As Mustafa Denizli boarded the plane back to Istanbul from Gaziantep, he must have wondered where it all went wrong.
Denizli would not see the Türk Telekom Arena in its match day glory again prior to his resignation as Galatasaray manager on the 1st March. It is fitting, perhaps, that his grand return ended in a fiasco, as Selçuk İnan’s last minute penalty defeated a Trabzonspor team who had suffered four red cards in the space of one half.
The man who had united Turkey, who had managed not just the national team but all three of Istanbul’s major clubs, who was returning to Galatasaray for his third stint as a manager alone, seems finished. At 66, he is past his sell-by date; in his last decade – spent predominantly in Iran – Denizli has lost touch with the modern game.
In getting Galatasaray to the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1989, he guided the Lions further in Europe’s premier competition than any would after. Yet it was a limp Europa League exit to a tepid Lazio side in Rome that finally put paid to a desperate bid to return to glory, for both Denizli and Galatasaray.
Yet this is not a Galatasaray sob story. For all that the Istanbul giants are in turmoil – and on their third manager of the last six months alone, they very much are – it is the UEFA decision to exclude the Lions from European competitions for two years that should pique wider interest.
On one level, it doesn’t matter. Galatasaray sit fifth in the Süper Lig and may not even qualify for the Europa League. Equally, a European ban may actually serve some long term good, allowing the club to rejuvenate themselves in the manner of cross-town rivals Fenerbahçe.
Yet for all the sense of resignation from an already dejected fanbase, there is a palpable sense of righteous anger emanating from the European side of the Bosphorus.
Galatasaray deserve to be punished for breaching Financial Fair Play rules; their financial structure is pitiful. Yet so too do Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and others who have escaped relatively unscathed.
For all that Michel Platini has endured the kind of public disgrace more fitting to the ritualised humiliation of a deposed Byzantine Emperor, the brainchild he unveiled in 2009 remains untarnished. In an age of clubs like Rangers and Portsmouth, Bolton Wanders and Leeds United, FFP is necessary, it is argued, to protect everyone involved in the game – from fans to clubs. In this, it is manifestly failing.
In 2014, Manchester City did indeed fall foul of FFP legislation. For this, their European squad size was cut by four men and their summer spending limited to a paltry £49m net outlay – a truly draconian punishment if ever there was one, if the response of PSG is anything to go by. For Les Parisiens too were punished for exceeding the cap on losses between 2011 and 2013, to the surprise of nobody at all except themselves.
A club’s losses cannot exceed thirty million euros for three consecutive seasons or more. According to the Turkish website Today’s Zaman, between 2012 and 2015 Galatasaray made combined losses of around £120m in this period – or roughly the same amount for which Manchester City bought Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne this past summer.
As bigger clubs, there could be an argument that Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are far better positioned to absorb this debt. Yet Financial Fair Play has long been part of a moralistic discourse, part of a strategy designed to stop nouveau-riche clubs subverting the spirit of the game.
Whilst Paris Saint-Germain can purchase Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva and Ángel di María, they cannot (yet) add the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to this mix, for all that PSG chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi has long been courting the Portuguese. FFP is designed to limit the amounts that the owners of City and PSG can pump into their respective clubs, whether directly or indirectly, to stop an arm’s race at the highest level of football being unsustainable.
In this, Financial Fair Play is being unevenly applied.
Ultimately, clubs like City and PSG escape punishment because they are too big to challenge and too valuable to lose; what would be the Champion’s League without the recent champions of England and the apparently unbreakable masters of France? And so it is a Turkish club, on the edge of Europe geographically and hardly at the heart of Europe’s footballing elite, who pay the price, who are made an example of as the sacrificial lamb on UEFA’s bloody altar.
Yet FFP is becoming more than a self-parody. The Fair Play legislation designed to make football better is at risk of doing exactly the thing is it designed to combat.
For all that, ultimately, a ban from European competitions is the only thing that will reign in recalcitrant clubs, there is always something deeply upsetting about a punishment that affects the fans so heavily. For a club that prides itself on being Avrupa Fatihi, the Conquerors of Europe, this ban will be hard to stomach. As such, it is imperative that so powerful a tool be used fairly.
Instead, the legislation has become a weapon by which Europe’s elite defend their own interests and reinforce the existing order. Clubs with huge revenue streams like Real Madrid and Manchester United have little to fear from Financial Fair Play; this can’t be helped.
Yet FFP must not become a tool used by the haves to enshrine their dominance over the have-nots, to impose limitations on Manchester City and Galatasaray alike but for which only one will face a European ban.
Europe’s elite, with their impressive marketing strategies and wide fanbases, are better poised to ride out a ban; punishing Galatasaray for poor finances by taking away their main source of revenue seems singularly obtuse.
Similarly, the bite of FFP on Championship clubs has far sharper teeth than that felt in the Premier League.
Ahead of an enormous new television rights deal that will swell the coffers of the Premier League to inestimable proportions, there has been somewhat of an arms race in the Championship. Even clubs like Sheffield Wednesday, who signed fourteen new players in the summer, are loosening the purse strings in an attempt to squeeze themselves through the golden door of the Premier League before the gap between England’s top two divisions grows bigger.
If this bid does not pay off, it will be interesting to see how such clubs fare.
Before this season, Championship spending was successfully squeezed by Financial Fair Play; Ipswich made it to the Championship play-offs last season with a squad that, for half the season, cost no more than £10,000.
Given the levels of debt that have previously plagued the Suffolk club, the parsimony of Mick McCarthy is a welcome success story of FFP that has potentially prevented the Tractor Boys going the same way as Bolton.
However, so long as Financial Fair Play is not equally applied at the top level, UEFA is creating a juridical caste system of those it will punish against those it will not, between which there is very little mobility.
There is an argument that FFP is onerous and undesirable for fans, players and clubs. That’s something UEFA has to discuss, and given the relaxing of FFP rules this season it seems that UEFA’s hierarchy is increasingly responsive to this viewpoint.
Yet if UEFA decides that we must have Financial Fair Play then it must actually do what it sets out to, because right now it just isn’t fair at all.