'Financial Fair Play' and the uneven playing field

09 April 2013 09:34

As we move towards the amended deadline of 2015 for the full implementation of UEFA’s Platini-inspired Financial Fair Play regulations, it appears that more and more murky relations between clubs and national and local government are being uncovered. Couple this with rumours of unusual banking activity and different arrangements on television deals across the continent, the playing field appears anything but even, and the financial play, anything but fair.

Recent revelations in the Spanish press suggest that something strange and irregular promoted a number of land deals between Real Madrid and the local authorities that ended with the club in possession of some prime land that apparently was ideal for the proposed redevelopment on their stadium. I, like many others, know far too little of the facts to say whether there’s anything in this, and Real Madrid are adamant in their protestations of innocence. There are however echoes of some years ago when it was rumoured that the club had benefited due to the reluctance of a bank to foreclose on a loan that had not been fully repaid. Talk was that the bank considered that the loss in popularity, as the bank that harassed the club, was simply not worth the debt. Again, I must emphasise that I have no prima face evidence of any wrongdoing by anyone, so it must be borne in mind that these are only unproved rumours. Neither should it be said that such accusations only exist in Spain.

The European Commission recently announced that it was investigating five local authorities in Holland for apparently providing illegal state aid to a number of Dutch clubs. We shouldn’t think either that all this is some dastardly continental plot to put English clubs at a disadvantage. West Ham United’s recent acquisition of the Olympic Stadium in a deal that includes a substantial amount of taxpayer money being injected can be painted as dubious if the will is there. The same could be said for when Manchester City took over the stadium built for the Commonwealth Games in the city. The price paid was far less than would have been needed to pay for the stadium, if the club had built it from scratch. Perhaps the Achilles heel of the Financial Fair Play plan however is the prickly subject of television revenue.

In England, television deals are sold collectively by the Premier League clubs as a whole, ensuring a somewhat even spread of revenue for all clubs. This is very much not the case across Europe. In Spain and Italy for example, each club is free to agree its own deal with the television companies. The opportunities that this offers to Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, and the Milan clubs and Juventus in Italy for example, can be seen to be completely unfair when compared to the relative financial shackles on the major English clubs. Ever wondered why Real Madrid and Barcelona always feature on Sky’s coverage of Spanish football? This is the reason. Should Manchester United, for example, be free to sell their rights on their own, and to keep all of the money, their coffers would swell more than somewhat, and devil take the hindmost of the lesser clubs. Is this what Platini wants? All of this is to say nothing about clubs owned by wealthy benefactors, and how Platini would like to limit such people’s ability to choose how to spend their own money.

The concept of Financial Fair Play is an entirely reasonable one, and applied correctly, with balance and equity, would be sound. With so many different modes of operation across Europe however, trying to apply it across such diversely organised clubs and leagues promises to be as difficult to work as the Euro is now proving to be. One wonders how long it will be until one major European club – or perhaps a cabal of more than that – decides to take the matter to court for restraint of trade or similar. Even if they don’t want to take it that far, the threat of a breakaway organisation by a dozen or so major clubs, leaving Europe’s premier club tournament to be fought out by those currently competing for the Europa League, cannot be the stuff of Platini’s dream.

Although putting the imposition back to 2015 may feel like kicking Financial Fair Play into the long grass for the time being, and the strange principle of saying clubs with unblanced Balance Sheets, are deemed to be ‘working towards’ the requirements of the policy, is marking time, this is a game far from over. It may not be too far an exaggeration to say that Platini’s plan may become something of a millstone for the former French star in the not too distant future. I’m not sure how it translates into French, but there’s a saying Michel, nobody promised life was going to be fair.

Source: DSG