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Football and fair play go together like bacon and jam. Whilst this does annoy me on occasion, essentially I have been able to tolerate it because at least it means that football fans don’t live in a world of self righteous denial unlike say, rugby fans. Here anything from fake blood injuries to spear tackles are all overlooked because the players call the official “sir”, well how fucking quaint… I am sorry, I have managed to get off the point before I have even started making a point.

Football and fair play are not synonymous and nowhere is this more true than in the money side of the game. It has just been accepted fact that some clubs will have more financial muscle than others and will use it accordingly to further their own ends. American ideas which attempt to mitigate disparities between rich and poor like salary caps or a draft system for the best young players have never been countenanced in football. There are collective arrangements around the dispersal of TV revenues in some countries, but in essence unfettered capitalism has ruled.

This is about to change as UEFA attempt to introduce Financial Fair Play.

Now, FFP is a gnarly and complex beast which I don’t have time to go into now (this also neatly excuses me from having to understand or even read all the fine points). At the heart of it though is a ‘break even’ philosophy, football clubs should not live beyond their means either by going dizzyingly into debt or being bankrolled by super rich mineral barons. A clear attempt to level the playing field as UEFA realise that club football at the elite level has been deformed by money? Well maybe.

FFP was bought sharply into focus for me this week. AC Milan, who are one of the giants of European football, agreed to sell two of its best players to relatively small, but newly very enriched by oil money, Paris Saint Germain. This has been seen by some as just another example of greedy players, in this case Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, agitating for an even bigger payday by moving clubs. In fact it is much, much more about Milan dumping its wage bill on someone else whilst pocketing a hefty transfer fee in addition. Couple this to the list of household names that have departed Milan this summer (Nesta, Seedorf, Gattuso, van Bommel, Inzaghi, Zambrotta) and this is the most overt case so far of a big club positioning itself for FFP.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic & Thiago Silva… “Wahay! We’re fucking minted!”

In England, Arsenal have been running on a ‘break even’ type philosophy for years now and whilst they are sometimes praised for financial prudence they are far more often derided, usually by their own fans, for their relative lack of success. As if the two are not related intimately.

And this begs the question, what is football about, is it about ‘breaking even’ or is it about glory?

Well obviously it is about glory but glory funded by money gained by nefarious means (Abrahmovic, Usmanov)? Glory that eventually results in the ruination of your club (Rangers, Portsmouth, Leeds, Lazio, etc)? Glory that absurdly enriches football players and their sometimes horrible coteries?

Moreover if FFP has a significant impact then there will still be the exact same amount of glory on offer only it might end up going to those who have made the best footballing decisions rather than those that simply have the most money. There is merit in this argument and this is why I am broadly in favour of FFP, but there are problems.

As alluded to earlier I am not sure that FFP is some independent act of UEFA that they have conjured up because they thought money was becoming too dominant. FFP was negotiated with UEFA by the European Clubs Association whose Vice Chairman, Umberto Gandini, is also a high ranking official at Milan. The Chairman of the ECA is Karl Heinz Rumenigge who is Chief Executive Officer of Bayern Munich.

It is no coincidence at all that clubs like Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Arsenal are in favour of FFP. In the live within your means scenario, revenue-generating monster clubs like United and Bayern will always be able to outspend their rivals and still stay within the ‘break even’ concept of FFP. Moreover as the nouveau riches like Manchester City, Chelsea and PSG are forced to adhere to FFP or face the consequences (ranging from a warning to exclusion for UEFA competitions) this should deflate both transfer fees and players wages. As a result you should see less ‘Ibrahimovic to PSG’ or ‘any good Arsenal player to Man City’ type moves.

There is a very real chance that FFP might re-establish a cartel of the established names. The old aristocracy of European football can resume their domination whilst driving down costs at the same time.  Whilst this is not a very noble motivating factor the results still might be better than what we are heading toward at the moment. Namely, more and more clubs in financial straits at one end with only the super rich with outside funding being properly competitive at the other.

Unless you’re a free market zealot (are there any of those left?) who abhors any interference with market forces, or a Socialist (I know there are none of those left) who demands equality of opportunity, ultimately where you stand on this might come down to self interest and depend upon which team you support.

by Nilesh Bhagat