Is it too late to save football’s soul?

There’s much to admire in Michel Platini’s recent – and clearly heartfelt – appeal to the European Parliament. For those that haven’t had time to look over it, the two issues that stuck out for me were:
A ban on international transfers of players under the age of 18.

An exemption from European competition law for football clubs, effectively allowing the long-mooted idea of salary and transfer fee caps to be implemented.

Now, the former seems to me to be fair enough. There have been a number of harrumphs on the subject of large clubs trying to ring-fence promising young players. Current European law, as I understand it, defines a “child” (in a working context) as someone under the age of 16. Platini, however, rightly points out that in many European countries the school-leaving age has been raised to 18. And, from a purely common sense point of view, you must remember the maturity and eye for your own future that you had when you were 17.

Blinding a fledgling superstar and his family with the offer of a nice 4-bedroom in Surrey or Warrington so you can fast-track him into the reserves… well, it isn’t a very pleasant idea at the best of times. Asking him to travel a thousand miles to do so, uprooting him from his culture and his language at arguably the most impressionable time of his life, is even more repellent. I’m not saying the idea is a no-brainer, but I’m sure most of us can agree that there’s plenty of merit to it. One to watch.

But…. da da daaaaaaa… cometh the salary cap issue once more. On the face of it, this one has got to please Real Madrid more than anyone. After all, when they finally get their hands on a certain gel-slathered Madeiran winger, it might mean them paying rather less than they were resigning themselves to.

In fact, Platini had his broadside aimed at a rather more predictable target: Manchester City. Using City’s abortive bids for Kaka, John Terry and Thierry Henry as ammunition, the UEFA president laid out his vision for establishing what he referred to as “financial fair play”. And I’m sure that you can imagine the rest for yourselves.

If I’m honest, the first analogy that sprang to mind was to compare City to those twin emergent economic powerhouses India and China.

See, for decades us in western democracies have enjoyed the fossil-fuelled fruits of our relative affluence. Two cars per family. Unlimited electronic gadgetry. Homes heated to sub-tropical temperatures. Plastic carrier bags hanging from every tree. And, just as India and China come charging up the world economic rankings to make their bid for membership of the ‘Mercedes For Every Citizen’ club, we turn round and start finger-wagging. “What of the environment?” we admonish. “Is it sustainable? Think of the future.” 

Bollocks, thinks middle-class India. I’ve waited through the East India Company, the Raj, Gandhi, and decades of posturing with Pakistan over Kashmir, and now I want a 5-litre muscle car that gets 2 miles to the gallon and seats one spindly teenager.

India, of course I exaggerate. Accept my apologies. But you get my point: through an accident of timing and the increasingly strident voice of the environmentalism movement, these energetic economies (well, pre-credit catastrophe) have the eyes of the world upon them. Conspicuous consumption is out. The new frugalism is in.

So spare a thought for City, who struck oil on the halfway line and are now being told that they’re only allowed to use it on their door hinges.

To give us a little context, I’ve been looking at the ever-enlightening transferleague.co.uk and Endless Soccer’s run-down of the most expensive transfers of all time. And I’ll make my confession right from the start: I was out to get Real Madrid. Circus though Chelsea may be at the moment, even with Captain Hiddink in to steady the ship, we’re but an amuse-bouche to Madrid’s 18-course banquet with 14 cases of Lafitte 1787. Two most expensive transfers of all time? Zidane and Figo to Madrid, for a combined total of £81m. That was in successive seasons, by the way. Not to mention Ronaldo (£29m), Beckham (£25m) and Anelka (£23m). 5 out of the top 15. If you’re interested, United feature twice with Ferdinand and Veron, and Chelsea a wallet-pinching once with Drogba. Having said that, the list looks not to go past 2005, as I’m sure we paid a fair few nicker for Essien and got paid in the same region for Robben. Who went to Madrid.

Obviously if you confine your search to England over the last ten years, Chelsea’s spectacular spending tops the League. In the five years to 2009, CFC spent £221m and recouped just £90m, with a net outlay of £26m per season. Liverpool come a close second, at £24m per season, with United less than a million behind on £23m plus change. Remember, this is transfers only, kids. None of these figures include wage bills or, say, investment in the club’s infrastructure. And rightly so, given the longer-term benefits of, say, building a swanky new training ground in Surrey.

