Michel Platini is trying to level out football’s financial playing fields. It’s a big task, as Ben Lyttleton reports

As Michel Platini knows only too well, timing is everything in politics. It is one of the reasons why, of late, we have heard an increase in the UEFA president’s complaints about one of his biggest bugbears, the signing of foreign players at a young age. Platini wants to implement Sepp Blatter’s plan of a six-plus-five quota to the game, which would limit foreign players but currently does not conform to European employment laws.

Platini might have hoped that France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, as the current holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, could help bring in EU-friendly legislation ensuring minors sign with their training clubs. But Sarkozy has only two months remaining in his term in office and, perhaps more significantly, fell out with Platini after fans booed La Marseillaise during October’s Stade de France friendly against Tunisia (see page 30). 

In his 22 months in charge, Platini has made big changes: he has championed poorer nations, with Euro 2012 giving eastern Europe its first finals since 1976; hired extra investigators to monitor match-­fixing claims; and guaranteed five Champions League spots for champions of smaller ­countries (though this may mean newly cash-rich champions dominate their domestic leagues). But the biggest success, in his eyes, would be to stop indebted clubs from entering European competitions.

It was ironic that Stamford Bridge was the venue for UEFA’s chief executive David Taylor to explain Platini’s vision at the recent Leaders in Football conference. “There would be forms of communication, even warnings or reprimands, before there was a situation of exclusion but it is absolutely possible,” said Taylor at Chelsea, who, along with Manchester United, were reported to have gone into the Champions League final with debts of £1.5 ­billion between them.

In France, at least, the spectre of financial problems rarely occurs because the French football federation employ an independent financial organisation, the Direction Nationale de Controle De Gestion (DNCG), which assesses every club’s finances before the start of each season before handing out a licence. Grenoble only just received their licence to play in the top flight this season, while back in 1991, Bordeaux, Toulon and Nice were all relegated for exceeding their limit of debt. In 1995, Marseille had to spend a second season in the second division for the same reason.

Platini has long insisted this is the right way to govern leagues. “If clubs have financial problems, they should pay their players less instead of coming to the authorities for help,” he once said. “If you or I buy a Ferrari we can’t pay for, we go to jail. Yet there are teams that not only take Ferraris they can’t pay for, but also get the prettiest girls. It’s not fair.”

Platini has established a new working party comprising football bigwigs from six leading UEFA nations to discuss this problem and their first meeting took place in mid-October. Platini said progress had been made and he was looking forward to the next meeting, due for the end of November. While most representatives were sympathetic to Platini’s cause, they would do well to look at their own leagues: Spanish clubs owe around €700 million (£560m) in taxes – with Atlético Madrid alone facing a €105m bill – while Roma are playing with a reported €400m debt; Hertha Berlin were only allowed to continue in the Bundesliga despite a €30m debt after proving they had a long-term credit agreement with their bank. As Martin Samuel in the Times pointed out: “There is not one team in his competition [the Champions League] that perfectly fits his debt-free, local identity ideal.”

Although the English debt situation is more high-profile than that in other leagues, it is certainly not unique. But such is Platini’s disapproval of the Premier League in general – he wants the British parliament to block foreign ownership but admits, “legally... and financially it’s impossible” – that this issue merely becomes another bee in his bonnet. The problem is, they all add up, and there will come a time when the FA need Platini’s support in their 2018 World Cup bid. At the moment, he is content to publicly criticise the English game: this could yet turn into outright opposition. 

From WSC 262 December 2008

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