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How UEFA’s financial fair play rules are destroying football

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With the English Premier League kicking off last weekend, we’ll no doubt hear the well-worn refrain that foreign billionaires are destroying English football. But it is UEFA’s financial fair play rules, not billionaires, that are sucking the soul out of English football.

Over the last decade or so, several English and European football clubs have been purchased by foreign owners. Many fans, commentators and officials argue that the enormous wealth of these individuals means clubs are able to buy their way to success and that this is ruining football.

To combat this trend, European football’s governing body, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), with the support of the EU, introduced the UEFA financial fair play rules (FFP) in 2011.

In 2013, it introduced the so-called ‘break even’ requirement, preventing clubs from accumulating debt.

While UEFA argues these rules prevent clubs from becoming the playthings of billionaires – who they think will leave them with crippling debt once they grow tired of them – they actually ensure small clubs remain small. By shackling spending to revenue they effectively outlaw risk-taking behaviour.

For example, a small club on the brink of glory is unable to go into debt to purchase the superstar or two it may need to take the next step, with the intention of covering the debt with the increased revenue success brings.

As Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany points out, these rules simply serve to protect the established order in English football. They are a form of crony capitalism.

This is obvious to anyone who glances at the list of English champions over the last couple of decades. Between 1993 and 2004 Arsenal and Manchester United won all but one title. This was broken in 2005 when, having been bought by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, Chelsea won only their second title ever, and their first in 50 years.

In 2012, Manchester City won their first title in 44 years after being purchased by Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), having lived in the shadow of their illustrious neighbours Manchester United for decades.

But a better example exists before the fleet of foreign owners made their appearance. In 1995, tiny Blackburn Rovers – hailing from a town with a population of 100,000 – were champions of England as a result of funding from local Steel baron Jack Walker.

Walker was a local boy made good who wanted to give something back to the town where he had grown up and made his fortune. He appointed the legendary Kenny Dalglish as manager and provided the finance to purchase stars such as Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton, Tim Sherwood and others.

Blackburn’s star burned bright but it burnt out quickly. Having won the title, many players moved on and the club was relegated four years later. It was noted recently by Andy Dunn in The Daily Mirror that what Blackburn did wouldn’t be possible today because of FFP.

Football is about hope, dreams and glory – not the quiet satisfaction of prudent financial management.

Does anyone seriously think that football would be better had Blackburn lived within its means and finished a solid eighth in the first division every year? Would Blackburn fans prefer that to that glorious afternoon at Anfield when Jack Walker wept in the directors’ box?

How can foreign billionaires be ruining the game when they are giving fans their first taste of glory in decades and when they are breaking up a duopoly that meant only two teams could be champions?

If ever there was a symbol of the dimension of hope and drama that a dynamic financial environment brings, it would be the stunning finale to the 2011-2012 season, when Manchester City secured their first league title in 44 years with the help of ADUG.

In what was probably the most dramatic end to an English league season in history, City scored two goals in injury time to steal the title from Manchester United.

As commentator Martin Tyler famously screamed “Agueroooo!”, as thousands of City fans streamed on to the pitch in tears, as people around the world danced in pubs and living rooms, can anyone seriously say that the huge investment brought into the English game by foreign investors hasn’t been a good thing? Would football really be better if Manchester United and Arsenal were 20 points ahead of everyone else every single year?

Creative destruction is an economic term referring to the process whereby new, more efficient and more innovative products and firms destroy existing players. This is exactly what football should be.

There is unlikely to be a more salient example of creative destruction than Manchester City, Chelsea and others upsetting the English and European football applecart. FFP threatens to put a stop to the next wave of creative destruction that may well knock City and Chelsea off their perch.


© 2015 The Roar | This article was written by Peter Gregory and first appeared in The Roar on 13 August 2015.

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