Football And The Prisoners Dilemma

“This is not a witch-hunt, this is so they no longer continue blindly and mindlessly” – Michel Platini

If there is a holy grail of football, a dream of fans everywhere, it would be to see top level, fantasy-style football with all sides having a reasonable shot at glory in any given season. Victory is sweet, but it is all the sweeter when it is achieved when you’re not the wealthiest or obvious favourites. A socialist paradise where fantastic teams compete with equal resources is the kind of vision which would have Karl Marx going to take a cold shower and quick lie down. It’s also the nightmarish vision of hell for Richard Scudamore and his ilk. Fortunately for the Scudamore’s of the world that is pretty much the polar opposite of what we currently have. With the phenomenal flow of money over the past two decades a ruling elite of European clubs has emerged, scooping up the global supply of talents in an endless attempt to become harder, better, faster, stronger as Kanye West might put it. These clubs are paying stellar amounts for their players both in wages and transfers have lead to serious debt problems affecting a great number of clubs from the elite downwards.

Arsene Wenger has remarked the current situation is a form of “financial doping” and believes it cannot be allowed to continue. Given that the man has a degree in economics it’s unsurprising that he makes a good point. So it was in search of this magical solution that the UEFA gremlins in Switzerland burrowed down in their bunkers to try and think of something. After a great deal of discussion and arguing the Financial Fair Play regulations were born.

In a nutshell the plan of the UEFA gremlins is that no club can spend more than it owes which they call the “break-even rule”. Never let it be said that UEFA is not a bastion of creativity and originality when it comes to naming things. Essentially any club that has a higher expenditure than what it receives in gates, merchandising, TV revenue, sponsorship, prize money etc will be banned from taking part in European competitions. It should be noted that infrastructure and youth development are not covered by these restrictions but the two main expenditures, transfers and wages will be curbed.

It may seem initially counter-intuitive but the FFP regulations are likely to have owners English club owners like Roman Abramovich and the Glazers jumping for joy, or at least as close as any of the Glazers can get to a jump. Anyone who owns their club outright will be delighted that there will finally be a cap on wages because it means there is a chance to finally make money out of owning a football club. If clubs are not allowed to spend over a certain amount on wages then it limits the devious activities of agents seeking to engineer a payday for themselves the hard-working players they represent. The circle cannot be squared and so in theory the madness ends and a semblance of sanity is returned to spending in football.

Of course it isn’t going to be that easy by a long shot. The system heavily relies on all the clubs abiding by the rules. As soon as one heavy hitter, such as Real Madrid or Barcelona decides they don’t want to play by the FFP rules then all hell breaks loose. The TV companies would scream the roof down if UEFA banned a club as lucrative as the Spanish duo. If one of the clubs decides to break the rules UEFA is very much between a rock and a hard place. Banning the club will be a hugely controversial move, while not banning the club will show that the FFP regulations are insubstantial when compared to something serious like the RESPECT campai-okay bad example.

Despite the lazy and haphazard writing style usually employed on this blog, the example of Real Madrid and/or Barcelona was not chosen at random. If there are two clubs most likely to break the FFP regulations then it would be those two. The reason is the socio model of ownership that Spanish clubs use rather than the sugar-daddy structure English and Italian clubs have. Each election cycle various candidates promise to move heaven and earth to bring the finest footballers to strut their stuff in front of the swooning fans. The only problem is the likes of Sandro Rosell, Florentino Perez and Joan Laporta are not spending their own money. Perez and Laporta have splashed phenomenal amounts of the club’s money in order to bring in the Cristiano Ronaldo’s and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s. They do this because they weren’t loved as children. But it’s also because they want to get elected and earn the love of the masses. A system which features egomaniacs making extravagant promises to get elected and then not having to spend their own money in order to fulfil said promises does not exactly encourage restraint. If the Spanish giants have to abide by the FFP regulations presidential candidates won’t be able to promise player X, Y and Z during elections, which is pretty much all they ever do.

The smart money would suggest that one of the two Iberian uber-clubs is likely to break the FFP regulations during one of their sporting versions of Supermarket Sweep. If insignificant bloggers such as myself have thought of this possibility then you can bet your bottom dollar that the legal and marketing departments at Europe’s other big clubs have. A prisoner’s dilemma situation emerges where nobody will be willing to abide by the FFP rules because they suspect that it will not be enforced due to the power of the clubs and therefore they will lose a march on their rivals if they don’t spend grotesque amounts. 

Nothing in the world is scaring the UEFA gremlins more than the idea of one of the biggest clubs flouting the FFP rules. Caught between the Scylla of booting out a major club and the Charybdis of allowing the financial free-for-all to continue is a lose-lose situation for the organisation.  Even though the FFP regulations took a long time to be drawn up, that was the easy part for UEFA. Absolutely everything will hit the fan if Platini and his minions really stand up to Europe’s elite. The clubs have promised to curb their spending in the interests of self-preservation but as both Fernando Torres and Sir Alex Ferguson have remarked in recent weeks football is a business where honesty is in short supply.

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