Platini thinks it’s all over – it’s not yet

Despite the gleefully gloomy forecasts for Man Utd, Chelsea et al, their monied reign in Europe is far from over.

Duleep Allirajah

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English football: where did it all go wrong? This week the Champions League semi-finals kicked off with no English representation for the first time since 2003. Does this mean the recent English domination of the Champions League is over? Or is this just a temporary hiccup?

Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness thinks that the financial crisis has tipped the balance of power away from the Premiership. ‘English teams will now find it more difficult, more often, to succeed in the Champions League because the financial crisis will lead to a situation where English football will not play the same role as before’, he said. ‘The pound is down 25 per cent and the taxes in England are going up, so that means the English clubs and their owners do not have the same money as before.’

England coach Fabio Capello was more measured in his assessment. He acknowledged that ‘the financial crisis has affected the English clubs in Europe, after years when they were among the top spenders’. However, he also stressed that the margins of Chelsea and Manchester United’s defeats were extremely narrow. Chelsea versus Inter was, according to Capello, ‘an even tie’, while United were ‘unlucky’ to lose to Bayern Munich. ‘What really made the difference was Rafael’s sending off, and Wayne Rooney’s injury. You cannot go through at this level with such disadvantages.’

It’s funny how quickly the discussion about the power of the English Premier League has been turned on its head. It wasn’t so long ago that UEFA boss Michel Platini was bleating about the unfair financial advantage enjoyed by the English teams. Two years ago, when two Premiership teams – Manchester United and Chelsea – contested the Champions League final in Moscow, Platini said: ‘The top English clubs are indeed quite successful right now. But this success is often built on an unsustainable level of debt which, in all fairness, is distorting the level playing field in Europe.’

Last year, when three English teams reached the Champions League semi-finals, the debate about English domination was reignited. You’d expect the Brits to have been crowing about how ‘our boys’ were sticking it to the ‘Continentals’. Not a bit of it. We were too busy beating ourselves up. ‘When the Soviet Union won the race to put a satellite in orbit, Bob Hope observed that “all this proves is that their German scientists are better than our German scientists”. In the same way the Premier League’s domination largely reflects the fact that its foreign imports are better than everybody else’s’, wrote David Lacey in the Guardian.

Platini’s solution is a set of new rules to ensure ‘financial fair play’. Clubs will, in the future, only be allowed to spend what they earn in gate receipts, TV revenue, sponsorship and prize money. Clubs whose spending power is based on debt or else the largesse of a cash rich oil tycoon would be forced to live within their means. ‘It’s about making a level playing field’, Platini explained. ‘If clubs have money, they can spend money. But if they don’t have it they cannot spend more than they have. One club has a budget of £100million but spends £150 million. They win because they cheat. It’s not fair. It’s not correct and it’s not good for football.’

Platini likes to portray himself as a man of the people and an upholder of the game’s tradition. His rhetoric chimes with the growing fan disaffection with the widening wealth gap in football. But will his financial fair play rules really level the playing field? Don’t be daft. It’s just like that other great pseudo-egalitarian magic bullet, the salary cap, which would limit a club’s wage bill to a proportion of its turnover. Neither scheme would eliminate inequity, but would, in fact, institutionalise it. The big clubs would be able to spend more than the smaller clubs while nouveau riche clubs, like Manchester City, would be prevented from playing catch up.

Conspicuous by its absence from Platini’s fair play plans is reform of UEFA’s flagship club tournament, the Champions League. It’s a tough competition to win and the quality of football on display is often breathtaking. But it’s also one of the key drivers behind the widening wealth gap between the elite clubs and the rest. Thanks to the lucrative broadcasting revenues the Champions League clubs are pulling away financially from the also-rans in their domestic leagues. You could argue that the clubs in the Champions League are well rewarded for their success but it has become a vicious circle. It gets progressively more difficult for clubs outside the Champions League to compete financially with the top clubs.

And, ultimately, to return to the original question, that is why the top English clubs will continue to be a force in Europe. Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid have strengthened their squads and the English clubs may no longer enjoy first pick of the world’s best players. But they’re hardly paupers. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal were third, fifth and sixth respectively in the most recent Deloitte rich list. All three clubs are seasoned Champions League campaigners and, with a bit of squad strengthening over the summer, will be serious contenders in next year’s tournament. In short, reports of English football’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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