Ken Early: Wenger goes from bust to boom on financial doping
Arsenal manager looks to have given up the fight in this era of nine figure transfer fees
Last Thursday, in his press conference ahead of Arsenal’s match against Bournemouth, Arsene Wenger said some remarkable things that received little attention, thanks to the powerful anaesthetic effects of the phrase “Financial Fair Play”.
Wenger has always been one of the biggest advocates for FFP, for three main reasons. The first is an understandable resentment that clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City could suddenly leapfrog Arsenal simply because they were taken over by billionaires.
The second reason is that clubs who avoided spending money they didn’t have were better equipped to cope with financial shocks; they would always avoid going the way of Leeds United or Portsmouth. Wenger’s predictions about football’s financial future have tended to err on the side of pessimism. In 2002, for instance, he said that Manchester United had overpaid for Rio Ferdinand, who, despite costing a then-record £30 million, turned out to be one of the best-value signings in Premier League history.
The third reason, more personal to Wenger, is that clubs should live within their means because living within your means is good for you.
“It is a satisfaction for a club to live within its natural resources,” Wenger said in 2009, during the course of a complaint about Manchester City’s oil-fuelled spending. Wenger coined the term “financial doping” to describe the sugar-daddy spending at Chelsea and similar clubs.
Of course, as the biggest club in the biggest and richest city in Western Europe, Arsenal have more “natural resources” than most clubs, and it might be more “satisfying” for them to live within those organic parameters than it would be for smaller clubs in poorer cities to live within theirs.
From this perspective his enthusiasm for FFP could appear self-serving, a fact that did not escape critics who often used to point out that the new rules would have the effect of calcifying the existing hierarchy of clubs and preventing new challengers from getting involved.
They seldom point that out any more because it is clear that the rules have no such effect. With Neymar and Mbappe now in the Paris Saint-Germain front line at a combined cost of nearly €400 million, it is difficult to see what effect they have at all.
Wenger has been thinking about this too, because on Thursday he appeared to repudiate the principles that have governed all of his public statements about money in football since he came to Arsenal.
“I always did plead for [FFP]. Today, I am not convinced that we can maintain it. At the moment, it looks like we have created rules that cannot be respected. There is nothing worse than when you create rules that are not respected.
“Football is maybe only at the start of a huge financial investment. It has become the most powerful sport in the world. It means do we have to open the door completely to investments? Maybe we are at the crossroads and we have to think, do we open it with complete freedom to investment for people like the Chinese and Americans, who want to invest here [in England] ? If you want to remain the best league in the world, that is certainly the way we have to go.”
The man who has always managed his club as though the football boom was about to go bust is now saying that the age of massive outside investment might only be beginning? The scourge of financial dopers is now saying, in effect: if you can’t beat em, join em?
Careful financial stewardship
There is a sadness to seeing Wenger abandon principles he has defended so long, not least because you get the sense he feels defeated by what has happened to football. For years he tended diligently to his profit-and-loss account on player transfers, as though his careful financial stewardship was as big a part of his legacy to Arsenal as the three Premier League titles. But if nine figure transfer fees are the new normal, what’s the point of trying to be prudent?
One of the reasons we will miss Wenger when he is gone is that he is one of the only people in football who tries to make connections between what happens in the game and what happens in the rest of the world.
Back in 2009, when City were the Gulf-owned club that was setting the pace for football inflation, against the backdrop of an enormous and worsening world recession, Wenger said: “The implications (of City paying £100m for Kaka) would be disturbing for the market, an inflationary trend in a deflationary world. We live in the real world. City are in a different world. At the moment, England loses 3,000 jobs every day. You think that has no consequence on our game? It will have.”
You could see this as yet another example of Wenger’s tendency to excessive pessimism: English football seems to have emerged from the crisis and recession unscathed, the TV deals and club turnovers have gone up, the stadiums are still full.
But just because the bad thing hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it never will. Wenger’s prediction is coming true in a more roundabout way than he could have anticipated. The aftershock of the financial crisis is one of the main reasons why Britain ended up voting to leave the EU. Brexit will affect English football as much as it affects every other part of the UK economy that trades with the outside world – perhaps more, owing to football’s dependency on skilled foreign labour.
And the world most people live in is as deflationary as it was in 2009, while the world of football is more inflationary than ever. It may still be too soon to understand the long-term consequences for the game. There’s one prediction Wenger should still feel confident about.
The consequences will come.