I’m finally getting to the point. Admittedly, there was something distasteful about City waving that £90m at Milan. It’s a nonsensical figure, as even the player himself could admit. By the same token, even Frank Lampard’s most fervent admirers – and I’m happy to say that I number among them – might be forgiven for asking what anyone could do that is worth £140,000 a week. Ditto Ronaldo. Or Kaka. Or Ronaldinho. Or any one of a number of other players. To say that you don’t like Lampard, or Ronaldo, or any player, is to miss the point. I don’t blame these guys for taking the money. I don’t really blame the clubs for paying it to them, insane as it might seem. It’s the situation we, as the current economic centre of the football-watching world, find ourselves in.

So the point is… what’s changed, beyond one club being given sums measureless to man? It didn’t have to be City… it could have been Spurs. Or Sevilla. Or Kaiserslautern. It has been, and will continue to be, Madrid, Milan and Manchester United. I might have missed his diatribe at the time, but I don’t seem to remember Platini registering his distaste when Madrid paid his alma mater £40-odd million for Zizou. Again, for those that say well, United earned that money through merchandising and sponsorship… well, this is true.  They earned the money rather than being given it through someone’s munificence. Does that really, honestly make the difference? If we lament the predictability of a League which has had 3 winners in the last 13 years, are we comfortable whining about that for the next 5 decades? The last Chelsea post on here attracted a long comment from a United fan who gave Chelsea’s owner a kicking for his investment – alright, I see your point – then mocked the club’s plans to become self-financing in the following sentence. But isn’t that the whole point? United are, after all, in nearly as much debt as Chelsea are. Shouldn’t clubs aim to finance themselves rather than operate permanently in the red?

Believe it or not, I’m broadly in favour of the capping issue. Implementing the bugger, of course, will pose rather more of a problem than making an impassioned plea to the European Parliament, particularly as the current system plays to the strengths of all the clubs sitting comfortably in football’s top trough. If you cap player expenditure, where does your excess money go? Grassroots football? Straight to charity? Cut-price season tickets? A fund to lobby the government to bring back the stocks as a form of punishment specifically for Robbie Savage? 

Platini has attracted criticism over here for his vilification of the excesses of English football. I’ve seen plenty of text-language emails on forums like Football365, for example, accusing him of hating the English and wanting to curb the movement of money to stop English clubs from dominating the Champions League. Personally, I have sympathy for what the man is trying to do.

This country has been monopolised, since the mid-nineties, by one club, with occasional sparks of rebellion from Arsenal and Chelsea. Chelsea’s two years of dominance were marked by the only sustained occasion in which they outspent United. Liverpool, by contrast, seem to have spent poorly. Perhaps their outlay will get them the League this year. Perhaps not.

If the modern footballing era has been defined by Biggest Wallet = Winner, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to mock and harangue Platini for attempting to change things. Maybe it’s worth us thinking about his ideas: ideas that could reinvigorate the national youth set-up, for example, by forcing teams to train and develop their youth teams to keep their transfer expenditure down. If that’s the kind of aspiration the man has, I think that’s worth everyone’s support. Even if it does mean classic spectacles like last year’s all-English Battle of the Budgets Champions League final becoming a thing of the past.ni has attracted criticism over here for his vilification of the excesses of English football. I’ve seen plenty of text-language emails on forums like Football365, for example, accusing him of hating the English and wanting to curb the movement of money to stop English clubs from dominating the Champions League. Personally, I have sympathy for what the man is trying to do.

This country has been monopolised, since the mid-nineties, by one club, with occasional sparks of rebellion from Arsenal and Chelsea. Chelsea’s two years of dominance were marked by the only sustained occasion in which they outspent United. Liverpool, by contrast, seem to have spent poorly. Perhaps their outlay will get them the League this year. Perhaps not.

If the modern footballing era has been defined by Biggest Wallet = Winner, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to mock and harangue Platini for attempting to change things. Maybe it’s worth us thinking about his ideas: ideas that could reinvigorate the national youth set-up, for example, by forcing teams to train and develop their youth teams to keep their transfer expenditure down. If that’s the kind of aspiration the man has, I think that’s worth everyone’s support. Even if it does mean classic spectacles like last year’s all-English Battle of the Budgets Champions League final becoming a thing of the past.