AS football’s business machine rolls on, creating wealth and competitive imbalances, supporters all over the world cannot be truly satisfied with the way the game has evolved in recent years. Unless you are a fan of the dozen or so clubs that now strand astride European, indeed world, football, your expectations have to be even more realistic than they ever were in the past.
Although some supporters groups have tried to create their own clubs, largely at very low levels, the great footballing public are really in the hands of a group of billionaires and their playthings. As I mentioned in one of my recent columns, the rich keep on getting richer in football and it has created an environment that is really not in the best interests of the game, no matter how honourable clubs and their owners think they are. The fact is, very few truly big clubs care too much about how their business models impact on football, the players and the people that pay to watch games week-in, week-out. It’s the free-market economy at play!
Two “models”, for want of a better word, characterise the current footballing paradigm: the multi-club ownership approach, as seen with the City Football Group, Red Bull and one or two other examples of wealthy business people having stakes in a broad range of clubs; and the “football factory” model where clubs buy lots of young players and loan them out to lesser clubs in order for them to gain the experience that makes them more marketable.
Multi-club structures have caused football’s regulators some sleepless nights – doubtless, UEFA are scratching their heads now about the fact Salzburg and Leipzig are in the same group in the Europa League.
Although Red Bull have adjusted their involvement in these clubs, nobody is too comfortable with the concept of an owner having stakes in multiple clubs, even though this scenario is what makes the corporate world go round – mergers and acquisitions enable companies to grow, expand their franchise and, effectively, sell more products to more people. Why should football be any different, the sharp-suited banker with statement specs might ask?
At the same time, if football clubs want to play the market, they also have to accept they could run into “conflict of interest” issues. The Red Bull strategy has prompted people to ask questions about just that, especially when players traffic between clubs, such as Liverpool’s Naby Keita, who moved from Salzburg to Leipzig.
Only a few weeks back, the UK press reported on the latest player to move to Girona from Manchester City. The City Financial Group bought a 44.3% stake in the La Liga club in 2017 and currently, Girona have three players on loan from the Premier League champions. There have been a few others who have gone the same route. Girona are undoubtedly happy, they are playing at highest level, while City get the chance to send their rising talent to Spain to get the necessary play-time.
Let’s not forget, though, multi-club ownership is not a new idea – it is often forgotten that Tottenham’s owners, ENIC, also held a majority stake in Slavia Prague and a small shareholding in AEK Athens.
Equally eyebrow-raising is the way some clubs harvest young players that have very little chance of making it with their parent club. Just consider that the so-called “top six” Premier League clubs have around 75 players out on loan, with Chelsea accounting for 40 of those. Clubs like Juventus (30-plus), Real Madrid (18+) and Barcelona (12+) also adopt this policy, sweeping-up players that deny their rivals the chance to acquire them but then merely farm them out as part of their development.
This has proved successful for Chelsea in terms of cash flow when they sell these players, but there are question marks about its impact on the players themselves as well as the opportunities for young talent at the parent club. Furthermore, it also means clubs become reliant on the transfer market for their first team and given that the traffic between top clubs seems to be growing (whatever happened to plucking a young, rising star from the lower divisions?), it also perpetuates the current inflated transfer market.
Will it change? For the UK, Brexit may alter the flow of players between English clubs and continental Europe, but like all aspects of life, there are many uncertainties around Britain’s departure from the European Union. There’s a well-used saying that Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and you can be sure that Europe’s most influential clubs will not opt for a model that does not suit their business plans. Dare I say, with clubs always on the search for the next billionaire who can transform their fortunes, football could yet become even more polarised!
This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine. If you haven’t seen it – you should, it is an excellent publication.