If you were sitting in the Manchester United boardroom and your surname was Glazer, there are two questions you would be asking the directors and staff gathered around the mahogany table.
How on earth did that happen and how can we prevent it occurring again? The answers United’s owners receive about Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Real Madrid will be obvious and logical, but ultimately they are sure to have brutal consequences for the English game.
Those of you who believe the record-breaking transfer is an entertaining, if somewhat grotesque soap opera that has little to do with the more modest adventures of your club might care to think again.
For while football is accused of having lost touch with reality, the more alarming scenario is that the game is merely shaping up for an entirely new reality laden with even greater riches as the structure of English football is transformed.
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo
Record breaker: Madrid's purchase of the Portuguese sent shockwaves around the world. But the full repurcussions are yet to be felt
One expensive deal might be all it takes. The knock-on effect of Ronaldo’s switch could ultimately bring forward the day when the Premier League’s top four or five clubs finally decide to cut loose from the pack, sell their own individual television rights and help establish a European Super League.
As ever, it all comes down to the search for more power and money.
United can justifiably wonder how a club like Real Madrid, an outfit who have underachieved spectacularly in the Champions League in recent years, are still able to embarrass them in the transfer market.
The arrival of Brazilian Kaka at the Bernabeu for £56million was impressive enough, but they followed this by prising Ronaldo away from Old Trafford for £80m, making huge headlines around the world.
The message broadcast from Beijing to Buenos Aires was a simple one: Madrid are the game’s No 1 powerhouse, armed with more commercial clout than United and more glamour too, despite the talk of a face-saving transfer spree emanating from Old Trafford.
The anomaly is United have been more consistent achievers on the pitch in recent seasons. Off the field, they equal and often surpass Madrid in sponsorship, advertising, marketing and gate income and yet they still find themselves cast as a selling club when the men in white come calling.
Why? It can’t just be down to the allure of the Spanish side, although no football institution can ever have been more closely entwined with showbusiness than Real Madrid.
As a marketing director once explained: ‘We approach the team as if it were a Hollywood movie. If a big star like Tom Cruise appears in a film people will go to see it whether the movie is good or not. It’s the same with the team. People want to see star names.’
That business model sells shirts across the globe and sustains Madrid’s immense profile.
But television income is where the Spanish club comprehensively trump United. While the Premier League negotiates collective deals on behalf of the entire top flight, sharing its rewards with Wigan, Stoke and Bolton as well as Liverpool, Chelsea and United, Madrid sell their individual TV rights and keep the money for themselves.
That hands them a tremendous advantage. Madrid’s last TV deal raked in more than one billion euros, and every season they collect £135m for every £50m United glean from TV payments.
How long will the Glazers be prepared to accept that gulf? When the family first arrived in England there were noises they would push for United to strike out alone for deals, a prospect gently quashed by the diplomatic Old Trafford chief executive David Gill.
But that may yet be the way ahead when there are debts to be paid and as transfer fees and wages escalate, defying a shrinking global economy. Newspapers in France, Spain and Italy report that clandestine talks have been held about a Euro League, first at Arsenal’s match in Eindhoven early this season and then at a club conference in Nyon, Switzerland.
One proposed scheme involved three continental divisions of 20 clubs, with promotion and relegation each season, replacing the Champions and Europa Leagues.
Instead of abandoning the domestic set-up altogether, teams would participate in conjunction with a downsized English Premier League.
They’ve all been plotting and planning, although UEFA deny it. Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore floated his plan to play a 39th game at various overseas locations to try to stave off these European Super League whispers before they took hold, only to see his attempt fall asunder.
The world is changing and we must be careful about that,’said UEFA president Michel Platini recently, adding fuel to the fire. ‘If clubs come and talk to us we would listen to them and then decide.’
Liverpool’s owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett might welcome a chat. They have already raised the possibility of breaking away, but feared they would be isolated. ‘I believe in what is going to happen with global television and internet growth for teams,’ said Hicks when he bought into Anfield.
Now, with a £350m loan to refinance and a loss of £42.6m to cover from last year, do you think they are more or less enthusiastic about cashing in on Liverpool’s name with their own deals?
The most co-ordinated attempt to launch a European league happened in 1992 and that movement led directly to UEFA setting up a Champions League. Another change in the landscape looms.
The foreign owners pouring into the league certainly have no affiliation to English traditions. They are here for their own ends. It’s about profile and glory. They want to play with their new toy, or make as much money out of their acquisition as possible.
Either way it all points to a European League, sooner rather than later. It just needs someone of United’s stature to make the first move. I give it two years.
When Sir Alex Ferguson picked up his papers yesterday morning and saw Cristiano Ronaldo deep in conversation with the celebrity airhead Paris Hilton (should that be shallow in conversation, rather than deep?) I’ll bet the first thought that flashed through his mind was ‘Thank God I sold him’.
That picture encapsulated precisely the kind of showbiz circus that hastened David Beckham’s departure from Old Trafford.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown was giving interviews about the Cristiano Ronaldo deal on Thursday, as if he didn’t have better things to occupy his time. ‘I would expect that Manchester United and English football will emerge not weaker, but emerge in a new way and probably stronger in the long run,’ he said with syntax as tortured as his unsettling smile.
I think we’ve seen how effective Brown is at this fiscal forecasting lark. Perhaps it might be an idea to forget about how Real Madrid are spending their money, Gordon, and concentrate on how your lot at Westminster are spending ours, for heaven’s sake.
Isn't it funny how everybody goes into role reversal mode when a big transfer happens?
Supporters immediately start talking about how the move is ‘great business’, banging on about value for money and financial returns as if they were freelance economists.
Meanwhile, the suited moneymen at the club pull on their replica jerseys, swap their FT for a coaching manual and spout the predictable line that the decision to hawk the player off for tens of millions of pounds was nothing to do with the cash, but ‘purely about football’.
It’s all preposterous.