingham that the line has been drawn behind which a crowd is massing to glare angrily at UEFA.

It is hard to feel sorry for Bruce, upset as he is at the fact that because of a £60 million outlay last summer Aston Villa are now forced to curtail their proclivity for heavy spending – given that my own team, Ipswich, have spent less than £5 million in over half a decade, I certainly don’t.

Yet I can’t help but agree that Financial Fair Play should be scrapped. It is, as Jurgen Klopp has pointed out, evidently “more a suggestion than a rule”.

Whether by design or practice, Financial Fair Play regulations are rarely fully enforced. Commercial considerations trump the rule of law, and the regime is unevenly applied. Financial Fair Play is dead and must be replaced.

In 2016, Galatasaray were banned from European competitions for violating the regulations; other miscreants, like Manchester City, have never felt such a heavy-handed form of penalisation. In 2014, the Citizens accepted a £49 million fine and restrictions on their European squad for one year.

It must be noted that Galatasaray’s case was different in that they breached a previous settlement order for Financial Fair Play irregularities reached in 2014 – making it essentially a repeat offence.

Nevertheless, the UEFA judgement revealed that the Turkish giants violated the legislation by roughly €30 million less than City over the relevant two years.

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It is inconceivable to imagine UEFA banning a club the size of Manchester City from European competition, much less one like PSG – particularly, armed as they are, with Neymar and all of his marketability.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that consideration of the size of clubs involved is being allowed to affect judgement of their offences. Clubs like Galatasaray are sacrificed in order to make Financial Fair Play appear credible, punished as bigger clubs would not be.

Furthermore, it is doubtful if banning teams for what are ultimately highly technical offences is truly in the public interest; fans, after all, want to see the sport played.

If, in practice, the Financial Fair Play regime is not being implemented consistently, thoroughly and effectively, Klopp is surely right and it is hard to believe that it is a regime at all. Unevenly applied and orphaned by the humiliating deposal of the legislation’s father figure, Michel Platini, the Financial Fair Play regime has been cut adrift.

Loosening of the regime in 2015 left it neither here nor there, irking supporters without appeasing critics, and the entire situation is a mess. It is hard to disagree with Bruce: the regime as we know it must fall.

It’s worth reminding ourselves what the point of Financial Fair Play is. The most cited reason for the regulations is that they exist as a defence for fans, to prevent the kind of reckless mismanagement that leads to financial Armageddon: supporters of Leeds United, Portsmouth and Rangers know all too well where that ends.

When asked to explain the rules in one sentence, it is this that UEFA chooses to highlight.

The Financial Fair Play regulations do note other objectives, yet UEFA are far quieter about these – presumably because they are failing at them. Section 2(e) of Article 2, for instance, notes their purpose in encouraging “responsible spending for the long term benefit of football”.

It is hard to understand how the purchase of Neymar represents either responsible spending or a long term benefit for football.

I have always argued that big spending is beneficial for football – providing that it is evenly spread. Yet the weight of the rules falls unduly on smaller clubs. Many of the penalties are fines, more readily absorbed by bigger clubs.

PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi insists that he is unworried by the idea that PSG might have violated Financial Fair Play with the transfer, yet this lack of worry surely stems partly from the knowledge that the vast wealth of Les Parisiens could more than accommodate a fine.

The penalties are virtually ineffective and would do nothing to prevent or rectify harm. UEFA could not reverse the transfer; even if PSG were found in breach of the rules, Neymar’s transfer will inspire an arms race in other teams, who cannot afford such an outlay (even if it is found that, according to Financial Fair Play, neither can PSG) yet feel compelled to keep up.

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It is hard to see how Galatasaray’s infringements threatened the survival of the club, or how a ban from European competitions was intended to rectify this. Nor, surely, was a ban in the interests of the fans.

We might deduce that inherent in the rules is a principle of fairness, that clubs should not artificially prejudice competition by spending beyond their means, and that when this principle is violated then penalties are applied as a form of retribution, aimed at punishment for failing to adhere to the spirit of fairness inherent in the rules.

Yet Financial Fair Play is not fair. Even when working at its best, critics have condemned the regime for enshrining the power of a clique of rich clubs. When unevenly applied, this proves doubly so.

The issue with Financial Fair Play is, perhaps, that it is too ambitious, aiming to sail against the growing commercial tides in football even as ardent opponents with cash to spend set their face against the rules. UEFA might consider replacing the regime with an Insolvency Code aimed at protecting only the financial health of clubs.

After all, Financial Fair Play is not and cannot be fair – so why pretend otherwise? It would be far better for the effective sections of the rules – and those governing the financial health of clubs are highly effective – to remain credible.

Football is increasingly a business and should be treated like one. In banking, the Basel Accords set a minimum level of capital that must be held in reserve to preserve solvency.

Why not introduce a code setting out something similar for football clubs? Football would be consistent with other business sectors, where the law intervenes for the public good, UEFA would preserve the successes of the Financial Fair Play regime and the haemorrhaging of trust in the parts that work would be ended by decoupling them from the truly farcical elements to which they are currently wed.

Neymar’s transfer has delivered the final death knell to Financial Fair Play, which is meaningless if it allows the transfer and ineffective even if it does not. It’s time to talk about what comes next.

Author Details

Thomas Wyer
Thomas Wyer

Student and football fan. Aspiring Guillem Balague but have more in common with Chris Kamara. Managing to support both Ipswich and Galatasaray which, like being indifferent to marmite, makes me a bit of an oddity.

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