Barney Ronay examines the list of the world's most valuable football clubs

It’s that list time of year again. Never mind the monotonous rhetoric surrounding the duopoly at the top of the Premiership – in the table that really counts, Manchester United are still well clear of the field. Forbes magazine’s annual survey of the world’s most valuable football clubs was published last month, once again ranking United miles ahead in first place with a valuation of £740 million. Real Madrid creep into second with a paltry £528m. Unexpectedly, Arsenal are third on £466m, a position that sits slightly confusingly alongside their status as the world’s most indebted football club thanks to the massive borrowings for the construction of the Emirates Stadium.

These kind of rankings often throw up the odd conundrum. “Manchester United are the richest club in the world, thanks to shrewd marketing to a worldwide fan base,” says Forbes, which doesn’t necessarily make the catchiest terrace chant. But at least the Glazer family will be happy, although not as much as you might think, given that they bought the club for £790m two years ago. As ever United’s primacy represents a triumph of sorts, but not necessarily of football – this achievement came during a barren spell in terms of league titles and the European Cup has been resident at Old Trafford just once in the last 38 years. So instead it’s a victory for some of the other things the British do extremely well: brand management, public relations and marketing (or “monetising”) our historical institutions across the world.

Further down the list, Chelsea creep into ninth with an estimated value of £273m. Interestingly, this is a place higher than the reigning European champions Barcelona, who are by almost every other register – average home gate, total club “members”, historical profile – streets ahead of the Stamford Bridge project.

As European football’s largest clubs continue to grow at a hysterical pace, there is an interesting pointer here. Still organised along relatively democratic and supporter-driven lines, Barcelona provide a highly unusual model of how to compete in this company without mortgaging yourself to a dubious billionaire, or even necessarily trying to become the very biggest of the biggest. Although, of course, it does always help if you can sell 120,000 tickets for every home game.

When it comes to players, Ronaldinho has jinked his way past David Beckham to claim the title of most pointlessly overpaid footballer on the planet. His £15.2m should, however, be hauled in by Beckham’s forthcoming multi‑million-dollar deal with Los Angeles Galaxy. And we probably shouldn’t, despite ourselves, be surprised that three other England players are in the top-ten earners, Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Steven Gerrard joining their former skipper. At least this gives a pointer as to where all that talk of “world-class” players emanating from the England camp at last year’s World Cup came from. Never mind the quality, just look at those numbers.

To a degree, this is all fairly boring and predictable. Unfortunately, it’s boring and predictable in a way that’s also very hard to ignore. Wealth translates into spending power and, consequently, success. The year’s second-highest spending team are top of the Premiership. The highest spending are second. The third highest are third. Total top‑tier spending for 2006 was over £330m, more than for each of the last three years. Chelsea were responsible for £70m of this, taking their total since July 2003 to more than £375m; one-third of overall spending by Premiership clubs in that period and equal to a third of the Sky TV deal for the same period: a one-club mini-boom.

Meanwhile, gross spending by Premiership clubs in summer 2006 was double that of the clubs in the Spanish Primera Liga and about four times greater than that of clubs in the top divisions of France, Germany and Italy. It’s no accident that three of the four Champions League semi-finalists are from England. In fact, much less than that would be something of an embarrassment. This is not a triumph of native vigour, imported tactical savoir-faire or Premiership up-and-at-em . It’s a question of economics and this season’s Champions League is unlikely to be a one-off. We may be starting to get used to Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool inking themselves into the top positions year after year. We may have grown accustomed to the accompanying devaluing of much of the rest of the top tier. It might soon be time for Europe to do the same.

From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month

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