Saturday 29 November ~
Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe is coming back from Europe like Maggie Thatcher in her heyday, claiming that he’s stopped an evil French plot to interfere in English football. UEFA president Michel Platini reportedly wanted to appoint a European-wide “super-regulator” so that all clubs abide by the same financial rules. That would be good news for countries like Germany, where already clubs annually present a balanced budget to be granted a licence to compete domestically. But bad news for our Champions League Perennials, whose collective debt runs into several billion pounds. Sutcliffe is trumpeting the fact that he successfully lobbied to have all mention of a regulator removed from the European sports ministers’ joint statement following its meeting in Biarritz. Hurrah for pork pies and afternoon tea!
The idealist, egalitarian Platini is not giving up on the idea, however. He does not care about Premier League rules, or its lax economic criteria for participation, so the hysterical flag-waving about a threat to our fundamental independence as a nation is a distraction from the real issue. And the issue is that Platini wants a more level playing field in the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. “What UEFA can do, and we are thinking seriously about doing it,” said Platini, “is to reinforce and improve our system for granting licences for our own club competitions. It is in this way that we wish to contribute to financial fair play, and start responding to the expectations of the various parties involved in our sport.”
Such a proposal frightens the pants off the Big Four, and other European teams living in perpetual debt to finance hyper-inflated transfer fees and wages in the race for short-term trophies and long-term global brand presence. If ever properly implemented, it would seriously threaten their participation in European competition, unless they radically changed the way they keep their books. Platini is saying: if your national associations are happy with loose accounting, that’s fine. But if you want to take part in Europe, you have to abide by our rules. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but the big clubs will fight it with the same vigour that they always muster when their interests are threatened. We can expect the usual threats about a breakaway European league or cup outside of UEFA jurisdiction, hand in hand with the already mentioned media bluster about “interfering Brussels“.
By the end of this week’s Champions League group action, eight of the teams that played in last season’s round of 16 had qualified again for the same stage. In a fortnight, Roma and Chelsea will likely bring that number to ten. The repeat cycle surprises nobody, but Platini is one of the few figures in the game concerned enough to want to save the competition from itself. The major clubs, meanwhile, continue telling us that football nowadays is all about business, while mostly operating outside of all the normal rules that apply to running a successful company. It’s comical that Sutcliffe said the really important issue at the Biarritz meeting was to secure football’s “special status” within European law. Where’s he been the past 20 years? At the highest level, European club football has long been a law unto itself. Ian Plenderleith