By Thomas Davidson
In the modern game, football and money go hand in hand. Whilst the pristine, trimmed-to-perfection lawns of Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge provide the luscious backdrops that fill our television screens, behind the scenes a darker shade of green dominates.
At the turn of the century, Florentino Perez implemented an aggressive transfer policy at Real Madrid, the Galactico philosophy, which saw the club flaunt big name signings to the point your eyes bled. Shortly after, Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea, and in 2008 Manchester City were acquired by Sheikh Mansour, a keen horse-rider, petrol enthusiast and multi-billionaire member of the Abu Dhabi ruling elite.
These historic financial moments would end up marking the dawn of the corporate battle of egos we feast our eyes on today.
Now, let’s be reasonable, football’s wonga drive isn’t totally toxic. Arguably we’ve witnessed a higher standard of play in the UK, with scintillating slalom runs and postage stamp finishes from the world’s greatest in our own backyard. Every weekend, the Premier League’s top six roll out their troupes across the country, parading their generously-paid talents and staging an array of awe-inspiring masterclasses.
This season, one team has towered over England’s top flight: Manchester City. According to the CIES Football Observatory, City have spent £777 million on their current squad, making them the most expensive side in world football. Given their vice-like grip on the league, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to link City’s spending habits with their unrivalled class this season, but it’s come at a greater expense.
Manchester’s sky blue platoon have now gone two years without fielding an academy product in their starting XI in the league. A side effect triggered by the waves of wealth that have flooded the game, the suffering of academies is by no means unique to City.
Stunted and starved of opportunities, the homegrown player now belongs to a bygone era. Heavyweight clubs are known to poach ‘up-and-coming’ talents from lesser teams, harvesting them of their academy products only to leave them to rot until the stars burn out. Refusing to nurture their own talent, Chelsea currently have a range of clubs across the globe babysitting 38 of their youth prospects.
Obscene investment has also given rise to an idle, impatient ideology of importing big names for instant success. For example, after dazzling in his breakthrough season at Manchester United, 20-year-old Marcus Rashford’s progress was recently curbed by the arrival of Alexis Sanchez. The Englishman showed boundless talent, but has since seen himself forced to play understudy to Sanchez’s reputation.
Paris Saint-Germain, a club that has benefitted from middle-eastern investment, are undeniably guilty of the import philosophy. In 2017, Neymar became the most prized possession in the game when he was sold to PSG for almost £200 million. At a meek 68kg, and given the current exchange rate, this price tag makes the Brazilian worth roughly 10 times his weight in gold.
No thanks to this exorbitant transfer, the market suffered global inflation, player values ballooned and smaller clubs were consequently ‘priced out’ of the game. For many, the Neymar deal marks the epitome of a corporate extravaganza in which businessmen flaunt players like lucrative collectables.
Nevertheless, it’s not just owners who throw money at the game like stockbrokers in a strip club. In a recent bout of bidding, a number of domestic rights packages to the Premier League were dealt to communications supergiants Sky and BT for a jaw-dropping £4.46 billion.
Now, with all this money injected into the clubs, surely that means ticket prices cost pennies? The reality is quite the contrary. TV money has inspired a corporate attitude to the running of football clubs. An approach that offers little to no economic benefit for the diehards in the stands, who still see themselves having to delve into their life savings to watch their side play Stoke at home (no offence to the Potters).
Finally, let’s turn our eyes East where, just as Donald Trump feared, China is beginning to take over. Whilst the MLS was dubbed a geriatric league for footballers clinging onto stardom, the Chinese Super League is more of a bonus round for players – one final spin of the jackpot wheel. Developing at an astronomic rate, don’t be surprised to see Chinese clubs become much more prominent in the future.
Nowadays, more so than ever, the game we love is fuelled by a universe of extortionate wealth. Picture the Grand National, but with the six favourite horses ramped up on a cocktail of steroids. As money tightens its hold on ‘the beautiful game’, only the top teams can keep up. Either that, or maybe I’m just bitter because my team’s staring down the barrel of relegation.
Photograph: Antoine Dellenbach via Flickr