KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING
— Football clubs have been going bust ever since professionalism took hold. Take a football history book and look back at old league tables in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain. The ghost names of long-dead clubs rise up to meet the reader’s eye.
So why is European federation UEFA suddenly consumed with anxiety over debt levels across today’s professional game? After all, UEFA’s audit from 2010 reveals that the industry grew by 6.6pc. Wouldn’t all the governments in the Eurozone – and their neighbours – be euphoric if their commercial growth could match even half of that?
Politically financial extremists describe European professional football as the ultimate example of a market economy: success or failure, boom or bust. That’s football. Not a funny game, just capitalism in action.
UEFA’s executive committee plus high-level representatives of leading clubs pored over the figures this week before, during and after the latest gathering of the personalities who run the European game.
Net losses among the main 665 league clubs in Europe added up in 2010 to £1.3bn which was 36pc more than the previous year. More than half of those clubs admitted to annual accounting losses and one third were spending more than the accounted income on wages alone . . . never mind all the other costs involved in running a professional football business.
The total debt of these clubs – the vast majority in western Europe, was computed at more than £7bn and only two of top 20 professional leagues balanced the books.
UEFA’s solution is the introduction of Financial Fair Play. This is Michel Platini’s carrot-and-stick doctrine. Clubs need to bring their accounts under control in a way which is transparent and can be checked and approved by the European federation.
If they do not they will not be admitted into the European club competitions. This may not matter much to all those western European outfits who are not particularly keen on the nuisance which is the Europa League but it would matter an awful lot of clubs from UEFA’s more modest middle-class.
Alternatively, quite whether it is equitable to compare with the balance sheets of Dinamo Bucharest or Legia Warsaw or Slavia Prague with those of Real Madrid or Barcelona or Manchester United is an intriguing question. Eh latter trio do not operate so much in different countries as much as in a different financial universe.
The greatest fear harboured by Platini and Co is probably the domino effect. This was always been of crucial concern for the Frenchman and explains his irritation at the increasing influence in the European club football world of newly-arrived mega-rich purchasers from the United States, Russia and the Gulf.
“What happens if Mr Abramovich, at Chelsea, suddenly decides to take away his money and invest in something else?” Platini has asked this writer and many others repeatedly over recent years. A system whereby clubs pay transfer fees in instalments fuels Platini’s concerns that one bankruptcy could spark a run and hence many more.
Gianni Infantino, UEFA’s general secretary, described the latest accounts as “a last wake-up call” for the clubs and added: “We must end this negative spiral and gamble for success.”
Easy to say, not so easy to sell to the fans. Consider Arsenal. The Gunners’ directors may take pride in their financial probity but the roars of anger from the stands in north London at the end of last week’s home defeat by Manchester United suggested that fans may not feel quite the same about priorities in the boardroom.
Different clubs have different expectations in different countries where TV cash, for example, is split in different ways.
In Spain, for example, Barcelona president Sandro Rosell has dared suggest that centralized marketing of league TV rights should replace the present system in which his club and Real Madrid slice away more than half of the riches all to themselves.
By contrast in Germany, however, not everyone is happy with a highly-refined system which governs the share-out of not only domestic TV cash but European income. Loudest complainants are Bayern Munich. Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has accused the German league of being complacent in its TV price-driving.
League president Reinhard Rauball snapped back only this week, that the German market was “the most complex in the world” and that it was impossible to draw comparisons with the systems and finances in England or Spain or Italy or France.
But UEFA thinks Financial Fair Play can help achieve precisely just that.
UEFA has powerful arguments at hand to support its pleas for political and legal support to the European Union and European Commission.
Football is so vast that it no longer gambles in the comparatively minimal sums which sent clubs to the wall decades ago. Now it’s not a few thousand pounds or euro but millions. The size of such sums demand greater financial rectitude, not least as proof of the managerial commonsense which will encourage sponsors and TV to keep coming back.
Also, in these straightened economic times, cash-careless football risks alienating support in the same way that bank bosses, once considered pillars of the community, have turned into prime targets of public derision.
Responsibility rests not so much with Platini and UEFA as with owners (such as Chelsea’s Abramovich, ManU’s Malcolm Glazer, Man City’s Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan etc) directors, managers, players, agents and, yes, impatient fans.
Football has bounced, almost miraculously, from one cash stream to another. First it was tickets, then pitchside adverts, then television, then shirt advertising, then kit sponsors, then stadium naming rights, then Champions League guarantees, then . . . what next?