Super man?

by Robert O'Connor

Uefa logoEuropean football has been pressed and squeezed into some uneasy shapes in recent seasons. With one hand the game claws its way up the rungs of the corporate ladder in a lusty surge towards an invisible summit, whilst with the other it shields itself from the prophesised crash that we are told awaits when the industry finally buckles under the intolerable weight of debt and deficit.

Football, the business and the game, seems to be struggling for an identity as private investors face-off against the international governors charged with keeping it faithful to a failing sporting mandate, but the struggle is being edged by those who would use the game as a means to a money-grabbing ends against those who trump for more traditionally Corinthian values.

Financial Fair Play (FFP) is barely out of its wrapping but already the vipers of fiscal imbalance look to be winding their way around the framework of the new legislation, suffocating its grand intentions and choking the voice that was supposed to chime with fresh optimism for Europe’s unsung clubs. UEFA has played its trump card and seen its bluff called. But in France last week the war was opened up a new front as President Francois Hollande made an unwelcome delivery to the gates of Ligue 1’s nuveau riche, one to make the diners at European football’s top table spit up and take notice of a major new threat to their hegemony.

The new and doomed FFP smacks of bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted with the added rivet that a restless herd have been left locked inside. The new legislation that limits the amount of benefit clubs can draw from investors came with a by-line that promised an end to the days of sugar daddy oligarchs pumping their chosen clubs up with equity shares and zero-interest loans, but in reality it erects a barbed fence between those who have trodden that path already and those for whom it is now forever barred.

The legislation, operating under the twin mandate of protecting the game from financial collapse and restoring competitive balance, has enshrined in statute the status quo that emerged after the oil-fields of Russia and the Middle East helped Chelsea, Paris St Germain, Anzhi and other slither up the pecking order, and now the pole is greased to prevent competitors from following suit. In a dystopian vision of the future FFP even drives the big spenders further from the pack, since UEFA’s finely crafted lexicon allows for continued investment from equity partners into ‘club infrastructure’, a fuzzy term that means money from investors can still be used to bulk up aggressive marketing tactics abroad in those market places already saturated by the most successful sides.

With the new rules coming into place tentatively over the coming seasons – affording time to the most likely offenders to re-adjust their spending patterns – those hoping for a return to the pre-Murdoch boom of the early nineties are set to see those hopes dashed. Income reaped from what UEFA deems ‘relevant football sources’ – basically any money that isn’t slammed down unconditionally on the board room table by a philanthropic backer – will continue to keep the most buoyant outfits floating well above their tanking counterparts since the established powerhouses have their commercial programmes wired tightly into every corner of the world where football is consumed.

Success breeds success and in turn causes pandemic imbalance that can never be written out of the software of the business of sport, at least without strong-armed coercion from state legislation determined to arrest the rot of corporate largesse. Convenient then that in Paris Hollande, settled nicely into office after a 2012 election campaign that fizzed with explosive rhetoric on high-end taxation, is cutting his teeth ready for a dog-fight.

The President’s ‘Super Tax’ – a new levy that leeches 75 cents out of every Euro over 1m spent on a salary – will bring order to bear on France’s big spenders in a way UEFA could never have hoped to, primarily because it goes after the clubs rather than the players. If Qatar Investment Authority wishes to continue to keep Ibrahimovich, Motta and Tiago Silva in the manner to which they have become accustomed it’s about to burn a far deeper hole in their pockets. And this time there will be no loopholes or clauses over what the legislation deems to be ‘relevant’, football-based income and expenditure, nor will the strength of the club’s marketing arm be able to hold the door closed against the wolf as FFP still allows through ‘indirect sponsorship’ (Etihad Stadium anyone?) and brand imperialism. Clubs can pay out to their employees whatever they like, regardless of which side of the class divide they sit on or whether the books balance, but with Hollande’s anchors holding them back they will no longer have the legs to outrun le Ministère des Finances.

The clubs of Ligues 1 and 2 find themselves in check but it might require a final killer move from Hollande’s cabinet before it can be considered mate – something that cuts through the thicket in which PSG, QAI, UEFA and French local government have been striking deals to bring renovation to Paris’s socially deprived suburbs in exchange for, well, nobody quite knows.

What is clear is that the Ligue 1 champions bear the branding of a corporation who sit tightly bound with the investment arm that is supposedly no longer at liberty to channel unrestricted funds into the club – the deal with Emirates Airlines bears probing over how neatly it fits under the banner of sponsorship and to what extent it constitutes indirect investment from QAI – and that UEFA president Michel Platini has close family ties to the fund who are calling the shots at the Parc de Princes, with son Laurent charged with looking after the group’s European interests. It all brings the limited impact that FFP can hope to have on the game’s most sophisticated finance networks into stark relief.

UEFA have always struggled with an inclination to place pragmatism before principal which gives a clue as to why FFP has been rolled out in its meekly protectionist form. That the interests of the governing body and the continent’s top clubs are not much less than two sides of the same coin means that any attempt at reform is only ever likely to be a face-saving exercise. Peek between the shutters and it’s clear that the new legislation has been drawn up with a mind to quietening voices from inside and outside of the game who lament omnipresent displays of bloated indulgence, and that little care has been taken to restore whatever balance may have once existed in the field of competition.

The ‘market pool’ mechanism whereby clubs are rewarded in Europe relative to the contracts paid up by their domestic broadcast and media outlets gives a more complete picture of how UEFA hopes to see the game develop in the formative years of FFP’s watch. And Francoise Hollande? A braver man than his compatriot in Nyon, but time will tell if the Super Tax will wilt the frame of European football’s stubborn autocracy.

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