Money merrygoround exposes football’s greed and graft

Soccer’s sleight of hand: chaotic expense evidence of life, vigour and stable future prospects

“Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer.”

So apparently it's all fine now. European football's winter window has closed. Premier League spending levels have returned to the upward curve of endless growth. The football locomotive powered entirely by self-replenishing gravy continues to rattle along the tracks at harum-scarum speed, still belching out fat hot greasy plumes of smoke and disgorging its load in the old familiar stops.

And like George Orwell’s farm, with its strict rules on exactly who gets the apples and the milk, an industry that always grows richer without ever feeling richer is happy to promote the idea that chaotic expense is evidence of life, vigour and stable future prospects.

Certainly this is the in-house view. "The Premier League continues to lead the way globally, retaining its status as the world's biggest domestic football league," read a statement by the league's accountants Deloitte. And they are undoubtedly correct. But leading us where exactly?

There are two notable things about the last month’s business. First, about half of that combined €360 million (£300 million) was spent by the bottom five clubs in the Premier League, money disbursed out of fear rather than hope, at a time when falling out of the top tier can have disastrous consequence.

Second, the headline deals have tended to involve football’s version of toxic human assets, transfers driven by the urge to save money as much as spend it. This is a new breed of elite player: out there circling the globe like radioactive waste ships, passed from port to port, turned toxic by their own contracts of employment.

Philippe Coutinho moved early, with Aston Villa agreeing to pay over half of a reduced version of his vertiginous salary. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's Arsenal pension plan has been offloaded to Barcelona in return for some zingy tweets, an unveiling and some distracting goals over the next few months. Dele Alli has left Spurs in return for a staged payment down the line, another talented, ailing footballer reduced to a kind of human debt bond to be passed from ledger to ledger.

As the Premier League gong has continued to clang the talk has been of a market pumped and jazzed and throbbing. Never mind that eight months ago Europe’s elite clubs were engaged in a violently ham-fisted attempt to tear down the existing structures simply to protect their own insane financial model. The wheels are rolling again. We’re back baby: we’re back. Does this really feel like a healthy way to go?

Take for example the fascinating tale of Aaron Ramsey, perhaps the most successfully monetised club career in elite football history. Initial reports had Ramsey on €480,000 (£400,000) a week at Juventus. Numbers from inside the club have suggested the actual basic wage is considerably less (close your eyes and choose a number: Juve are under investigation over alleged massaging of player values).

Ramsey is not to blame for any of this. He didn't create this absurd scenario. He is a supremely talented footballer. But however you slice it here is a player who has won one major trophy, who has only ever been a part of disappointing club teams, who continues to be rewarded for this beyond any sensible human scale. And who is, by some insane chain of logic, being paid almost twice as much as Aberdeen's annual wage bill – subsidised by Juventus – to help Rangers win the Scottish league.

There is a direct line to be drawn here. Juventus were one of the instigators of the Super League breakaway, a club so indebted the only reasonable course was to tear apart European football's basic sporting integrity. If you were outraged by that, if you went into the streets to protest against the theft of the people's game, then it should be hard to see shoots of hope in a transfer window splurge that is essentially more fuel, more travel down the same path.

And perhaps it is also time to question the unsustainable nature of players’ salaries. This is not a fashionable view. There is a tendency to over-venerate footballers. Talent, wealth and celebrity are persuasive things. The standard line is we should not begrudge players their vast fortunes, that it is a short and unstable career, that we must remain subservient to the sanctity of the market.

But the market here is not a noble, smooth, high-functioning thing, a paean to pure human talent. Football’s market is distorted by greed, corruption and the whims of nation-state PR machines. For every superheated transfer there will be a corresponding mini-industry of leaks and dividends for those who profit personally from keeping the market in that state.

This elite tier

How are football’s future market prospects serviced by the Glazer family removing millions in personal payments while clubs lower down the levels are menaced with collapse, participation and grassroots left to wither, the base of this elite tier product neglected?

This is not money sourced from some magical gushing tap. Every penny comes from the pockets of supporters, people who buy tickets and TV subs, and who, like the players, also have their own short, perilous careers to support, alongside a relentlessly flogged attachment to their own wastrel clubs.

What to do about any of this? Resistance to the idea of an independent regulator has focused on the suggestion any restraints on constant outlay might “kill the golden goose”. Whereas of course English football is already doing this. The goose here is the wider game, which is in the process of being profitably strangled.

There have been crowing comparisons in the last few days between the amounts spent at home and abroad. But what does this represent? A slackening of competition elsewhere. Decaying leagues. Managerial talent imported en masse from Germany (why make your own when you can buy it in?). Domestic set-ups from Europe to South America geared to serve the export market.

The January window was fascinating in so many ways. Endless mouthwatering subplots have been grafted on. How angry or pleased will Antonio Conte be? How many of Newcastles portfolio of disconnected signings will stick to the wall? Can bespoke Ajax academy product Donny van de Beek rescue Frank Lampard's relegation-threatened Everton, a genuinely strange combination of words straight from the new script ideas brainstorm folder? This is all great product. But let's not pretend it has much to do with good health and financial good order.

– Guardian

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