Football must tame its repulsive economics or risk alienating fans even further
Sebastien Bassong? An unproven centre-half whose Newcastle employers are desperate for dosh? £10 million?! Glen Johnson? A right-back for a Portsmouth side with an uncertain future? £17 million?! You can almost hear the sensible Swedes choking on their morning mackerel. Yet this is a land currently hosting the Uefa Under-21 European Championship, where one game attracted 158 scouts, many from the Premier League and Football League, chasing the superstars of tomorrow with open chequebooks. Tournaments resemble meat markets nowadays. A lesson to all is that one of the best players on show, Kieran Gibbs, a composed left-back moulded by Arsenal after Wimbledon's academy was disbanded, has so impressed the England hierarchy that he is likely to go to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The English elite must never forget the importance of growing their own, particularly at a time when a broadcaster such as Setanta fails to fulfil its obligations, as yesterday. Fat chance. Football is ignoring the credit crunch, the tone of unrestrained ambition set by Real Madrid, whose £80 million offer for Cristiano Ronaldo has hiked the price of all players, even the average ones. Now it emerges that the most famous club in the world have taken out substantial loans to fund the Ronaldo (and Kaka) deals. Let us get this right: inflation rises as debts deepen. Football dances along a precipice, admiring only the beautiful view one side but not the chasm on the other. Even with Sky's money, revenue from lucrative commercial deals and transfer fees flooding in like a broken slot-machine in Vegas, Manchester United are the equivalent of six Ronaldos in debt. Michel Platini, the Uefa president, is right to berate the English for their "financial doping'' but wrong not to take Real Madrid to task as well. The whole sport needs an audit. And a long, hard look in the mirror. Most footballers think morals is an Essex nightclub, but the sport cannot disregard the financial problems endured elsewhere. Attendances will remain pretty healthy but football risks alienating even the most faithful supporters with its repulsive economics. Where footballers used to be sold for the cost of a new house, now they trade for the price of a new hospital. That causes consternation during a time of belt-tightening. Sir Bobby Charlton is right. Ronaldo's transfer is "a little bit vulgar''. Through no fault of his own, Ronaldo acts like an engine, pulling along carriages of footballers not fit to lace his boots or grace his step-overs, but relishing their values and wages being lifted by him. Salaries have disappeared off the scale of sanity and reasonable return; a results-driven sport should make its remuneration packages even more incentive-based. Play as you earn. Salary caps will never be allowed under European law but the clubs should voluntarily consider agreeing a £100,000-a-week ceiling with generous bonuses tied in, perhaps doubling the money for the highest achievers. Why not? Success should be rewarded. Unfortunately in football at the moment, mediocrity is rewarded. The training-ground car-parks of middle-ranking clubs resemble Formula One pits. And if Newcastle players really are in line for bonuses for relegation, the sport really is going to Hell in a stretched hand-cart. Financial mismanagement leads to assets being offloaded and those assets are starlets such as James Milner, sold by Leeds and then Newcastle. Currently excelling for the England Under-21s in Sweden, the Aston Villa winger believes that there is a danger that Newcastle might go the way of Leeds, tumbling into League One, dragged down by debts. The fire-sale has yet to begin at St James' Park. It will. Newcastle may struggle to climb straight back out of the Championship. It still seems extraordinary that as savvy a businessman as Mike Ashley failed to do complete due diligence before buying. But that is football. Usual financial acumen goes out of the window, the transfer window. Football has never known a summer like this, when the "silly season'' has burst into life so quickly. Even in football's traditionally stormy waters, Ronaldo's deal has simply caused even bigger waves, affecting a range of clubs like Wigan Athletic, who should receive £17 million for Antonio Valencia as United seek replacements. Valencia is not worth £17 million but there is a Ronaldo premium now. United players were aware Ronaldo was leaving. "He told us he'd won all the awards and he wanted to try something else,'' said Zoran Tosic, Manchester United's Serbian winger. So opportunity knocks? "I hope I will get the chance when we go on tour,'' said Tosic, who arrived mid-season. "The first six months were for me to prepare, to get stronger. "In a few games for the reserves, the players kicked me and I was wondering, 'what is going on, I am going home, I cannot play here', then I got through that, and now it's normal for me. In the next six months it's important to try to break into the team and prove I'm a United player.'' Yet the reality for the nimble and hard-working Serbian attacker is that United will buy, adding to Valencia with another, bigger-name arrival. "Cristiano was probably the best player in the team so someone will come to take his place,'' said Tosic, who believes the No 7 shirt is being kept for a marquee signing. The merry-go-round continues, getting faster and faster, risking spinning off its axis if football does not get to grips with the SILLY SEASON.
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